Most racing games have a deceptively simple, strict premise: be the first to cross the finish line. Second is the first to lose, as the great Ayrton Senna would say. Over the years car fanatics have been living and driving the dream, all made possible by games like the iconic Need for Speed.
The Need for Speed franchise has been with us for nearly three decades, and is estimated to have sold over 150 million copies during this time. It’s easy to see why, as this mostly arcadey series has been delivering fun and setting pulses racing in a myriad of ways, while also disappointing fans in a number of occasions.
Licensed cars? Check. Kickass driving soundtracks? Check. Epic trailers? Check. Crashing past Diggy’s donut shop in Rockport to disable cops? Check. Outrunning the antagonist in dark, twisty canyons? Check. Cheesy characters and dialogue? Check. Deep, satisfying car customization? Check. Casual open-world and track racing? Check.
In terms of car culture, there’s not much that the several dozen entries haven’t touched over the decades in the series. However, Need for Speed has also had its fair share of struggles, the kind any franchise of this scale usually suffers from. Like the only movie adaptation that it spawned in 2014, most entries in the last decade have failed to leave a mark, while a few spin-offs just aren’t worth mentioning.
Today, we’ll fasten our seat belts for a quick drive down memory lane and take a look at all the mainstream Need for Speed games – PC & console – from the 1994’s original to Need for Speed Heat released in 2019. A new titles is also in development slated for 2022 as of writing.
Part 1 – Ignition
The Need for Speed (1994)
Fire up any early 1990s racing game on a DOS emulator today and the potential for the genre to explode was clearly on display. Cars had finally started to look more than just colorful matchboxes, even if they still handled like one. As with any other exciting pastime, it has always been about quick reflexes and adrenaline with racing games, not to mention the urge to keep that accelerator button pressed hard down for magically squeezing out some extra top speed. Referring to kb/m users, of course, and not the analogue (pedal/triggers) crowd.
Developed by EA Canada’s Pioneer Productions, the first Need for Speed game drove onto the scene with a small roster of exotic cars, a few point-to-point courses, circuits, and game modes. What set it apart though, was the attention to detail. Cars had realistic performance attributes, thanks to data from Road & Track Magazine, and that meant your choice of car mattered.
Also, the game had a realistic cockpit view for every car, a core feature of racing games that -- much to the frustration of NFS fans -- has since made sporadic appearances in the series and was last seen in 2011’s track-focused Shift 2.
Need for Speed’s simple menu took gamers straight into the action, allowing them to briefly take a Lamborghini Diablo VT over 200mph. It became an instant classic, whose success paved the way for an even better sequel.
Need for Speed II (1997)
Need for Speed II’s intro featured actual car footage to give players a taste of the fast machines that awaited them. The in-game visuals, expectedly, weren’t anything like the cutscenes, but no one was none the wiser.
The game spiced up the garage collection with amazing car concepts like the Ford GT90, the fictional FZR 2000, and legendary production cars like the McLaren F1 and the Jaguar XJ220. Players also had a choice of coating cars in one of several paint colors, with Rom Di Prisco’s trance music keeping it lively in the menus.
For those with road rage tendencies, the game provided an amusing way to crash opponent cars with just a honk of the horn via cheat codes, some of which only worked on the game’s special edition.
Dart through the difficult corners of Nepal’s Mystic Peaks in a Lotus Elise GT1 or take a T-Rex through the Hollywood-based monolithic studios track, Need for Speed II had something to offer for every type of racer, making it one of the most memorable and beloved entries in the entire franchise.
Need for Speed III: Hot Pursuit (1998)
Arriving just a year later, Need for Speed’s third entry improved considerably in the way of visuals, but the game’s Hot Pursuit mode was the star of the show, later turning into a staple element of the franchise.
While the original Need for Speed did have police cars, trying to lose them was more exciting in Hot Pursuit. Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto had also demonstrated how radio chatter and unpredictable cop chases made for engaging gameplay, and Hot Pursuit with its licensed cars and on ground experience made it feel a lot more realistic.
