If the new Need for Speed game released this fall is any one thing, it’s an internet popularity contest. Characters like Spike use trust funds to splurge on cars, dangerously race on the city streets of the (mostly) fictional west coast city of Ventura Bay, and try to gain the attention of the vehicular elite they idolize. Their heroes are streamed to their phones, not streamed into movie theaters.
Need for Speed sets out to satirize urban car culture and the 20-somethings who rank in its numbers. It’s a video game infested with the lanky reach of social media, glamorizing YouTube socialites while their underlings beg to be noticed. At times, characters are unlikable. They need to be. Need for Speed is not delicate in mocking spoiled, bratty, privileged kids. The cops, to them, are old fuddy duddys stepping on their fun.
The kids are desperate to fit in, immature enough that they should be ignored, boisterous enough on social media to be heard. Everyone in Need for Speed has a username. Cars pass adorned with floating icons and catchy screen identities. Real names are not important to this online realm. Need for Speed drapes them in pieces of advertising for Monster energy drinks. They either drink from its cans or wear the shredded M logo. The game is so tripped up on the liquid’s potent energy, EA’s 22nd entry (plus one stupidly fun movie) in this hit-or-miss racing series cannot be paused. Too much sugar, clearly.
Developer Ghost Games’ work is forcibly connected online. There is no leeway for real world stoppages, as much an irritant as it is a metaphor. When Need for Speed’s servers are inevitably turned off and the game rendered unplayable, it will share a fate akin to the often ephemeral nature of the internet media it embraces and satirizes.
Ventura Bay is an ornamental location. Neon-striped bars, LED-lit bridges, hoity-toity neighborhoods; it can afford to host such a privileged hobby, a perfect place for selfies (but only at night and only drenched by rain). Much of the scenery carries a technological shine. Soaked roads reflect the surroundings and misty skies bend around light poles. The main difference between Ventura Bay and California is that there’s no drought in the game. Every street is saturated. Nestle is likely trying to profit from the influx of humidity.
Then Need for Speed turns into a nostalgia flashback, where live action chunks of story—videos with real actors—play out as if spinning up from a vintage Sega CD console (albeit in better quality). In first-person, the single takes without edits are quite remarkable, arguably more of an achievement than the admittedly gorgeous game graphics. This Need for Speed borrows from an era where “you” were in the game, even if contextually, the narrative makes little sense because of this style. It’s a flawless throwback to the earliest days of these 20-somethings gaming lives, before they were connected to one another by WiFi.
An illogically silent protagonist goes nowhere without his/her phone. It’s an introvert’s nightmare where a buzzing call notification can happen anywhere. People on the other end want to talk on the phone with their voices, and they use acronyms like “FOMO” and other contemporary slang. Prepare to meet your bae! Need for Speed may be a haven for social media, but texting and email would require taking the hands off the wheel. Callers have the impatience of modern society too. Everyone will redial if you don’t show at their event.
Whoever the player is supposed to be is given all the awards. There are currencies and levels to gain. Said person is given a car immediately upon joining the crew—this is a giving bunch. A rise to fame is indicated by increasing video shares online, a story template which mirrors that of YouTube generation phenoms. PewDiePie, but with a car instead of whatever PewDiePie has.
Every driver is trying to stand out. They’re drifting through events, breaking time challenges; whatever is needed to be noticed. The culture feels crowded, racers bumping into one another for a chance to be seen or skim even a small fragment of fame. Races are less about who wins than they are about whose showmanship would rank higher in views. Need for Speed is a clean metaphor for internet content (and probably by total accident).
It’s a shame Need for Speed doesn’t appear to realize what it has. Entitlement is often taken too seriously, as if races carry grand consequence outside of these social circles. Most of the game is a flat, empty open space where players drive to a location to initiate a race—no one else seems to care. And how could anyone believe Spike, with his faux urban personality and flaunted trust fund dollars, is part of anything grander than a yearly pass at an energetic racing video game?
Spike—the character—is an idiot. Spike the person is a collection of stereotypes needed to fit into Need for Speed’s online portfolio. He’s the kid yelling about your mother into a headset he didn’t pay for. Or he’s playing music so loud it leaks into the chat. He’s the online lurch who tanks conversations. He’s the cocky bro-dude who wins with money over talent.
He represents a chunk of the internet at large. Need for Speed needs him because without him, there is no internet as we know it. And remember—without internet, there is no Need for Speed.
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