It’s easy to be great when no one expects anything. It’s harder to live up to greatness mired in nostalgia.
I’ve been tough on Need for Speed: Rivals in the past (see "Need for Speed: Rivals Is at War with Itself" and "Need for Speed: Rivals Is at War with Its Soundtrack"). Part of the reason for that criticism is because I really do think the open world concept in the game is stupid, even if Rivals does it better than any other racing games so far, but it is also partly because when I think back on Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit, I think of this one transcendent moment of gaming that would render any comparison pointless.
It’s pretty unfair, especially because that transcendent moment is just as much a fiction as it is a reality. It is partly a result of all the mechanics of the game coming together, part dumb luck, and part foggy nostalgic love. It is less of a single memorable moment and more of a series of great moments that I’ve unconsciously combined into something singularly transcendent. Or so I assume.
I’m racing by myself, probably on a Time Trial since there are no cops or other racers in sight. The song on the radio ends and one of my favorite songs on the soundtrack starts to play. It perfectly fits the mood of this race. It makes me want to drive faster. I come to a long, wide curve and enter a drift. I skid perfectly in line with the road, but then I notice another car coming towards me. With a few slight flicks of the control stick, my car begins to change direction, skidding wider, and it misses that oncoming civilian by an inch. Then the curve ends and I continue racing. I don’t remember if I win, but it doesn’t matter. It’s that moment of the near miss that matters. That perfect miss during the perfect drift during the perfect song during the perfect run.
I’m sure that actually happened at least once. It certainly seems like something that could have happened. If it did happen, I suspect that a perfect, transcendent moment like that can only ever happen once per game/franchise or maybe even once per genre. Need for Speed had its moment in the sun, and now that moment is forever etched into my (unreliable) memory, so that every other potentially great Need for Speed moment from here on out will inevitably be a sad letdown.
A similar thing happened to me with Shadow of the Colossus. I remember a specific moment when fighting the second colossus. Felling it with an arrow to the hoof, jumping off Argo too soon and too far away, I ran towards it convinced that I wouldn’t reach it before it stood back up. But I did. I grabbed its hair and it lifted me up and that wonderful adventure music swelled and I forgot that I was playing a game.
I’ve played Shadow of the Colossus several times since then, experienced that same moment several times over, and while it’s always been fun, it has never been as singularly impressive as it was that first time. The first time is always the best.
I anticipate a similar thing happening with Telltale’s The Walking Dead Season 2. The end of Season 1 had be bawling my eyes out, and at the same time, laughing in surprise that I was bawling my eyes out. Part of the reason that the experience was so powerful was because I wasn’t expecting it to be that powerful. Now those expectations are set, and if the episodes so far are any indication, those expectations might spell doom for Season 2 (and by doom I mean “this game isn’t as good as Season 1, but it is still leagues better than most other games”).
It’s easy to be great when no one expects anything. It’s harder to live up to greatness mired in nostalgia. So perhaps I should lower my expectations for Need for Speed: The Next One, give it the opportunity to blow me away again instead of expecting it to do so from the outset. Does this count as going too easy on games? Not approaching them from a proper critical perspective? I prefer to think it’s not. There’s a difference between going easy on a game and giving it the benefit of the doubt. I want to be willing to give any game the benefit of the doubt, open myself up for more transcendent moments.
Just as long as they stop with that open world racing crap.