Players also had to avoid roadblocks and spike strips, or they could deploy them while playing as cops and issue tickets to other racers. Doing so would unlock additional pursuit vehicles, allowing them to switch from a Ford Crown Victoria to a Corvette or a Diablo.
The sheer speed of vehicles would often push the graphical limits of the time, with some trees and hills in the environment still taking their final shape as cars scorched past them. EA Canada's Hot Pursuit was a resounding success and the studio's next installment would take the stakes even higher.
Need for Speed: High Stakes (1999)
The fourth Need for Speed carried over all the good stuff from its predecessor and added a new damage system. Players could visually see which car part -- engine, suspension, body -- and even handling would be affected by collisions.
High Stakes also added a bunch of new game modes, including the all-important Career mode. Although it was just a combination of the usual race modes like Knockouts and Tournaments scattered across tours, a High Stakes 1v1 race at the end of each tour would reward the player with the opponent’s car upon winning.
The Career mode added a much-needed sense of progression, as players could now spend money earned from winning races to repair cars, apply a custom color, or install new body kits and performance upgrades.
To be given such freedom in 1999 with cars like the BMW M5, 69’s Dodge Charger or the Ferrari F50 was a petrolhead’s dream. For its next trick, Need for Speed would be cementing its position among the greatest racing games of all time by partnering with a car brand of equal stature: Porsche.
Need for Speed: Porsche Unleashed (2000)
Exclusive licensing deals usually maximize profits or give a business advantage at the expense of consumers. However, Porsche Unleashed was a rare, glaring example for when such an arrangement – that took place between EA and Porsche - also scored a win for racing fans.
The franchise’s fifth installment could have easily called it a day by reskinning High Stakes and adding a few tracks and modes that only Porsches could drive on. However, Porsche Unleashed ditched the series’ arcadey roots for the first time and came up with an enjoyable racing simulator built on a completely new game engine.
Cars no longer seemed to float or bounce, and had a much more realistic damage model and cockpits. Porsche also had EA developers brought to Germany for test driving its vehicles, taking notes on the Autobahn and racing tracks.
All that hard work shone inside the game’s Evolution Mode, which gave players a fascinating, deep dive (and drive) into Porsche’s legacy. From the 1950’s classic 356 and the gorgeous 550A Spyder, to the 1970’s legendary 911 Carrera RS and the crazy 935 Moby Dick, players had to handle their way across beautiful locales and claim final victory in a 2000 911 Turbo.
It’s just a shame that we never saw EA properly capitalize on its 17-year-long Porsche exclusivity beyond this game. Who knows what a sequel or a remaster would have brought to the table. Nonetheless, the one big upside of this agreement terminating (in late 2016) was more Porsches – and not RUF models – in more racing games.
Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit 2 (2002)
Cop chases still had a lot of life left in them and a sequel to Hot Pursuit arrived in 2002, taking Need for Speed back to its arcadey roots. Players could now max a Lamborghini Murcielago or a Ferrari 360 Spider to blast past spike strips, while also avoiding explosive barrels dropped by the newly added police helicopters.
EA perfected the racers vs. cops recipe with Hot Pursuit 2. Top-notch graphics, casual, enjoyable handling, tracks peppered with useful shortcuts, and running cops into oncoming traffic in exotic cars made for hours of non-stop fun.
The idea worked so well for EA that it later had Criterion Studios reboot the formula with 2010’s Hot Pursuit, which equipped racers with weapons for taking down cops. The latter received yet another remaster in 2020, packing an updated car roster and tweaked visuals.
Part 2 – Peak RPM
Need for Speed: Underground (2003)
Beautiful vistas and dreamy supercars had filled everyone’s appetite. It was time for Need for Speed to deliver something fresh, another facet of car culture the series hadn’t explored before. That turned out to be street racing and the tuning culture.
