Saturday, January 15, 2011

Franchise Death

I've been a long time fan of the Need For Speed series of racing games. Sure, it churned out what I'd consider to be a few lemons in Carbon and Underground 2, and even Undercover started to push the boundaries of what I felt was staying true to the series.  Occasionally that last game felt a little too much like I was driving a slot car as opposed to something real.

Need for Speed has typically been more on the arcade side of racing, though the original game was slightly more unforgiving than all subsequent outings.  However, I'm sorry to say that the latest offering by developer Criterion has left a very bad taste in my mouth. The reason is simple: You can't drive with a manual transmission. For me, this is perhaps one of the most grave flaws a racing game can have. I understand that many people play with automatic transmissions in racing games, but as far as I'm concerned this is a fundamental aspect of a driving game that should never ever be removed.

I seem to be missing an option here... Where's "manual transmission"?

There a few problems that arise with the game design as a result of this change. For one, it implies that the physics models are less realistic, not taking into consideration the effect of high revs on your car's ability to accelerate through corners at great speed. Now you are frequently expected to slide or drift around the corners, even long sweeping bends. What's more, it seems that even if you could use gears, there possibly wouldn't be a whole lot of benefit to being able to do so because of the sliding, and that fact that a lot of the time you seem to be driving at or near your maximum speed.

Then there are the "action sequences", slow-motion camera shots of "exciting moments" within the game where the camera jumps to something other than the player's default view to "showcase the action". Frequently this shot doesn't even have the player's car in frame. When you're driving at phenomenal speeds, a fraction of a second makes all the difference between navigating a corner successfully or crashing spectacularly. These "showcase moments" are more akin to "annoyance moments", often causing the car to go somewhere you don't want it to go. What's worse is that just like that automatic transmission, you can't turn them off.

Piled on top is these problems is the fact that you recharge your car's nitro boost through "dangerous driving", an idea that is exactly the same as in Burnout Paradise, but it is another highly undesirable change. Yes, it's designed to promote more "exciting" driving, but all it does is draw attention to the artificial nature of the mechanic. In a game like Burnout, that's perfectly acceptable. In the NFS franchise, it's not.

Will driving towards oncoming traffic refill my petrol in real life?

The problem is that these represent a fundamental shift of what the Need For Speed franchise offers. NFS was always about the driving, the skill involved in getting the optimum line. Even in Most Wanted, there was a very significant role that your gears played in squeezing every last ounce of performance from your car to augment your steering.  Now that is gone, and the reason this is such a crime is because it has changed the fundamental essence of the franchise.

NFS: Hot Pursuit would be more accurately titled "Burnout: Hot Pursuit". Criterion's influence on the game is overwhelming, and everything that they've changed makes the game feel completely unlike any other game in the series. Now, while I'm all for innovation, franchises typically have a core feel and style to which all titles within them should adhere. Imagine if a new Mario game came out where Mario carried a sword and decapitating his enemies, a Grand Theft Auto game that wasn't a sandbox, or a Call of Duty game which was entirely about stealth. Sure, these are extremes, but Criterion failed in a similar fashion in their attempt to produce an NFS game.

This isn't necessarily to say that they've made a bad game, but they certainly haven't made a game that should bear the name of the NFS franchise. As a result, I won't view any new NFS-labelled game with the same amount of interest I previously did. And from now on, I'll have to check every single racing game I'm interested in to see if it has the ability to use a manual transmission.

1 comment:

  1. This is a pet peeve I have with many, many games. Most recently, and most glaringly, Bethesda's taking over the Fallout series for example. Sure, both the older games and new ones could be roughly fitted into a "open RPGs" mold but the entire gameplay is so vastly different that, well... It could've easily been a new franchise by Bethesda instead of pushing Fallout into their Elder Scrolls type of gameplay.

    Of course, the name alone will bring in cash, and the PR staff can shout stuff like "re-imagining a classic series" and so forth. So the reasoning behind it isn't exactly hard to understand, but...

    I think a series can be changed a bit, fiddled with, you can have spin-off games and so forth of course but if you're gonna change the gameplay experience so radically... I'd really rather have them start up a new license.