Thursday, 26 September 2013

Watch The Need For Speed Franchise Jump The Shark Once And For All

OK, so it's not dead-dead, but it's pretty much dead to me...
The phrase "jumping the shark" comes from the TV show Happy Days, when the show got so desperate to keep people watching that they made The Fonz literally jump over a shark in an episode. It's now used whenever a series has gone too far or otherwise taken desperate measures to cling on to life just a little bit longer. Unfortunately, something close to my heart is readying the shark and building a ramp right now...

If you used to play racing games in the 1990s and/or 2000s, chances are you're familiar with the name Need For Speed. Originally launched by American magazine Road & Track in 1994, the premise was simple: real cars, real fast. My first NFS game was Need For Speed II, which quite possibly ignited my love of supercars and gave me my first "dream car", the Ferrari F50. But it wasn't just V12 Fezzas, there was the Ford GT90 Concept, Lamborghini Diablo, Porsche 911 Turbo, basically everything that would make TopGear viewers excited at the time. I played that on PC a lot. The follow up was NFS: Hot Pursuit, which added a fantastic new dimension to racing: police chases. Not only did you have to get your XJ220/Lister Storm/La Niña Concept/etc. across the line first, but you had to do so without hitting traffic or being wrestled to the kerb - or a solid wall - by a police force that has clearly inspired Dubai. Spike strips, road blocks, shortcuts, it was intensely challenging, but when you crossed the finish line with two punctured tyres, you felt like a hero. What's more you could even play as the bad... good? guys and be the pursuer, bringing the race to a halt with all the same facilities that they use to stop you.

The next game (NFS: Road Challenge, or High Stakes) was essentially the same, but bigger and better, with a tiered system of championships and more elaborate tracks, like one where a Titanic-sized cruise ship would appear next to you. Then came Need For Speed: Porsche 2000. There's no getting around it, I'm a big Porsche fan now because of this game 13 years ago. There was no pursuit system, IIRC, as instead you played through the then-50 years of Porsche history, from the first 356 Coupé Ferdinand to the '00 911 (996) Turbo, which was brand new at the time. Vehicle customisation was available, both above and under the hood, and special challenges at the end of each "era" unlocked famous racing cars like the 550 Spyder, 935/78 "Moby Dick" and Le Mans-winning 911 GT1 (but strangely, no 917, which I just realised...). There was even an early version of DLC where you could download a few extra cars and install them on the game, like the 968 and 993 GT2. It was challenging but you completely immersed yourself in it. There were even videos chronicling the history of Porsche. While cool bonus videos weren't new to the series, in hindsight at least the narrated Porsche ones weren't quite so incredibly '90s it's almost painful...

After a second brilliant Hot Pursuit title, with Diablo police cars, more alternative routes and helicopters dropping explosives on you if you bothered the police for long enough, came Need For Speed Underground. This game and the subsequent sequel were completely of their time in the same way as NFS II. In the early 2000's the automotive world was awash with Fast 'n' Furious, Max Power magazine and Pimp My Ride showcasing flashy modified cars, a trend originating in Japan that took over the Western world with its huge bodykits, neon light tubes and enormous subwoofers. NFSU pandered to this by being all about street racing and making your car as ridiculous, I mean, er, as sick as possible, bro. In the second one they even gave you French hatchbacks and American SUVs to kit out with such things as "Nitrous Purge" and lowrider bouncy hydraulic suspension that's completely pointless in the races, but fun to mess around with in the newly-added open-world environment. Chavs and ballers alike fell in love with it.

After that it matured a bit, with NFS: Most Wanted, the ninth and possibly the best game in the series. You know, that one with the blue-on-white BMW M3 GTR. Not the Street Version, but a full-beans racing car, which is probably why you're attracting attention from the police. You could still add big daft wheels and bodykits to the cars you needed to win your precious M3 back from Sergeant Cross in his Corvette, but now you were playing with big boy's toys again, like a combination of Underground and the games before. It was really great. NFS Carbon followed, which added Touge racing on mountain roads, and a cameo from that much-loved M3 GTR.

