For a game that's so high on Monster energy drinks, Need for Speed sure could do with a sugar rush. Ghost Games' long-awaited reboot – which was constructed over the course of a two year development cycle – is a slow and turgid affair, which is in direct contrast to its hyperactive cast of characters. It's frustrating because the title has many of the trappings of a great racing release, but it fails to assemble them in any meaningful manner, resulting in a foray that's so far off the pace that it may as well not be on the starting grid in the first place.
You play as a rookie recruited by a ragtag crew of millennial misfits to create headaches for Ventura Bay's local constabulary. Along the way you'll be honing your skills across five disciplines: Speed, Style, Build, Crew, and Outlaw. Each character represents a different category, with your ultimate goal being to catch the attention of a real-world superstar. The likes of Ken Block crop up to deliver some hamfisted dialogue, but while this would ordinarily be a negative, it actually adds to the campy vibe that the title's got going on.
Cutscenes play out in first-person and use a fusion of full-motion video and in-game visuals. This is actually quite some technical feat, as your personalised vehicles crop up in live action cinematics. The acting is atrocious, but it's just about self-aware enough to work; Ames is a feisty mechanic with an Ellie Goulding-esque hairstyle and dungarees, while Spike is a schizophrenic try-hard with an expensive jacket and an even more expensive diamond embedded in his earlobe. They speak in social media buzz words, but actually grow on you – like the skittish kid from school that always held the best house parties.
The problem is that building up your relationship with your new-found buddies is mind-numbingly boring. The game throws a series of events at you, which range from bog-standard races right the way through to time trials and drift events – but there's no sense of occasion to any of these, and you'll blast through the campaign on auto-pilot as a consequence. The artificial intelligence is beyond bad, employing rubber banding to keep races "interesting" in the most obnoxious of ways; you can be miles in the lead, only to clip a corner on the final bend and finish in last.
Some of the more "ambitious" events spotlight even worse problems. For example, the Drift Train is a great idea in theory – it's all about building that understanding with your crew, and sliding across the asphalt in close proximity. The problem is that the cars remain as aggressive in these events as they would in a race, so you'll constantly get bumped out of your right-angle glide. Gymkhana is equally unexciting: this is all about the balletic precision of vehicle manipulation in the real-world, but here it amounts to drift events with a countdown clock.
It doesn't help that the game's always-online world serves as a negative rather than a positive; you can be blaring down the freeway in a single player event, only crash into another player's souped-up Subaru and the entourage of law enforcers that it's got in pursuit. You can certainly play on your own if you prefer, but the release requires you to be connected to EA's servers at all times. Fortunately, we haven't encountered any major online mishaps, but it just seems unnecessary – the snapshot system which allows you to share screenshots with the world doesn't even work.
You can challenge those people that you encounter to spontaneous events, but we would have preferred a more traditional multiplayer mode. As it happens, rather than select a simple option from a menu, you have to assemble a crew and then invite them into races if you want to play online. Much criticism was pointed at DriveClub's more simplistic structure, but at least it allows you to enjoy the game how you want to without jumping through hoops. Here, even the load times that are required to connect to its online lobby are a speed bump in getting to the action.
Not that its open world is all that interesting to begin with. Set in a perpetually rainy city, the Frostbite engine's reflection technology has been given a thorough workout, but outside of a few neon-lit districts, there's nothing really memorable about the sandbox in the slightest. Other open world racers, like Burnout Paradise or even The Crew, at least have landmarks and districts that look different, but aside from a windy mountain trail to the north of Ventura Bay, there's very little of that here.
The most irritating thing is that there are the nuts and bolts of a good Need for Speed game here. The real-time construction system, which allows you to pimp your ride in a dizzying number of ways, is really impressive – even if the most efficient way to upgrade your ride is by attaching the parts listed furthest to the right on the menu screen. And the handling is very good, allowing you to toggle a slider between a drift or grip feel. We opted for a model sitting near to the middle but slightly biased towards the slide side, and we had a lot of fun kicking the rear of our Ferrari out around corners.
But once you've completed the overlapping campaigns and gathered all of the obligatory collectibles, all that's really left here is to drive around and play all of the events again – perhaps trying to top the Autolog leaderboards this time. It just seems startlingly sparse: without a compulsive online loop or even an entertaining world, the whole package runs out of steam within ten or so hours. It'll take you double that to see absolutely everything, of course, but there's no real incentive to do so – the dreary structure and shoddy events are almost criminal.
Need for Speed's got many of the parts required of a great racer, but it's lacking a mechanic to assemble them and apply a lick of paint. The cutscenes, as obnoxious as they may be, are the real stars here, which may just be an indictment of the game as a whole. Sure, the handling's good, but the events are insipid – and the visuals may sparkle, but Ventura Bay is as vanilla as open worlds come. For as pumped-up as its excitable cast of characters are, this reboot quite simply lacks energy. Now, has anybody got any Monster?