EA recently handed the racing franchise back to Criterion- and we could not be more excited about what that might mean for the series.
Just like most long-running game franchises, Need for Speed has been through its fair share of hardships and triumphs. The ups and downs of evolving an old franchise to meet the needs of ever-changing gamers while still holding on to the identity of the IP is something that there really is no rulebook for. You just have to make the best decisions you can at any given time and roll with the punches as they come. As such, Electronic Arts has tried their best to keep the Need for Speed franchise as dynamic and profitable as possible.
You could argue that in the pursuit of market dominance, Need for Speed had lost its identity a bit, many have, but the truth is no series lasts as long as Need for Speed has without undergoing major shifts here and there. One of the largest shifts of all for the series was going from their developer of many years, Criterion Games, who oversaw development of several of some of the most highly regarded titles in the series, to Ghost Games, who had really nothing of note beforehand, and was more-or-less just a Frankenstein dev team put together by EA with folks from DICE, Black Box, and other studios.
After collaborating with Criterion on Need for Speed Rivals back in 2013, Ghost Games would go on to carry the mantle on their own and they would make many of the less-than-stellar Need for Speed games of the last several years, like 2017’s reboot, Need for Speed Payback, and eventually, Need for Speed Heat, which actually turned out pretty good. Despite this, it does seem that, after years of perhaps being in less than ideal hands, the Need for Speed torch is being handed back to Criterion. For anybody who was in love with the older games in the series, or any of Criterion’s other masterpieces, this is outstanding news. Here’s why:
Firstly, let’s just talk about Criterion for a second. This is a developer who has certainly had their ups and downs, but let’s be real here; any studio that has been able to bring the unmitigated classics like the Burnout series into the world, deserves your attention. The original few Burnout games are still regarded as some of the finest examples of arcade racing at its best, and odds are, with Criterion perhaps back behind the wheel of the Need for Speed series, we’ll see some of that flair and creativity return to a series that certainly needs it at this point. That by no means indicates that Need for Speed needs to be as wacky and crazy as Burnout, and I don’t think we should expect that necessarily, but surely taking the series a few notches back in that direction could be just what the doctor ordered.
It’s arguable that the praise that NFS Heat has gotten is largely a result of that game taking a couple baby steps towards that mentality, and setting itself further apart from games like Forza and Gran Turismo, who unquestionably have that ultra-realistic driving game market cornered at this point. There’s certainly no point in trying to compete with that, and it looks like Heat was Ghost Games’ best attempt to reflect that truth. However, nobody knows that truth more than Criterion. The Burnout games, as well as the few Need for Speed games they did work on were all very much in their own space between the super arcade-y and the super realistic, and that was a good space for the NFS games to plant their flag in.
On top of the sheer acumen of the team as it currently exists, more good news about this development has come out. We now know that, according to EA, many of the lead designers and engineers that have worked on the last few Need for Speed games will be transferring to Criterion to help with future titles, while Criterion remains in the leadership position. This is a fantastic decision on EA’s part. While the last few NFS games might have failed to live up to many gamers’ standards in some ways, they have all looked and sounded great.
So many of those who were responsible for actual asset building, sound engineering, and other artistic elements will be going over to help and be led by Criterion, who could use the extra hands at this point as they have been rather small over the last several years. In any case, if this transfer of talent goes well, Criterion could be set up perfectly to deliver one of the best Need for Speed games of all time with the design talent of some of the best folks from Ghost, and the creative minds that brought us Burnout and Black leading the project and calling the shots.
On top of just having a great team and a great arrangement of circumstances in Criterion’s favor at the moment, there’s another, less measurable aspect about this that could be cause for excitement here; pent up creative energy. What exactly has Criterion been working on for the last few years? Have they been up to anything interesting since EA took Need for Speed away from them, downsized them, and left them behind? Well, not really. After wrapping up their small part of helping with Need for Speed Rivals, Criterion went straight into helping DICE with Star Wars Battlefront by working on a standalone X-Wing VR mission for the game. This was by no means a waste of time, as the VR mission was pretty cool, but indeed a far cry from what the studio had been working on just a year or so before.
After that, more work on Battlefront 2, which was mostly still lead by DICE, so odds are that wasn’t particularly fulfilling to their creative minds. After that, Criterion was given yet another odd job of creating the Firestorm battle royale mode for Battlefield 5. Despite the fact that Battlefield 5 was getting mixed reviews and a fair amount of backlash from poor marketing decisions, Firestorm actually turned out pretty well and was able to grasp the chaos of battlefield games and transfer it nicely into the battle royale format for the most part. Even still, the completion of this mode would mark nearly a decade of not really having any major role in the creation or completion of their own games. Let alone a racing game or any sort of unique IP.
The talented minds left at Criterion had only been allowed to operate in the exceedingly small box of small tasks for other games that were already made by other teams, and that is not the natural function of creativity. Now, with Need for Speed finally being in the capable hands of Criterion, and that team having more autonomy and creative responsibility than they have had in many years, it’s fair to suspect an explosion of creative ideas and fresh takes are on the way for the series. Who knows, maybe the series will get the exact breath of fresh air that it has needed for so long.