Ghost Games was at a crossroads last year. The Need For Speed franchise was taking a rare year off its annual release schedule – only its second such break since 1997 – and the Gothenburg studio was deciding which direction to take one of the most successful franchises of all time.

Following much internal debate and discussion with the series’ fans, a better story backing the action was one element that Ghost decided was sorely needed. The series’ high-octane chases needed to mean something, says Ghost Games founder Marcus Nilsson over the din of a Gamescom press room.

Struggling to recall many racing games with anything nearing a satisfying narrative (and also wary of disastrous 2011 outing The Run), I’m somewhat sceptical, but Nilsson wins me over – the same way a demo of the technology that underpins the game’s composite cutscenes did him 15 months earlier.

“It just blew me away,” he exclaims. “We knew we had an innovation we could do something with. When you have real actors and game graphics it can be a bit jarring sometimes, so that was definitely a risk. It was quite scary the first time we were going to click that play button. But I must say I’m really happy with the result. Nothing from Gamescom is indicating that ‘Oh my god it’s embarrassing’ or whatever.”

With this tech in hand, Nilsson went after the biggest names in the car scene, and snagged everyone he wanted: speedster Magnus Walker, doughnut fan Ken Block, master craftsman Nakai-san, outlaw Morohoshi-san, and team Risky Devil. “When they saw our plan and vision for it, they jumped on board… I’d say all the icons are very happy to be in the game,” Nilsson grins. After all, they all grew up playing Need For Speed, he adds.

From there, things fell into place. The game’s currency would be reputation rather than money, because according to Nilsson, many participating in car culture don’t have much of the latter – something he learned when he showed up to a car show in Norway in a Porsche 911.

Hands-on with Ghost Games' Need For Speed resurrection

“No-one even looks at that, right?” he laughs. “But this guy in a souped-up GTR from ‘97 comes in, and people go, ‘Oh my god, look at that!’ That’s the passion. It’s not money, it’s about what you can create. That’s why rep is the main currency in the game.”

Said rep is built up by impressing the five industry icons in the game through feats of speed, customisation, gymkana, or general badassery. Building rep in each grabs the attention of the associated star, and each has his own story to play through as well.

Rep does translate to money in the game, though, and that allows you to buy new cars or soup up your current one to an absurd degree – for a Need For Speed game at least. This flexibility extends beyond cosmetic stuff like custom plates, rims, spoilers, and paint, to things that affect the way each car drives like handling, tyre pressure (front and back), steering response, and steering range.

There are more than 1000 customisations, with suggestions for things like mismatched rims coming straight from Ghost’s finger on the pulse of car culture, Speedhunters. “They see trends before trends come out,” says Nilsson, confident that the deeper customisation options here will see the game resonate with the core car audience.

Hands-on with Ghost Games' Need For Speed resurrection

This emphasis on customisation is a nice change from the skant modification offerings of the past couple of Need For Speed releases, and it offers another bonus: you can stick with the same car the whole game, upgrading and tweaking it for each of the game’s racing styles as needed.

Customisation isn’t the only thing that has been extensively revised for the reboot, either. Autolog returns but is dialled back somewhat, and the AllDrive system that underpins the game’s always-online systems is now backed by dedicated servers, preventing the host migration problems that dogged Rivals.

“The best implementation of Autolog ever is Hot Pursuit,” Nilsson admits. “Whatever we have done since then – The Run, Most Wanted, Rivals – hasn’t been as good, and I think that’s down to… we made it more complex, and it lost its value.”

When you have real actors and game graphics it can be a bit jarring sometimes, so that was definitely a risk.
Marcus Nilsson, Ghost Games

That the game is always-online makes a section of its audience – including this writer – uneasy, but Nilsson is confident that DICE’s extensive experience with online games will work in Ghost’s favour. “We learned a lot from Rivals of how we can keep people playing together,” he offers. “I feel confident with us plugging the biggest holes we had in AllDrive for sure.”

Then, a surprisingly frank admission: “Rivals was made at the same time as we built the studio, and at the same time as the new consoles came out, so to a large degree, we had to get the game done for that time.”

Hands-on with Ghost Games' Need For Speed resurrection

My meagre hands-on time with the Need For Speed demo at Gamescom tells me that it’s still a fast, arcade-y blast driving-wise – all drifts, boosts, and bumper car collisions – but the night-time setting doesn’t set my heart ablaze, and the eight of us playing are barrelling around in a fairly non-descript industrial area that’s somewhat devoid of activities. To be fair it’s a demo, but the best things about it (gameplay aside) are the cars themselves, the excellent customisation interface, and the fancy rain effects.

Things look more promising in a behind-closed-doors session, where lead designer James Mouat and an assistant customise a BMW M4 and then drop it into Los Angeles-inspired Ventura Bay to show off some more gameplay. The cutscenes we see aren’t the cheesy cringe-fest I was expecting, and it’s nice to see the car we designed feature without looking obviously computer-generated.

The lowered blue and white Beemer is taken out to a high speed drifting area north of Ventura’s centre for a mission in the style story thread. Here, the race isn’t about being first, but rather about scoring points. This is done primarily by drifting, but also via near misses, destroying things, and speeding, and a multiplier grows the longer we go without taking damage.

Hands-on with Ghost Games' Need For Speed resurrection
It’s not money, it’s about what you can create. That’s why rep is the main currency in the game.”
Marcus Nilsson, Ghost Games

A lone cop tries to ambush the race as it moves from the hills into the highways of the city, and fines automatically accrue as he or she bears witness to any illegal activities we partake in. Fortunately, these are only paid if we are forced off the road and ticketed.

A few minutes later, the clock brings the event to a close, and our score is broken down into totals for each of the game’s omnipresent five categories. However, there’s a still a cop on our tail. We lose him or her with a nimble turn down a side street, and then turn off our engine so we are harder to spot. Our rep increases, and once we are happy the police car is gone, we head to a diner for the next first-person cutscene.

Hands-on with Ghost Games' Need For Speed resurrection

The demo doesn’t answer the biggest questions I have about the game – those around overall narrative quality and the density of the world – but it does show some more enticing environments than those in the hands-on section. Besides, at the risk of sounding cynical, if the reboot doesn’t tear up the charts, there’s always next year’s version, right? Perhaps not, says Nilsson. “Need for Speed needed to modernise in the way we bring our game to customers. This whole November 3rd, November 3rd, November 3rd I think can dilute the brand. What I’m saying is, we don’t have that entirely laid out.”

Nilsson has confidence not only in the game, but in the way it was made. “We pretty much have people from more or less every Need For Speed I’d say, from the Underground series to Carbon to Most Wanted to the newer Criterion games,” he says. “We’re looking into the history [of the series] and seeing the things that we really think resonated, and we tried to combine them into a complete package.” That team of veterans has embraced making the game alongside fans, he adds. “I think we always need to look into reactions of fans – that’s something that EA as a company is so much better at right now.”

Matt traveled to Gamescom courtesy of EA