Almost 15 years later, one still gets the feeling that the Need for Speed franchise is, like a football team after its hall-of-fame quarterback retires, living in the shadow of a long-gone greatness, compared to something so old it hardly seems fair to either one.
For Need For Speed in present day, that’s still Most Wanted — the 2005 game, not the 2012 revival. It helps that it was a launch title for a new console at the time, but seven editions since then haven’t been able to match the appeal found in Rockport’s open world, where a storyline mission race would drag in roaming cops, and the wholly improvised getaway had that something-extra feeling of a great game that had gone into overtime. I hit the pursuit breaker at the Petersburg doughnut shop so many times, my car could probably drive there by itself, like Knight Rider. There’s no better symbol of what Most Wanted stood for than seeing the big doughnut rolling into a cop car.
Police work has been AWOL from the past two Need for Speed titles that Ghost Games has taken by itself. 2015’s Need for Speed was more like the Underground games that preceded the series’ golden age of law enforcement. It had open-world pursuit, but that was a bland and largely risk-free affair, requiring a lot of work on the player’s part to get any kind of a big police response. Need for Speed Payback, from 2017, brought back the fuzz, but in a disappointingly limited way. Cop interaction came mainly in set pieces with big cinematics and the wheelman missions from the campaign; it the open world, they left you alone.
Speaking to Riley Cooper, Ghost Games’ creative director for the franchise, it sounds as though the studio is mindful that a looming long arm of the law matters in Need For Speed, and next month’s Heat culminates a multi-year work-up to a bigger police presence.
“In defense of Payback, we did learn a lot about our cops’ ability to pursue the player and engage the player, at speed in an open world” Cooper said. “It was a really large technical challenge, which we were able to solve in Payback. So then we carry that over, and add the open world systems, and get that to another level.
“But yeah, now it’s all about, ‘Let’s just deliver a quintessential Need for Speed,” Cooper acknowledged.
Heat, Cooper said, will make police a bigger threat and influence on the racing by placing more at stake. The game’s day-night cycle will switch the racing format from a sanctioned, legal street race to underground competitions. Cops are more active at night, and suspicious of everything (much like real life!), and getting popped will cost a player all of their winnings for that session. So the decision of staying out or heading for the safehouse should make that part of Heat’s gameplay loop function a lot like a score attack, Cooper said.
Getting that right will depend a lot on the police AI, and it’s hard to tell if it will be as fun as Cooper says without playing it for a good stretch. “There’s a certain length of cop chase where it ceases to be kind of impactful,” Cooper said. “So it’s really about shaping the kind of overall balance of these experiences.” In their limited interactions with the police in Payback, players quickly learned they could easily and indiscriminately wreck the cops and get away. Cooper said Ghost Games has laid out roads for fictitious Palm City with fewer exploitable obstructions on the shoulders, making crash-out maneuvers less viable. There will be a greater focus on speed (and great driving under speed) and breaking the line of sight in order to prevail, Cooper said.
In free-roam multiplayer, cops can interfere with with your races, or they can be brought in by someone else breakin’ the law. For me, this has potential for both excitement and aggravation, but let’s give it the benefit of the doubt. Cooper said players always have the choice of being on a multiplayer server or driving solo; and if they’re in a world with other human players, they can always drag a pursuit over to someone with a higher wanted level, which will make them the cops’ bigger priority.
The fact remains, this is Ghost Games’ fourth crack at a 25-year-old franchise, and the first three did some things well, but not enough of them to meet the expectations set by that kind of a nameplate. Cooper thinks that, for Heat, other choices Ghost Games has made — the fictitious, Miami-like setting; the lighting that dedicated daytime and nighttime events affords; the mutliplayer interactions — are responsive to community feedback, both positive and negative, and are working in the direction of a racer with a genuine lure.
But in terms of living up to a heritage long enough to have fans talking about a golden age for it, Cooper knows that only a strong police presence will show the series is back in form.
“Most Wanted was one of the most loved games from our past, and yeah, it was clear that cops were, you know, they’re really what sets Need for Speed apart,” Cooper said. “There’s the tuner culture and the underground vibe that everyone loves, but the next big thing is the cops, and in Payback, they were confined to a script.
“That miss created a big opportunity for us and for Heat,” he continued. “That was a massive priority for us, for sure.”
Need for Speed Heat launches Nov. 8 on PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Windows PC.
Roster File is Polygon’s column on the intersection of sports and video games.
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