Half a million-dollar exotics had suddenly lost their appeal in favor of more attainable, neon-lit, Japanese imports like the Nissan Skyline, Mazda’s RX-7 or the Mitsubishi Eclipse. The trend had already been put in motion by the (still ongoing!) Fast and Furious films and Rockstar’s well-received Midnight Club series. Need for Speed: Underground raised the bar though with a fantastic collection of cars, tracks, music and customization.
Besides the usual racing modes, Underground added Drift and Drag races, alongside a story-driven career mode. Stories in racing games usually take a back seat, where its mostly about starting from scratch and racing yourself to the top. Underground was no different in this regard, but the game offered other tempting reasons for players to carry on.
It was all about customization and performance upgrades. Putting on the right set of rims, spoiler, exhaust tip, scoops, neon underglow and body kit for a nitrous-equipped blast down the fictitious roads of Olympic City, with Rob Zombie's Two Lane Blacktop on the stereo.
Underground became an instant hit with Need for Speed fans and gained a whole new audience of players. A sequel was pretty much guaranteed at this point and that’s exactly what we got.
Need for Speed: Underground 2 (2004)
Underground 2 built on the strengths of its predecessor and added even more customization and memorable soundtracks. For some fans, this entry remains the best Need for Speed to date.
The story once again faded into the background. Your faceless character who’d been wronged yet again had to rise their way to the top in the fictitious city of Bayview. Aside from new game modes like Outrun and Street X, Underground 2 also featured SUVs for the first time, and an abundance of modification options.
Most of these customizations didn’t really add much to the actual gameplay, but posing for those magazine and DVD covers made all the effort worthwhile. Underground 2 also had free roam that allowed players to take a break from the action and cruise around the roads of Bayview at night, occasionally coming across AI opponents to trigger an optional 1v1 duel.
EA Black Box was firing on all cylinders and ruling the streets with its Underground series. However, there was still plenty of fuel left in the tank. The game’s next installment would deliver yet another blockbuster hit, featuring what has since become Need for Speed’s poster car: The BMW M3 GTR.
Need for Speed: Most Wanted (2005)
The success of Underground 2 proved that Need for Speed fans had quite the appetite for an open-world racing game where they could customize vehicles to their heart’s content. Add police chases into the mix and it was yet another eureka moment.
Most Wanted wanted players to take its story a bit more seriously, with a blacklist of 15 drivers that needed to be written off. The game featured full-motion video cutscenes with over-the-top characters that were an impressive sight technically, but a bit cheesy and uneasy to watch. Though they didn’t feel as uneasy as the time when Sergeant Cross keys our lovely M3 GTR.
Although Most Wanted dropped quite a few customization options from Underground 2, it effectively made up for them with amazing cop chases in the superbly designed fictitious city of Rockport.
A Grand Theft Auto-like wanted system ramped up the difficulty as the player caused more wreckage and gained higher heat levels. Police SUVs, aerial surveillance, roadblocks and spike strips kept pursuits intense, while radio chatter and gripping music filled the background.
It was totally up to the player if they wanted to lose the heat, which they had a better chance of doing by crashing into one of several Diggy’s donuts shop or a water tank to disable cops and then hiding in a cooldown spot. Or, they could ramp up the heat level and try out their luck escaping police Corvettes.
The original Most Wanted and Underground games remain cult favorites to this day. It’s hard to choose between them, but that just goes to show how good Need for Speed was during its golden era. An era where the series would keep its split-screen mode (on consoles) for just one more installment.
Need for Speed: Carbon (2006)
A solid entry in its own right, Need for Speed: Carbon had its shining moments in the dark, gloomy streets of Palmont, but it wasn’t a complete home run. Drifting and canyon races inspired by F&F: Tokyo Drift were a welcome addition, but drag races were dropped and the police chases weren’t as exciting as Most Wanted or Hot Pursuit.
