The Need for Speed is a series that, as I stated in my review of its most recent game, The Run, has had its ups and downs. First released for the 3DO in 1994, the series has had many different iterations and has seen many changes to its gameplay. However, the core of the series has remained relatively stable throughout its lifetime, focusing on high speed street racing and cop chases. While some of the games have looked to be more simulation in nature, the vast majority of the games in the series have gone for over the top speed and racing rather than taking the proper line through a corner. Having played the series since its inception, at least since its PlayStation One debut, I decided that it isn’t a bad time for a look back at the series, considering the recent release of Need for Speed: The Run.
Road & Track Presents: The Need For Speed
That’s right, the first game in what would become a series that spanned over 15 years was conceived as a magazine tie in. It was also originally crafted for the 3DO and only later ported to the PC, PSX and Saturn. Leave it to EA to see the cash in on a title, even years ago. I kid of course.
The original Need for Speed was a lot of fun. It was not exactly revolutionary for its day, but it was well crafted, as players were outrunning police cars and competing in varied courses in cars like the Lamborghini Diablo and the Dodge Viper. The memories I have of playing this game at my friend’s house are great, as my friends and I all marveled at the then awesome-looking graphics as we argued about which super car we’d buy when we grew up. Hell, I would still love myself a 1994 Acura NSX, and this game is probably to blame for that. Looking at it now, it doesn’t look like much, but I can assure, back in the day, it was quite the step up from even other long lasting racing games like OutRun.
In spite of the cop chases and the street tracks, the Road & Track name meant the game was trying to be as real as possible. Of course it wasn’t anything quite like Gran Turismo, which came out a year later on PSX than Need for Speed did, but it was certainly more fun to play multiplayer, at least until its sequel came out.
Need for Speed II
Need for Speed 2 was a step up from the original Need for Speed, especially in the car department. My friends and I went from arguing about the Lamborghini and the Ferrari 512 to arguing about other supercars to those friendly fights over the McLaren F1 or the Ferrari F50, which we knew from TV to be true track monsters. We also marveled at the even better graphics and the superior track design. To us, Need for Speed 2 was the better game because it was far more forgiving and arcade like in its gameplay. After all, Gran Turismo was coming out at the end of the year, so we would have that if we wanted to learn how to drive for real.
We were so into the game, or so into the cars is more like it, that we even took the time to watch the full motion video sequences for each of the cars, only strengthening our opinions over our chosen super car. Even so, we were in no way ready for the third game in the series.
Need for Speed III: Hot Pursuit
The original Hot Pursuit was released in 1998, a truly great vintage that saw games such as Metal Gear Solid, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and Half-Life. To be honest, Need for Speed III stands among these games in my mind. Well, maybe not next to, but close enough that it is a game I can still throw into my PlayStation 3 and enjoy from time to time, similar to how the other three are still playable and enjoyable. It does not remain quite as refined as the others, but it is still fun. The track design really helps with that, but also the redone cop chases, where the police were far more aggressive. Of course the car selection was once again great, but I won’t discuss that too much anymore, as it is Need for Speed, the car selection is the one thing that has remained consistently awesome throughout each game.
There was something about Need for Speed III that made me love it more than any of the others. It may have just been that I had drifting down to a perfect science as a kid. Maybe it was the fact that I literally knew every track, the bonus track included, backwards and forwards. It is hard to explain, but even in the context of the following few titles, until Underground came out, but Need for Speed III just seemed to stick with me, and were it not for Most Wanted, I would likely consider this my favorite of the series. As it stands, it was definitely my favorite of the PSX titles.
Need for Speed: High Stakes
Just because III was so great does not mean that High Stakes was anywhere near a bad game. In fact it was far from the opposite, and objectively (rather than nostalgically speaking) it was even better than the original Hot Pursuit. High Stakes introduced at least one mechanic that caused at least one full on fistfight amongst friends, namely the titular High Stakes mode, where the loser not only lost their car to the winner, but it was actually deleted from the loser’s memory card to prevent them from just loading a save. It was a viscous gameplay decision, but one that created some very interesting races amongst friends.
High Stakes was also the first game in the series to offer customization. I remember selecting upgrades for my Ferrari 550 and watching as it turned from a simple Ferrari into a racing-striped monster of a car. There was a simple joy in the early modifications, and this would later lead into the much deeper customization options found in the Underground series.
It should also be noted that this was the first game to feature damage. Unlike a lot of arcade-style racing games, even today, the damage found in this 1999 game could, and would often, affect your car’s performance. This model made learning the tracks a lot more important than it was in the earlier games. Now you could not just bumper car your way around a turn, you had to actually race smart. It may sound silly, but I was not that in to Gran Turismo yet, it being a bit too hardcore for me at the time. High Stakes was the game that really taught me how to use my breaks, and not just for powersliding.
Need for Speed: Porsche Unleashed
This was probably the most hardcore Need for Speed game I recall playing, at least until Shift came out recently. Released in 2000, Porsche Unleashed focused solely on, you guessed it, Porsche. This game was not my favorite, but I did love it for the challenges it presented. The Evolution mode let you race through Porsche’s history, and I remember it not being easy, as your car was often on par with the others. As such, the game really made you rely on your driving skills. The early Porsche’s might have been awesome cars, but they were not the beefy road machines that were so speedy in the previous games. Porsche Unleashed really made you work for each win, and as such was damn rewarding for it.
Porsche Unleashed also had one of the best modes of the Need for Speed series, the Factory Driver mode. This was essentially an early challenge mode, where you were given a Porsche and then basically became a test driver as you completed objectives to earn some really cool new Porsches.
Porsche Unleashed didn’t have the best interface or gameplay, but it did take a chance to focus on one brand and do it so impressively comprehensively that it still remained interesting. That said, the game was still fun, it just was not my personal favorite. I’m sure if you are or were a Porsche enthusiast, then this game is a must have, as it is so comprehensive.
Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit 2
Hot Pursuit 2 is a game I often hear people cite as their favorite game in the series. It was the first Need for Speed game released for the PlayStation 2, Xbox and GameCube, being released in 2002. The Hot Pursuit mode was the highlight of the game, with a very well developed mode where you played as the police. Of course you could do this in III, but in Hot Pursuit 2, the sheer amount of stuff you could do as the officer was awesome, as you had the ability to call in spike strips and helicopters to stop the speeders.
The tracks were all almost universally beautiful, and the new generation’s graphics engine made the cars look better than ever. The large selection of race modes also helped this game stand out among arcade racers. More than anything though, the shortcuts were among the most fun to find and race through in the series, as many of them were rather extensive.