The new, simply titled Need for Speed (out this week on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One) is as close as you're going to get to an art-house, video game version of The Fast and the Furious. The series has had players recreating cop chases from movies since 1998's Hot Pursuit, but this is the first time the game actually feels filmic. It isn't going to stand toe-to-toe with Microsoft's Forza series or Sony's ill-fated, but gorgeous Driveclub because it doesn't have to -- visually, they aren't even competing against each other. NfS doesn't run at 60FPS like Forza Motorsport; it doesn't feature those meticulously detailed cockpits either. What's more, car models aren't nearly as detailed as Driveclub's. But whatever NfS lacks in "perfection," it makes up for with killer arcade-like handling and a visual style guided by a clear aesthetic: Make a racing game that looks like a movie shot on film.
Gallery: 'Need for Speed' looks like a movie shot on film | 16 Photos
I know what you're thinking: "This is the same franchise that unironically used outdated full-motion video to tell its story up through 2013?" Yep. And it still does, but this time out NfS just owns the cheese during those corny story sequences. Every member of the street gang you belong to is a caricature (i.e., the playful, hot blonde and the horribly eager and ignorant trust-fund kid, to name a few), but everyone is in on the joke.
What's on display here goes much deeper than applying a film-grain filter perhaps at the last minute and hiring cheap actors to ham it up. It's NfS' lighting design and cinematography that are the real stars. I love driving around the game's Ventura Bay (a mish-mash of Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay area) because it feels like I'm in Michael Mann's Collateral or David Fincher's Fight Club. A lot of that grime is achieved by the different style of streetlights that populate Ventura. Sodium vapor lights give off that trademark dingy-orange glow. Fluorescent lights lean toward a greenish blue and cast no shadows, while LEDs feel cold, white and sterile -- like in real life.
Developer Ghost Games mixes and matches these all over town to keep everything visually refreshing -- even going so far as to alternate styles on the same bridge. And it works. I'm incredibly sensitive to color and what I love most about NfS is that no two areas of town look or feel the same. The variety is part of what makes driving around so damned fun: It feels simultaneously new and familiar depending on where you are and what time of night you're there.
Almost every time my car came to a stop, the view in front me looked like a still from a movie: There's the soft halo of the street lights, with their artificial rays marrying into the ever-present moisture in the air. Off in the distance, the bokeh of blue lights framing a suspension bridge's curvature expands and contracts, getting progressively smaller while oncoming headlights reflect and refract off the permanently rain-slicked evening pavement. Palm trees sway gently in the breeze while noise-rock band HEALTH plays lazily over the radio.
It's a completely synthetic environment with an analog soul and it had me entirely seduced. For the first time in my history with the NfS franchise, I'd forgotten (momentarily) about the gamepad in my hands. That is until the guard rail came crashing into my windshield.