Thankfully, car customization moved forward with the new Autosculpt feature. Players could now spend hours fine-tuning the shape of various body parts like scoops, rims, spoilers, bumpers, and exhaust tips. It just felt right most of the time to have the slider on 100 percent for maximum effect.
Carbon carried over Most Wanted’s story to a new location, once again not taking long to separate the player and their M3 GTR. They'd start from the bottom with either an Exotic, Muscle or Tuner class car, form a crew and take down rivals controlling parts of Palmont City. Unlike Most Wanted, where a modified RX-7 could compete against a Porsche Carrera GT, Carbon’s 3-tier system for its 3 car classes meant players eventually had to leave their favorite low-tier car as they progressed further for a final duel with Darius in his Audi Le Mans Quattro.
It had now been a fairly long run with open-world, mildly story-driven arcadey racing games that firmly put Need for Speed on the map. In the quest to deliver something fresh, the series headed off to the track and came up with ProStreet.
Part 3 – Hits and Misfires
Need for Speed: ProStreet (2007)
With the bar set so high by consecutive, hugely successful entries year after year, the pressure on ProStreet was larger than ever. Need for Speed was also no longer the hottest racer in town as shown by the likes of Test Drive Unlimited, Colin McRae: Dirt, and the maturing Forza Motorsport series.
ProStreet’s attention to detail for a track day festival was authentic in all the right and wrong ways. Cars had a proper damage model and could now be customized according to race type, with blueprints available for various game modes. Carbon’s Autosculpt feature played a larger role in ProStreet, allowing players to not only tweak visuals but also aerodynamics for improved performance.
What didn’t sit well with most NFS fans though, was ProStreet’s stiff car handling, mediocre track selection and an announcer that blasted their voice throughout the game’s career mode. ProStreet didn’t come with all of Need for Speed’s existing strengths (cops, open-world, great soundtracks), and the new features it did bring failed to combine a simulator-like experience with a decent car roster and customization features.
ProStreet was a misfire for many fans, who craved for the series to return to its roots. As it turned out, the game’s next installment would be yet another disappointment, even with the inclusion of cops, and an open-world with a plot. A flawed Most Wanted was up next, called Need for Speed: Undercover.
Need for Speed: Undercover (2008)
An overly serious story in an uninspired open-world were the deal breakers in Undercover.
Although EA brought all the ingredients for the tried and tested Need for Speed recipe, Undercover lacked the delicate balance that had previously made Underground, Most Wanted and Carbon irresistible.
Covered in some sort of sepia filter, the world of Tri-City Bay provided little to no incentive for exploration, save for some decent cop chases. The cars’ floaty handling was also a weird mix of arcade and simulation, and the visuals appeared to be a downgrade from ProStreet.
Squeezed even more by brilliant new entries like Codemasters’ Race Driver: Grid and Rockstar’s Midnight Club: Los Angeles, 2008 proved to be a tough year for Undercover.
EA’s annual release schedule meant Need for Speed barely had time for a pit stop. Two back-to-back disappointing laps with ProStreet and Undercover were followed by the much better track-focused Shift series.
Need for Speed: Shift (2009) and Shift 2 Unleashed (2011)
Perhaps the best thing about Shift and Shift 2 was the return of cockpit view. After a 9-year hiatus, players could finally experience racing from the driver’s seat in a Need for Speed game. Combined with a sensational sense of speed, Shift was a bold take on track racing that shone best at breakneck speeds and was otherwise a decent racer.
Unlike most racing games where the driver’s head appears fixed, Shift featured a dynamic camera view that reacted to player inputs, moving them back and forth and side to side subtly or violently as g-forces dictated.
Shift 2, the sequel that arrived after 2010’s Hot Pursuit reboot, took it even further with the love-or-hate-it helmet cam. That meant the action got as real and intense as it could from behind a visor, with the in-game camera simulating a racing driver’s reflexes and glancing towards an upcoming corner to inform the player. Useful stuff if their vision wasn’t already disoriented by all the bumps and shakes.
