‘Need for Speed’ Layers Complexity on Top of Simplicity

The 2015 Need for Speed seems embarrassed by its simple arcade roots.

I like my racing games simple. I want to drive fast and flashy cars without having to worry too much about the physics of driving at 100+ miles per hour, I want to ram said fast and flashy cars into each other without being docked points, and I want to be rewarded for winning with even faster and flashier cars. All of which is to say that I’ve been a fan of the Need for Speed series for several years now, as it’s a racing series that has always traded on being fast, flashy, and relatively simple. While I’ve complained about the various games several times over the years, I’ve always kept playing them because they’re always genuinely fun in a way that few racing games are nowadays. 2015’s Need for Speed is no different is no in that regard.

However, unlike the previous games, its flaws and quirks aren’t just a matter of execution or presentation, rather they seem to stem from a place of insecurity. Gone is the simplicity that provided a solid foundation of fun. In its place are a series of menus and mechanics that add complexity, but only on a shallow level. The added systems don’t add any extra nuance. My relationship with the game remains the same as it’s ever been. It’s just less fun and more confusing.

This identity crisis is best represented through the process of upgrading and tuning your vehicle.

In previous games when you wanted a faster car, you just bought (or won) a new, faster car. A simple solution that ensured the pace of the game never slowed. Car too sluggish? Get a new one. Car doesn’t handle right? Get a new one.

In this 2015 edition of Need for Speed, that’s still possible, but it’s also prohibitively expensive and inefficient. It’s much cheaper to simply upgrade your current car by buying new parts. This is fine in theory, but for a car dunce like myself, I have no idea where to begin when presented with menu options like “differential,” “sway bars,” “intake manifold,” or “forced induction.” It’s confusing to the point of intimidation. I don’t know what any of these parts do, and I don’t know how my car will change when I buy them. There’s no explanation of what this part does or why that part is important. Only the green arrows pointing up provide any indication that a new part is better than what I currently have installed. It’s a simple binary. If my car’s stats on the side of the screen remain grey, it’s worse or equal. If they turn green, it’s better. I buy the parts that turn the text green without knowing why or how they work.

To be fair, this is a very simple process and far more simple than what any other racing sim would offer in terms of upgrades. Need for Speed is clearly dipping its toe into a more complex experience, but it is also trying to keep things relatively simple for people like me who come to the series specifically to avoid that complexity.

The problem, however, is that in practice this process is no different than simply buying a new car. I know a Lambogehni is faster than a Toyota, but I don’t know why. Sure it’s probably got a better engine and… stuff, but the specifics elude me. I buy the former over the latter because the former has better numbers associated with it—top speed, acceleration, etc. Delineating this one big purchase into several smaller purchases adds a layer of complexity to the upgrading process, but doesn’t add any nuance. I’m not gaining any extra knowledge from these additional purchases, I’m not learning what each part does or how my car works. My relationship with the game remains the same — buy the thing with the better numbers — but in 2015 I’m forced to navigate a dozen extra menus to get that same result.

This same criticism applies when tuning your car. Basically, when tuning an engine, we’re tweaking the characteristics of each individual part in order to make it perform in slightly different ways. To do this effectively, to get your desired results, you have to know what characteristic of what part to change in what way. That’s a lot of additional required knowledge.

Again, to the game’s credit, it simplifies this whole process into a basic binary spectrum: You tune for Grip, sticking hard to the road so you can make sharp turns, or you tune for Drift, sticking loose to the road so you can glide around turns. Once again, this is a fine idea in theory but offers only frustration in practice.

I don’t know what parts change what aspect of the car’s handling, and the game doesn’t do much to help. Sometimes it offers a wonderful summary that’s concise and practical, telling me exactly how the handling will change: “Changing tire pressure is a way to fine-tune the grip relationships between front and rear. A looser back end will make initiating a drift easier.” Sometimes it’s vaguer, giving me a conceptual explanation but no practical help: “A locked differential will mean the left and right wheels consistently spin at the same rate. This results in more wheel spin and therefore encourages drifting.” And sometimes it just doesn’t make any sense to me: “Spring stiffness can be used to tune the squat and dive behavior of the vehicle”

Even if I knew what every part did, the existence of this tuning mechanic means it’s up to me to make the game’s controls feel comfortable. The best case scenario is that I find a handling style I like, and then the game feels good to play. As it should have from the beginning. Once again, my relationship with the game has not changed with the introduction of all these complex mechanics. Instead, I ultimately end up with a good feeling arcade racer, and I still don’t know what a differential does or what makes one intake manifold better than another, just like every other Need for Speed game. The facade of complexity hasn’t taught me anything more about cars than the previous games have.

The complexity has just made me work for my fun, forcing me to drive car after car that I don’t like until I find one that I do like. I have eventually found a car and tuning setup that I like, that feel just right, and now the game plays like I always expected it to. Need for Speed is still a simple arcade racer at heart, but it seems embarrassed by that simple arcade heart, hiding its simplicity behind menus and mechanics, putting on an air of complexity and sophistication, pretending to be more than what it really is.