Not long after that though, the series lost its way, jumping from genre to genre and always feeling a bit lost. They've twice tried to make a Gran Turismo-rivaling simulator in Need For Speed SHIFT, but the car handling was terrible and I barely played it for a week. I didn't even bother with SHIFT 2 as a result. ProStreet tried to be all-encompassing with speed, drift and drag events, and after that it was basically a rehashing of old ideas each time. They even did a third Hot Pursuit, but this time it was completely idiot-proof and centred almost entirely around online gameplay with a social networking component, which I don't really care about. Instead of actually trying and having to bring racers to a halt, in HP III you just bashed into them until their life bar diminished, at which point they blew up or wiped out or whatever. It was basically Burnout's Takedown system, which was a result of Criterion taking the reins from EA. A major letdown, it basically turned me off the series. After hearing that you could complete NFS: The Run in about 5 hours I decided I was just going to rent it instead of buying and burn through it in a day. But I never did.

These days, I don't really pay attention to what was once a great series, but the reason I'm telling you all this is because there is yet more disappointment on the horizon: in conjunction with the 20th game in the series (if you include two minor titles), there will be a Need For Speed movie...

Here's the trailer:

God this is fucking terrible. A lot.

It's like watching my childhood dreams die.

This film is about a guy played by Aaron Paul from Breaking Bad (one of those shows I haven't seen that everyone else has), who is betrayed by the police or something and then street races against hypercars in a tuned Mustang until he wins or clears his name or whatever, while punching guys and pulling antihero faces in the meantime. From what I can tell, that's pretty much the entire storyline, although just for the hell of it they've also thrown in a pretty lady who gets caught up in it all. I predict they get off with each other at the end.

But one thing bugs me immediately: he's not racing against hypercars in a tuned Mustang. Not only is the typically-American "hero car" just a regular 'Stang with plastic bits on it, but the hypercars are just replicas. That's not the worst thing on the face of it; they used replica cars for the wheel-to-wheel racing scenes in Rush, for example, which is a fantastic film I urge you to go and see. But in Rush the replicas are so good that when they use the real 1976 F1 cars for close-up shots of the actors sitting on the grid, you can't really tell the difference. It's seamless. In that NFS trailer, that Veyron SS just doesn't look right. You can tell it's a plastic body over something else. The finish isn't right and the rear lights look cheap and don't seem to fit properly. While children won't notice, it spoils it for me. It's the same for all the cars, and I suspect it's because they couldn't persuade Bugatti, Koenigsegg, Lamborghini, McLaren et al to give them million-dollar hypercars to smash up. To be honest, I'm glad about that for two reasons. One, that would be a waste of very rare and very special machines. Two, their death would've been completely in vein. These hypercars would be racing against a not-really-900-horsepower Mustang and losing, before crashing so suddenly and spectacularly you'd think they were chasing after The A-Team. But don't worry '70s cop show fans that may feel confused, the police cars do the same thing...

Haven't these people learnt yet that cars, especially performance cars that generate downforce, don't behave like balloons when you hit them? Even Gran Turismo's crash physics - a classic weak point in the otherwise amazing handling - are way closer to reality than this shit!

Look at that Koenigsegg Agera R doing a barrel roll (a still is up at the top of this post). It's mid-engined. Why is the front of it on fire?! In fact, why is any of it on fire? If that were an actual car and not blatant CGI that's actually worse than the game graphics, none of it would be aflame unless the driver had just botched an attempt to jump through a ring o' fire. The only place where cars that aren't Pintos spontaneously combust on impact should be Bollywood, of which this is depressingly reminiscent.

I already hate the script writing too. Breaking Bad is extremely popular, so I won't bash Mr. Paul because I haven't seen him doing his thing, but that little dramatic monologue - "I do not fear, for you are with me... those who defy me shall be ashamed... those who wage war against me shall perish" - sounds like it was written by a 15-year-old for a Media Studies project or something. If that's the best they've got to put into the trailer, it can only get worse from there. It'll be full of clichéd garbage like that from start to finish. It seems being nominated for an Oscar doesn't make you a faultless movie writer. Apart from Michael Keaton I've never heard of any of the other actors either, which might not be a good sign...

So let's recap. They've taken a popular computer game series that's been running for nearly twenty years which can't recapture its old magic, and then made a badly-written, badly-made movie with a vapid storyline, fake cars and fake crashes. Even Road & Track, who brought NFS into existence, have issued an official apology.

I could take it if it was meant to be tongue-in-cheek, but based on the trailer, this clown film is taking itself too seriously for that to be the case. It makes Fast 'n' Furious 6 look magnificent (that flipper car actually worked and flipped real cars, for what it's worth). It also makes me die a little inside...

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