The Shift series did just enough to keep Need for Speed on the radar, which by now had plenty of blips to divert the attention of racing fans. Forza Motorsport, Codemasters’ Dirt and Ubisoft’s Driver: San Francisco had arguably pulled ahead of Need for Speed in 2011, each with their unique gameplay style and presentation. That same year, EA Black Box returned to stir things up and came out with The Run.
Need for Speed: The Run (2011)
Out of all installments in the series, The Run was probably the most uniquely bizarre NFS experience. A scaled-down coast to coast race across the US, prompted by a last second escape from a car crusher and ending with a handsome cash prize.
The Run was a return to arcadey, action-packed Need for Speed, where the story faded into the background again, giving players an excuse to drive a decent collection of cars to defeat opponents and escape the cops on their way to the top.
While the continuous changes to locations, game modes and cars throughout the game’s campaign was an original idea, the lack of car customization and a free roam option didn’t sit well with fans.
The Run’s visuals, however, didn’t disappoint. Used to create FPS chaos across battlefields, DICE’s Frostbite 2 engine did a stellar job of rendering vehicles and real-life locations. From canyon roads and muddy trails to snow-covered tarmac and urban streets, The Run’s varying environments were perhaps its greatest strength. If only the game offered more freedom to explore them, its reception might have been more than lukewarm.
For the next Need for Speed, EA tapped Criterion Games to offer their rendition of a Most Wanted game. The studios’ expertise with the Burnout series made for a rather impressive 2012 installment.
Need for Speed: Most Wanted (2012)
Criterion’s spin on Most Wanted was quite different from the 2005 original and a solid entry in itself. Hence it would be unfair to skip the game from this list. EA’s 2012 entry trimmed the fat of a story mode and focused entirely on fun, arcadey driving and drift-friendly handling, complementing it with Burnout-style crashes.
Compare it to the classic Need for Speeds or the early 2000 greats, and this Most Wanted would be a speck in the back view mirror. However, the series had been struggling to find its footing for quite some time and Criterion’s showing made for one of the strongest entries in years.
Fairhaven’s open world was rewarding to explore, peppered with cars that could simply be unlocked and switched to by driving next to them in free roam. Damaged vehicles could also be repaired, repainted and re-energized with nitrous on-the-fly by driving through repair shops. Even the barebones customization, accessible directly from the Autolog system, aligned well with the game’s overall seamless approach to racing.
It also had police chases inspired by the original Most Wanted, intense action on wide highways and narrow streets, minus Diggy’s donut shops and the slow-motion takedowns. Need for Speed fans could never get enough of police chases, and the game’s next installment doubled down on the feature.
Need for Speed: Rivals (2013)
Like the reimagined Most Wanted, the best bit about Need for Speed: Rivals was that it didn't have any glaring flaws to it. The visuals were also a nice step up, with cars looking near-photorealistic in menus and out in the open world. Too much moisture perhaps, but that was just the Frostbite 3 engine flexing its muscle.
Rivals attempted to depict the conflicting psyches of a racer and a cop, and had separate career modes for each role in the game. Centered mostly around high-speed pursuits, the game had a variety of upgradeable hi-tech weapons for cops and racers to counter each other during chases.
Car customization was nothing to write home about, but the upside to that was more time to drive and explore the pretty, fictitious city of Redview County in an equally pretty Ferrari F12 Berlinetta.
After a decade of non-stop annual releases, EA finally took a year off with the racing series in 2014, though the gap was somewhat filled at the time by Need for Speed’s first and only film adaptation, starring Aaron Paul.
Part 4 – Check Engine Light
Need for Speed (2015)
With teasers that started surfacing months prior to release, it looked like Need for Speed was finally getting its modern Underground game. Jaw-dropping screenshots of a green Porsche 911 RSR with its massive wing, the angry, imposing Ford Mustang head-on and the sweet rear-end of a Nissan 180X had NFS players salivating.
