Why the Need for Speed franchise reboot makes no sense

How do you reboot a franchise that has only had one game? You can’t; not unless you’re EA. More on that later, but first – Need for Speed.

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Yesterday, EA formally announced the return of the storied racing series after a year off from its usual annual cycle, and it’s a reboot. Not a Need for Speed: Underground reboot as was widely expected, but a reboot of the entire franchise. So, as EA loves to do, the new Need for Speed is called just Need for Speed.

This is strange for many reasons. Firstly, NFS has already had two reboots in the form of 2010’s Hot Pursuit and 2012’s Most Wanted, so rebooting a franchise that has already been rebooted twice in the recent past seems odd. Secondly, when you think of a franchise reboot, you expect it to go back to its roots – to what made it a success in its early days, or head into a drastically new direction. Need for Speed has been chopped and changed so many times over its 20-year history that I can barely remember what the early games were like. What I do know is that they were nothing like what we see in the teaser for this reboot.

EA says the reboot will include ‘deep customisation, authentic urban car culture, a nocturnal open world, and an immersive narrative that pulls you through the game’. For almost all of its first decade, none of those features were part of Need for Speed. In fact, urban car culture, story and complete car customisation (earlier games did offer limited upgrade options) all debuted in the seventh Need for Speed game – 2003’s Underground, and the open world was first introduced in Underground 2 the following year. So this reboot effectively bypasses the early years of the franchise – High Stakes, Porsche Unleashed, et al.

Then again, EA seems to love going back to square one with its reboots – even if only in nomenclature – and there’s no better example of it than Mirror’s Edge. There has been just one Mirror’s Edge game so far (not counting the mobile side-scroller), so there’s nothing to reboot. Making one that “returns to its roots” in this case would just be a sequel, while going in a different direction would be… well, still a sequel. There really is no logical reason to not call it Mirror’s Edge 2 or Mirror’s Edge: Something. It’s almost as if they think gamers have such short-term memories that franchises need to be reintroduced as new if it’s been more than five years since the last instalment. Remember SSX? You do? Probably because EA reminded you of it in 2012.

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I can understand EA rebooting a franchise like Medal of Honor – which has traditionally been focussed on historical events – to bring it into modern times, but rebooting a racing or (in the case of SSX) sports franchise makes little sense. The only possible reasoning behind this reboot that makes any sense to me is that EA wants to revive Need for Speed’s waning popularity. Taking a year off and telling us that they’re starting from scratch seems like a pretty good way to get our attention and to emphasise that this game will drastically change the direction of the franchise. Except that it won’t; at least based on the information that EA has released so far via the teaser and press release. This is very much a case of EA going back to a formula that worked for it in the past, like it did with Hot Pursuit and Most Wanted.

None of this means that the new Need for Speed game won’t be good. The extra year of development could be just what the series needed, and Ghost Games has proven its chops with Need for Speed: Rivals, but it would have just made more sense to call this game what it really is – Need for Speed: Underground 3.

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