Need for Speed has struggled to define itself in recent years. Ghost Games' soft reboot in 2015 failed to set the world alight, marred by strange design choices and poor storytelling. Two years later the developer is back with something altogether more... bombastic.
EA's premier driving series is rooted in the world of street racing, but custom cars, flagrant disregard for traffic laws and Xzibit aren't as cool as they once were. The series was forced to change, much like the Fast & Furious movies that targeted a similar gearhead audience.
EA hasn't been able to find a formula that really worked for Need for Speed. Criterion came closest with Most Wanted in 2012, but for all its qualities the game just felt like a watered down version of Burnout Paradise, a classic from the same studio.
It just didn't feel like a Need for Speed, but that also begged the question: What exactly does a Need for Speed game feel like? The only answer 2015's game could offer was a resounding: "Not this".
Need for Speed: Payback may well offer an answer. The game's gameplay reveal at E3 caught everyone's attention, not just because it focused on Burnout-style slow-mo crashes but because it looked thrilling.
At Gamescom 2017 I discussed all of the above and more with Ghost Games creative director Will Ho.
IBTimes UK: Would you say that Need For Speed has struggled to define itself in recent years?
Will Ho: If you look at the 24-year history of Need For Speed, you're gonna see that, well, it's all over the map. We've had a tendency when a Need For Speed has been successful to go "What else can we do with it?" as opposed to "What's actually at the core of Need For Speed? And let's build directly on that."
And so what we've done is... you know there was a reboot of Need For Speed two years ago. It was very well-received by fans because it brought back that authentic car culture and credibility of customisation and bringing back a really beautiful open world. Instead of completely reinventing that, we're going: "Well, fans are wanting something different. They want more variety, they want more motivation, they want more strategies to play within this world." So we're adjusting those very, very directly.
We have an open world, which is more open than before. It's not just in a city... It's a city, plus it's these gorgeous canyons, beautiful vistas in the mountains, this wide open desert. Then, we're taking the car customisation and going, "Let's give people more variety. And with performance customisation, let's make it easy for people to upgrade their cars so every time you win a race, you get something that enhances your car performance."
What we've seen so far of Payback has been very bombastic, there's a certain Fast And Furious flavour to it. What's the extent of that franchise's influence on the new games?
It's great that in popular culture there is such an interest in fast cars doing heroic things, and it's very convenient for us, but what we find is the creators on our team... we have lifetimes full of car TV shows, car chases, car movies to draw upon. So, I wouldn't say there's any one single influence. We do draw heavily upon Hollywood and its techniques, the sound design, the style of cinematography, the archetypes for trade. But there isn't any one, single influence. It is great seeing a lot of people wanting to see hot cars on big screens.
Fast And Furious was successful and then Fast Five came along and it just hit that other level. Going back to what we discussed about the series struggling to define itself, would you say that Need For Speed needs its Fast Five moment?
That's really an interesting question because, I think it's actually had a number of Fast Five moments. There are certain inflexion points in the series where it's really hit a massive audience. The original Need For Speeds, Need For Speed 3 found a really wide audience. It was the first one that had cops and robbers, and Underground, the first one with customisation, nighttime. It was amazing. Criterion's Most Wanted found a really wide audience. So I would say there's a number of times when we've really found that mass appeal, but not really built on it.
What would you say sets Need For Speed apart from other major racing franchises?
I've always been a fan of cars and car games, and I dreamed of making racing games when I was a kid, so I'm living the dream. But I think that what we do the best is taking these really beastly machines and making them accessible. Not everyone can drive a 15,000 horsepower car, but we make it accessible that anyone can live that dream.
We put you in scenarios where you don't have to be a gearhead, you don't have to be a car enthusiast, you don't have to read all the car mags, you don't have to pore over all the stats. We let you live out all these greatest car fantasies all the time. I don't think anyone does that better than Need For Speed.
What can you say about the story this time around? How it's implemented into the game... because the FMV in the 2015 game, they weren't exactly the most popular aspect of that title.
I think it wasn't very immersive because there were people talking at you all the time, and you weren't being those people. These people are clearly car enthusiasts, they were doing cool things, but you weren't them. So we're putting you in three characters who you are.
A racer. That, and your car may rise up the ranks of street racing. You are a guy who does crazy stunts and pulls out amazing chains of drifts, right? You are that guy. And then you are Jess, you are a person who is trying to battle cops and evade the law. So, it's much more immersive.
We've transitioned from FMV to completely CG, and what I find is the quality of the storytelling is much more consistent, because we're keeping you in the world. We have very, very brief cut scenes that punctuate the actions instead of taking you away from them. We have more consistent narration and banter between the characters throughout, whether you're in the middle of an event or if you're between events. So I find the quality of the storytelling is a jump above this time.
So, Payback appears to be this kind of greatest hits collection?
I think in pop culture everything is a remix, actually. Nothing is completely original. We're making new recipes out of existing ingredients that already taste good, and we know they taste good, we know people like those ingredients.
But how can we freshen those ingredients? How can we put them into a recipe that is more modern and contemporary, that takes advantage of the new hardware? And takes advantage of new trends in gaming?
A lot of people who are not into cars are into strategy, they're into collecting things, they're into being completionists, they're into exploration and discovery. And we take those older features, whether it's cameras when cars crash, whether its customisation, whether it's any number of features built up in a modern package.