Friday, January 7, 2011

Need for Speed: the very first beginning

It is times that I really feel old, being shot to pieces in multiplayer by people who call themselves 'Lollybomb1997'. Roughly calculating that my assassin would be 13 by now I recall that when I was that old, I wasn't even allowed on the internet. Mind you, that was because we had dial-up and my parents were expecting calls. The multiplayer was mute, so I couldn't shout at him that everything was better in my days. The other reason I can't do that is because I am glad gaming has evolved in many ways since the 90's, including gameplay-wise, . There is one series, though, that really was better back then: Need for Speed.

The almighty NFS2SE splash screen
I am particularly referring to Need for Speed 2: Special Edition. Yes, back in the day they numbered their games. It was also a day when Electronic Arts wasn't as evil as it is today, as in it wasn't vacuming up every successful small studio when it was having a hard time. It was a growing company that was trying to establish itself. I never played Need for Speed 1 or #2 not so special edition. EA has made it their lifetime mission to make those two disappear.  Later on I found an abandonware download for 1, stripped down and without music like a 90's illegal copy.

Need for Speed 2 SE was awesome. You had dreamcars that raced through fantastic places all over the world at insane high speeds. The cars were divided over 3 classes: A, B and C. If you were good at racing a campaign or a knockout (or you just used cheat codes) you could earn 3 fantasy cars and even a bonus track. I know that the rewards for winning a race are slightly higher nowadays, but that was how it was then. That said, you can't find cheat codes to unlock things nowadays.

Every track had some kind of wow factor. You would race on a rope bridge and past a plane-wreck in the Himalayas, into a volcano in the jungle, past the landmarks of Sydney in Australia, through tiny villages while making insane jumps in Greece and much more. There was even a tunnel on the speed-ring track (proving grounds, for those who played it) with some glowing pipes which were there for no reason but to make the track look cooler. The most awesome track was the bonus track in Hollywood. There were prop-dinosaurs, a future dystopia set and a straight part of road racing through what looks like star wars! And that was before the dreadful episode 1!

And there was always the cheat to drive
a school bus
I've never been good at these old racing games. Maybe it's me, or maybe it's the game physics, because the cars steer not that realistic. Everyone did with these games the same thing I did: find cheat-codes in your favourite game magazine or the internet, if you weren't expecting calls. In those days, the amount of cheat-codes was vast. The internet changed things rapidly as NFS2SE might be among the last games I searched magazines for codes for and the amount of cheat codes nowadays are mostly limited to a couple or none.

Knowing EA and since NFS2SE put Need for Speed on the radar, you might think that NFS3:hot pursuit (not the one coming out this year) improved on that and made the series even more awesome for me. Short answer: no. NFS3 made the series more popular than ever before by adding police pursuits in the mix where you could play the police. Yet, they dumbed down their tracks AND their cars. The dreamcars were replaced with just expensive cars while the unlockables were now the dreamcars and not the fantasy cars. Instead of 8 different tracks in places all over the world they stuck to 4 tracks with 2 different layouts making 8 tracks total only in places in the USA. The ferrari 355 went from class C in NFS2 to class B in NFS3 while the car stayed the same. The tracks were boring! There was one tracks which main feature was just being snowed (summit, if you really want to know). Where you drove through a volcano and Hollywood in NFS2, the best thing they came up with in NFS3 was a dinosaur skeleton and the EA building. The EA building! Did those people never hear of hubris? Ofcourse NFS3 got more famous, so I stand in the wrong here.

To me it only went downhill from there. The follow-up to NFS3, 'high stakes' or 'road challenge' depending on where you live, introduced other countries again along with more 'just expensive cars' like BMW. For some reason the game always crashes when I boot it, so I never got to play it. The follow up to that was 'porsche 2000', a need for speed with only one kind of 'just expensive car'.

The Jaguar XJ220 does pass the test, though.
Let me explain why I don't like 'just expensive cars' like BMW's, Porsches and Mercedeses in racing games. In a racing game I want dream cars like Ferrari's, Lamborghini's or Lotusses. These are cars that are awesome, fast and highly impractical in daily life, so you race them in the game. 'Just expensive cars' are not dream cars, because the people who dream of them usually own one already. The real experience will always be better than the game. You can't just put any expensive car in a racing game and expect it to be cool. A test for this is take the name of the car, put the words 'last year's' before it and see if it still makes you feel like a little boy. Last year's Ferrari F355 passes the test, last year's Toyota Celica doesn't and what about last year's BMW 5 series or Jaguar XF for that matter? All of NFS2's cars pass this test, except for the mustang, but that's a C class so it doesn't count <sticks out tongue like a 7 year old>.

The best example of my problem with Need for Speed (apart from the catch-up system which I will discuss some other time) came with NFS: Most Wanted. In the game you can mod your cars and challenge people from the 'black list'. Ofcourse the Asian driver drove a modded Toyota which came with 2 other unmodded Toyota's as escort.  EA got the licences for those cars so they got money for product placement and I played Most Wanted 4 years after its release. That made those cars literally last year's Toyota's. I know soccermoms driving those cars! The cut-scene was meant to intimidate, but already a couple of years after its release it looked immensely stupid.

Last year's McLaren F1... Hell yeah!
EA is currently having trouble selling the NFS series. After Porsche challenge they had the same problem and rebooted hot pursuit. They did the same this year by rebooting hot pursuit again creating the biggest brainfuck in gaming history: a chronological order counting backwards (1998: NFS3: hot pursuit, 2002: NFS hot pursuit 2, 2011 NFS: hot pursuit). By focussing on brand advertising and realism, they cut the best part from the NFS series: dream and fantasy cars and race-tracks with a wow factor. Most Wanted was said to be the best NFS in ages, but even that episode seemed quite bland and just repetitive to me. Furthermore I never heard anyone get excited about a NFS title after that. If EA wanted advice and asked me, I'd tell them to take a good look at NFS2. Even today the game is still fun and awesome. It makes no compromises for money and just goes incredibly fast, features that modern games are just lacking.

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