Once the poster child for the best racing titles on the market, EA’s Need For Speed series of video games has gained and simultaneously lost a huge fan base with each annual release. Arguably at its peak with 2005’s Need For Speed: Most Wanted, the series began to lose momentum, not only in the innovative ideas and customization options, but also a steady decline in the appeal of its game play. While the series has sailed a few high waves since then, it has never come close to reaching the peaks of the early to mid-2000’s range of releases. So what exactly happened? How did a once beloved and innovative racing series descend into franchise fatigue? Let’s have a look at how the Need For Speed games lost momentum.
1994 introduced the gaming world to a little racing game called The Need For Speed for the Panasonic 3DO. While nowhere near the popularity of most arcade racers at the time, it kick-started a promising racing series in the years to come. Five subsequent sequels were later released from 1997 to 2000, the most well-recognized of the catalog being Porsche Unleashed.
However, it wasn’t until three years later that Need For Speed would become a household name with the anticipated release of Need For Speed: Underground. Thanks to a particularly detailed customization feature, a huge open world and focus on a variety of race modes, the game was considered both a critical and commercial success, paving the way for its massive sequel in 2004.
Underground 2 built upon the winning formula of its predecessor, improving the gameplay and variety of cars, race modes and especially car customization. To this day, the game is considered to have the deepest customization of any racing title, with only Rockstar’s Midnight Club racing series coming close. The Underground series also brought with it a narrative story to accompany its racing, setting it apart from the usual win-to-progress career modes of other racing titles.
In 2005, the world was introduced to Need For Speed: Most Wanted, the most prolific and recognized entry into the entire series. Most Wanted prominently focused on police pursuits, introducing a new story with a colorful cast. Both a critical and commercial success, this is where the series peaked in both popularity and critical appeal. A sequel, Need For Speed: Carbon, was released the following year and attempted to implement canyon races and improved drifting physics, but fell short of the mark because of a particularly short career mode and failed sculpting feature. This is where the downward spiral ultimately began.
Since then, the series attempted to divert from its focus on story-driven careers with Need For Speed: ProStreet kicking off the disappointing track-based game play. While I do agree that the narratives (and acting) of the previous games were quite cheesy, they never failed to immerse you in the world and give your objectives a purpose, building towards an ultimate goal. However, ProStreet stripped the concept bare, introducing a minuscule story in the whirlwind of trying to compete with popular track-based racing titles at the time, especially Forza and Grid taking the racing scene by storm.
Need For Speed: Undercover tried to bring the Most Wanted crowds back, and while not a bad game, didn’t generate the hype perhaps EA expected of it. The series went through several developers over the course of the years, most notably Criterion Games, the team behind the Burnout series. However, even with the 2010 Hot Pursuit remake and a new dev team, the game felt more akin to a Burnout sequel than a Need For Speed one. Criterion also helmed the 2012 Most Wanted remake, but failed to recapture the oddball spirit of the original. It was clear that EA didn’t know what to do or where to go with the series anymore, so each entry in the series, while not terrible racing games, felt forced or rushed to certain extents, losing the “winning formula” of the past.
Then, in 2015, a Need For Speed reboot was released which steadily regained the momentum thanks to promises of the series finally going back to the glory years of Underground. The reboot seemed promising, bringing back the cheesy narrative, focus on deep customization, and familiar themes. Unfortunately, all that hype fizzled with the announcement of EA’s decision to make it online only (a fine example of a company taking advantage of hype)
Even with its release, the game failed to live up to expectations, with the narrative being gleefully cheesy to the point of being cringe-worthy and the racing gameplay unrefined. It seemed like the series took one step too far backwards, and the only question left on everyone’s mind was “could Need For Speed recover from the downhill slope it ultimately created for itself?” The answer really lies with the fans who may be more forgiving than a bloke writing an article about the series’ decline, that’s for sure.