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Will a year off make Need for Speed great again?

After spending 2014 in the garage, Ghost Games reboots EA's series with a new focus on customisation.

We've lost our Need for Speed! But only temporarily. 2014 was the first year since 2001 that EA decided against celebrating illegal street racing with a new instalment of its longstanding series. But has that year's break paid off?

Need for Speed has been, to some extent, a victim of its own success: lashed to an annual release schedule by its own popularity, too lucrative not to give to all the boy and girl racers every Christmas. That's fine when you're riding the momentum of a hot underground scene as it fires into mainstream consciousness. But it's downright tricky a few years later when your game needs to pause, reflect and find itself.

That's more or less the process described by Marcus Nilsson, executive producer at Ghost Games, whose current objective is to restore credibility to the once-dominant Need for Speed franchise. Ghost Games delivered Rivals in time for the launch of PS4 and Xbox One, but its solid but unspectacular release underlined the need for a pause. And so it's been given an extra year to retune the series, give it a new exhaust and fit it with neon underlighting.

It's in the name of credibility, then, that the new game is called simply Need for Speed -- a steadfast and true statement of intent. It's also presumably in the name of credibility that this Need for Speed features new live action cut-scenes and interludes featuring real actors set against the driving action. I was initially sceptical about both features. Years ago, such live action transitions meant you'd probably wasted fifty bucks on a terrible Mega-CD game. But after spending three or so hours with Need for Speed, and being subjected to the flesh-and-blood people therein, I'm willing to admit that my scepticism might be misplaced. (Although I'm still right about the Mega-CD.)

In this real-world drama, our unseen hero meets five people and wins their affections by driving very fast at night. (The game is set entirely between the hours of dusk and dawn in a beeped-horn-salute to the series' night-racing heyday.) These short scenes, triggered after certain events and when you arrive at certain locations, are all shot in first-person, with the cast choreographed to move around you, touching, flirting and keeping you in the centre. Because our hero is silent, these friends are also experts at reading body language and singlehandedly holding conversations. There's a campy "we're in a video game" feel that never goes away, but that also gives the story a heightened, soapy sense of fun.

Aside from cutscenes, these new friends also appear while you're driving the open roads of Ventura Bay. When they ring you -- which happens a lot -- the calls pop up on your in-car HUD. Really these calls are prompts for new events, and a big reason the live-action cast doesn't fall flat is that the Pepsi commercial theatrics are tied right into gameplay, with each of the characters representing one of Need for Speed's five different play styles and associated event types.

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Electronic Arts

So Spike, the eager trust-fund kid who introduces you to the group, will call you with new "Speed" events, which are straightforward go-fast races and point-to-points. Other events are grouped in similar ways. There's "Style", which is all about drifting, jumping, and general flashiness. Then there's "Build," which is customisation, "Crew," which emphasises online team events, and "Outlaw," which focuses on old-fashioned Need for Speed police chases.

This five-sided approach imposes order on the open world of Need for Speed. The plots and events eventually lead to the introduction of what the game calls "Icons" -- the big names in street racing whose careers and reputations match the headline ways to play. So Tokyo street-racer Morohoshi-san plays "Outlaw", while professional car-acrobat Ken Block plays "Style". As game design would have it, you can keep five cars in your garage at any given time. So if you're organised, you can have a car tuned specifically for each style. That's important because it brings us on to the most important thing about Need for Speed, which is customisation.

Ghost Games has clearly spent time thinking hard about the big decisions that will shape its next game and hopefully define it as a classic, credible Need For Speed title. Customisation is key to this. Whatever path you follow in this open-world racer, the central route of progression involves winning events, unlocking parts, then slowly building your car into a monster both inside and out.

The system is deep and complex. It's also, perhaps more surprisingly, the emotional focus of the game. Craig Sullivan, creative director at Ghost Games, explains that the team wanted to get away from progression systems that unlock faster cars every couple of events and effectively force them onto the player. "We want the cars to be more like pets" he says, only half-joking. Customisation makes it possible to keep old favourites for the entire game if you like, hollowing them out and filling them with chrome-plated nuclear fission devices (or at least, you know, nitros) to keep them competitive.

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Electronic Arts

Sullivan is also a Criterion veteran. And on the key issue of handling, his new team had to decide whether to follow that studio's Burnout, Hot Pursuit and Most Wanted model of deliriously easy drifting--tapping the brake to slide sideways forever--or the more reality-tuned driving lines and relative discipline of Rivals. Thanks to the customisation system, Ghost Games gives you both options. Performance tuning moves the handling from one to the other, whether you prefer to use a big, friendly master slider, or more detailed custom set-ups with specific settings for tyre inflation and wheel responsiveness. During my time with the game, I never quite found the sweet spot. I could make my car go fast and straight, but drifting events were still a frustration of too tight or too loose, and never just right.

The introduction of deep customisation is very much the good news. The bad news is, during my limited time with the game, I didn't have enough opportunity to get a firm feel of how substantial the customisation is. This is good in an obvious way, because it is at least substantial enough that three hours doesn't touch the sides. (I spent half an hour in the pleasingly sophisticated car wrap editor, messing with cat decals and figuring out how the image layer system worked.) But it's also bad news because, at least in these early hours, the events themselves seemed a little unremarkable and a little hard to tell apart. Customisation, along with the emotional process of adopting five cars and making them your own, has to be compelling enough to be the sustained draw of this game.