Thankfully, Need for Speed, as it simply called itself, was just as impressive visually when it came out and weirdly, looks on par if not better than later installments. The car customization feature was also a huge step up for the series. It was arguably more enjoyable to spend time in the garage, tweaking your ride to perfection, rather than driving it around in the dark streets of Ventura Bay.
Like the graphics and customization, Need for Speed also got its music mojo back with a great collection of soundtracks. It all seemed too good to be true. There was no way for EA or Ghost Games to drop the ball, right? Unfortunately, they did, with an absurd, always-online requirement for the game’s single-player mode that meant players couldn’t even pause the action to take a water break. Also, be prepared to say goodbye to your rides whenever the game’s servers are shut down and it becomes unplayable.
Besides the visuals, audio and car tuning, this title had little else to offer. The campaign’s cringey characters annoyed more than they motivated during cutscenes and with in-game phone calls, alongside an unpredictable AI and frame rate issues that spoiled the experience. Need for Speed’s 2015 reboot aimed high and missed the mark in some ways. Its next installment, however, missed it in most.
Need for Speed: Payback (2017)
A Need for Speed that corrected the wrongs of the 2015 reboot and built upon its strengths would have done really well in 2017, a year when some quality sequels arrived for long-running franchises like Gran Turismo Sport, Forza Motorsport 7 and Dirt 4. Instead, NFS fans got a knock-off F&F style racer with a flimsy story, grindy mechanics, and a bland open world.
Although Payback didn’t look bad, it wasn’t a visual upgrade like its predecessor. The game featured a somewhat interesting car collection, which also had players roam around the map to look for abandoned vehicles. Its cutscene heavy story, however, meant the control was often taken away in the heat of the moment, hurting player engagement.
Another frustrating element was Payback’s loot box-style card-based system for boosting car performance.
It was either grinding, gambling or paying up with real money for unlocking upgrades. Payback wasn’t the only racing game guilty of using microtransactions, but it was the first paid Need for Speed title to go there.
To ensure that their next installment was well-received, Ghost Games had to undo Payback’s woeful economy and get the basics right. They did just that with Need for Speed Heat.
Need for Speed: Heat (2019)
Heat’s player-controlled day and night cycle and cross-play multiplayer are perhaps Need for Speed’s best new features in years, packaged in an overall decent racer. Players now had more control over how they progressed through the game, with a different set of rewards assigned to the two-time intervals.
The streets of Miami-themed Palm City opened to races in daytime that awarded cash (or bank) for acquiring new cars and parts, while nighttime with its aggressive cops earned players reputation points for participating in illegal races and successfully evading pursuits. A simple yet effective concept that kept the experience interesting, much more so than the lackluster story and repulsive music.
Paired with robust car customization featuring engine swaps, exhaust tuning and a new companion app for vehicle management, Heat did players right by dropping Payback’s microtransactions and card system. It didn’t have a high bar to clear in the first place, but the core gameplay treaded a well-worn path that ultimately made for an uninspiring driving experience.
Heat would also turn out to be Ghost Games’ last attempt at a Need for Speed game as EA handed the reigns to Criterion for developing future installments.
The Need for Speed lives on... coming 2022
We might have got a few teasers of the final game by now had EA stuck to the original 2021 schedule for its next Need for Speed. But, delays have disappointingly become a rule now rather than the exception.
Instead of releasing alongside the upcoming Battlefield, EA pulled Criterion from its ‘next-gen’ Need for Speed title to assist DICE with finishing off its highly-anticipated military shooter.
Nonetheless, EA’s previously shared brief ‘work-in-progress' footage does look promising. Lifelike cars and faster load times are features worth getting excited about, however, what most racing fans will be looking forward to in 2022's Need for Speed is whether Criterion can deliver an experience on par or better than the current leader in open-world arcade racing: Forza Horizon 4, or its upcoming sequel that's set to launch this November.
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