What is Need for Speed, exactly? Now that Criterion has developed a second title in the series, and has shamelessly incorporated the gameplay style of its competitor series, Burnout, there might be no answer to that question.
It's Marketing 101 that a company should avoid brand confusion: If you want to make a different product, give it a different name so that customers don't buy one thing thinking it's something else. EA's biggest racing franchise has flouted this rule for years now—and the series' quality and sales have bounced around as well.
Here's an idea for EA: Cool it on Need for Speed, because we have no need for this much speed. Keep the series confined to a single studio, keep the quality and gameplay more consistent, and stop flooding the market with so many games.
The earliest Need for Speed games established a niche for the series: They split the difference between arcade and simulation driving, with genuine cars, realistic sounds, and carefully modeled handling, but enough "give" that beginners wouldn't get frustrated. There was also an emphasis on police chases and street racing.
At some point or other, the franchise has abandoned all of these elements. Need for Speed: Shift took a turn for simulation, right down to racing lines. Around the same time, Need for Speed: Nitro was a downright cartoonish arcade racer. Need for Speed: The Run is a racing game with a weird narrative and even quick time events. And of course, Criterion's Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit and Need for Speed: Most Wanted maintained the cops-and-racers theme from the early games, but gave up all semblance of realistic handling. The only thing these games all share in common is the Need for Speed name.
Meanwhile, EA has done fairly little to help consumers keep things straight. The cover art for Nitro made clear the game was lighthearted, and the Need for Speed brand was downplayed for Shift's sequel (the title was Shift 2: Unleashed, with the Need for Speed logo appearing toward the bottom of the cover art). But otherwise, if you grab a Need for Speed game off the shelf, you have no idea what you'll be getting.
That may not be a problem for us hardcore gamers—we read up on games before we buy, and we pay enough attention to the series that we know what's going on. But it must be pretty annoying for the average consumer, because the racing genre covers such a large variety of styles. Many arcade lovers don't have the patience for simulators, and many simulator fans think arcade racers are silly.
What's also annoying is that EA, in its rush to shove a new game out the door every year or so, has failed to keep quality high. Just look at the Metacritic scores for the last half-decade: They've ranged from the 80s (the two Shift games and the two Criterion games) to the 60s (The Run, Undercover, World). The goal for any franchise should be for its name to be a promise: If you buy a game with this brand on it, it will be good. This is simply not the case with Need for Speed.
Quality and branding are two different things, and abandoning them has meant different things for the franchise. The Criterion games, while a departure for the series, have sold quite well. Of the two factors, quality is clearly the more important one.
But I'm still not sure it's for the best that Criterion—a true master when it comes to making Burnout games—spent so much time making Need for Speed games. Maybe it's because I wasn't as impressed with Hot Pursuit as everyone else seemed to be, but I can't help but think that two new Burnout games would have been far preferable, not to mention a better fit for the developer's talents. Why are we getting a Need for Speed game annually when it's been four years since Burnout Paradise?
Game corporations understandably have a desire to milk their biggest franchises for all they're worth. Sometimes they pull it off—Activision has been publishing a new Call of Duty game every year, breaking sales records and earning high reviews almost without fail. You can complain about CoD's lack of evolution if you want, but when you buy a game from the franchise, you know what you're getting, and you know it will be up to par: You'll get an arcade-style FPS campaign with some vehicle sections, about seven hours in length, and you'll get an online multiplayer experience as well. And both of them will be good.
What do you get when you buy a Need for Speed game? You're rolling the dice: You could get a half-hearted rehash of the series' early years (Undercover), an amazing but difficult pro-racing simulator (Shift), a Burnout-infused arcade racer (Most Wanted), or a ridiculous story-based street racing game (The Run).
The words "Need for Speed" do not stand for any particular type of racing game, and they do not stand for any particular quality level. EA should use those words far more sparingly.
Date: November 2, 2012
*The views expressed within this article are solely the opinion of the author and do not express the views held by Cheat Code Central.*