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11 Best Need for Speed Games of All Time

On November 8th, Need for Speed Heat will be released by Electronic Arts. It will be the 24th instalment of the long running franchise. While Heat will take the franchise into a new direction, it will still have influences from the past. Daytime events will be legal races where you will earn fame and legal money. Night time races will help you earn notoriety and a place on the cops’ most wanted list.
The concept of Heat seems exciting but the franchise has dropped a series of duds over the last decade and it will take more than an exciting concept to remedy that. So before you pick up Need for Speed Heat on November 8th and put the pedal to the metal, check out the best need for speed games released over the last 25 years. Let’s reminisce about what made these games great and make mental notes of what Heat needs to do in order to be a great addition to the franchise.

Here are the 11 best Need for Speed games of all time:

The Need for Speed (1994)


While the first Need for Speed game might not be the definitively 11th best NFS game of all time, 2014’s NFS Run might have something to say about that. However, it feels wrong to not include the granddaddy of all NFS games on the best Need for Speed games of all time list. So we decided to kick our list off with the legendary Road and Track Presents The Need for Speed. The first Need for Speed was a really adequate debut for the franchise, there was nothing really wrong with it. However, compared to the heights that this game would go on to achieve, this game had nothing special (this was still better than the steaming piles that were Need for Speed: Carbon and Need for Speed: Payback).
At a time when licensed vehicles were still a rarity in racing games, The Need for Speed offered a smorgasbord of the most desirable sports cars in the world, with an attention to detail that none of its contemporaries possessed. These cars had interior views, were modelled on their unique specifications (owing to that Road & Track tie-in) and came accompanied with oodles of CD-ROM-filling multimedia content, like press photos and videos. It sounds quaint by today’s standards, though for a generation of gamers and car lovers that grew up with Lamborghini Diablos postered on their bedroom walls, it was pretty exciting. The gameplay did suffer a little because of the excessively long and boring point to point racetracks.


Need For Speed: Rivals (2013)


Next on the best Need for Speed Games is 2013’s Rivals. While it’s fair to rag on Rivals for being bare-bones in that typical cross-generational way (it released on both last- and modern-gen consoles), the 20th entry in the series deserves more respect than it typically gets. In essence, Rivals shares a lot with the spectacular Hot Pursuit reboot which came out three years ago (and appears later in this list). However, it also expands the format to take advantage of a legitimate open world.
The dynamic weather system present in certain versions of the game does a lot to enhance the environmental immersion, and the handling model is remarkably composed compared to Ghost Games’ later iterations. Looking back, you sort of wish there was more to do in the campaign than fulfill vague objectives, but Rivals is so strong at its core that the experience was lots of fun, despite the rather aimless storyline.


Need For Speed III: Hot Pursuit (1998)


The first Hot Pursuit does everything right and for that reason, it finds a spot on the best need for speed games list. . From a technical standpoint, it’s a showcase for the Sony PlayStation. The physics rank among the most intuitive and satisfying ever to grace the series (and truly mindboggling for that time). The tracks in essence are advanced and polished versions of the ones available on NFS II. And then, last but certainly not least, there are the cop chases, for the very first time in the Need for Speed franchise.
The balancing and general design of this game’s pursuit system, from the behaviour of the police, to the ticketing system and especially the introduction of road blocks and spike strips, remains the series’ finest contribution to the medium. 1998’s Hot Pursuit helped EA establish the Need for Speed brand for eternity and beyond.


Need For Speed: High Stakes (1999)


With High Stakes, developer EA Canada applied the original Hot Pursuit’s revolutionary chase mechanic to a fully fleshed-out single-player campaign that saw players purchasing vehicles and racing for pink slips for the first time in the series. Such a revolutionary change is a big reason why this edition of the game finds a spot on the best need for speed games list.
In retrospect, High Stakes was a bold spin on NFS’ established formula up to that point, and an astute one given how Gran Turismo established the car-PG genre the year prior. What holds High Stakes back is that it strays too far in that direction, to the point of curtailing the series’ trademark pick-up-and-play enjoyment. The tracks are far too boring to justify their length, and the emphasis on gratuitous multi-race championships makes the experience feel like a slog from the very start. From a technical standpoint, High Stakes happens to be one of the franchise’s high points; sadly, it feels like a chore sometimes as well.


Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit 2 (2002)


At its core, Need for Speed should be about two things: running from the law and trying to finish first. Hot Pursuit 2 perfected both. The pitch is remarkably simple. Start with an all-star cast of the world’s most prestigious, lust-worthy supercars. Offer an eclectic selection of tracks set in exotic locales, teeming with inventive track design where not a single corner or moment is wasted. And most importantly, inspire the players to risk victory and freedom with a responsive physics model that is accessible yet rewarding.
While 2005’s Most Wanted comes with an incredible open world, with an unmatched element of surprise, Hot Pursuit 2’s spectacularly executed arcade racing fundamentals make it a timeless classic. This game is 17 years old, and has aged wonderfully. One of the best examples of its genre, no best need for speed games list can be complete without Hot Pursuit 2.


Need For Speed: Underground (2003)


The early 2000s were the time when the Fast and Furious mania was sweeping the world as the Vin Diesel starrer movies were becoming a cultural phenomenon. The world of Need for Speed was also influenced by it. 2003’s Underground marked the first time Need for Speed was taken in a totally new direction. It’d go on to become a tactic Electronic Arts would repeatedly fall back on in the years following, whenever the franchise appeared to meet a creative dead end.
While the sudden turn towards import tuner culture was controversial at the time, Underground remains a competent, well put-together street racer with an inspiring customization suite. At that time, customization mattered more than anything for street racers and Underground fed that fire. This game could easily be higher on the best need for speed games list, if only Underground 2 didn’t exist. That game took everything Underground did, and did it better.


Need For Speed II (1997)


Typically overlooked in the franchise’s legacy, Need for Speed II deserves recognition for ditching the rather uneventful highway cruising motif of the first game in favor of a selection of unique, epic courses, each brimming with wild moments and true personality. The overall car roster is a total gem, and perhaps the best of the classic era. While it only included nine vehicles, these were the most breathtaking supercars the late ‘90s had to offer, inspiring a generation of budding enthusiasts to lust after the McLaren F1 and Ferrari F50, as well as oddities like the Ford GT90 and lost-to-time Isdera Commendatore 112i.
All of that mouth watering stuff was set to the amazing soundtrack from Saki Kaskas and Rom Di Prisco. Need For Speed II left an indelible impression on the gamers who tried their hand at it over 22 years ago, and today it finds itself on the best need for speed games list. However, the graphics have obviously aged terribly and they look even worse compared to the Playstation versions released later.


Need For Speed: Underground 2 (2004)


The Fast and Furious inspired tuning fad of the early 2000s resulted in some pretty poor racing games, as a consequence of every major publisher’s eagerness to cash in. There were some spectacular exceptions though. Alongside Rockstar’s Midnight Club 3, Underground 2 is one of the era’s finest achievements. Expanding upon the scope of the original, the sequel offers more varied event types, vehicles and customization options, all within an open world you want to explore.
It nails the fundamentals too, handling well and looking fantastic for the time. Fifteen years on, it’s not hard to recognize why Underground 2 has achieved cult status among fans. No best need for speed games list is complete without it. It doesn’t matter if it has cop chases or not. Underground 2 excels at everything it does.


Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit (2010)


As you might have noticed in this best need for speed games list so far, the best games tend to be from the good old days. It’s a shame that Electronic Arts hasn’t been able to improve the games at the speed that the game engines and technologies have. However, 2010’s Hot Pursuit is an exception to the norm. It is by far the closest that the franchise has come to recapturing the magic of its golden era. Criterion Games’ Hot Pursuit reboot doesn’t so much resemble the 1998 title of the same name, but instead feels more like a modernization of the very first Need for Speed.
The game’s gorgeous graphics were designed by DICE took charge on the game’s environmental design. The result was an incredibly gorgeous experience that evokes the sort of epic road tests and journeys you’d that people were accustomed to seeing in shows like Top Gear at times.. Unfortunately, recalcitrant, vague physics somewhat mitigate the fun, as does an overabundance of wide roads that don’t engage or challenge players. Overall it’s still a blast, and definitely one of the absolute best need for speed games of all time. However, something small but significant seems to be missing and you get the sense that if the game took proper advantage of its open world and tightened up the handling, it’d definitely top this list. However, a podium finish isn’t bad at all.


Need For Speed: Porsche Unleashed (2000)


It may be hard to recall now, but once upon a time, Need for Speed was the only game in which you could drive a Porsche, thanks to a nearly 20-year exclusivity agreement between Electronic Arts and the famed German automaker. Like most exclusivity deals, nothing worthwhile came of it, and EA never used the license to great effect — well, except for the one time it did. Porsche Unleashed, known as Porsche 2000 in Europe. It featured a sweeping roster of the Porsche’s most significant production cars (and even a few of its legendary race cars such as the 550 Spyder, 935 Moby Dick and the 911 GT1). The game’s Evolution mode was a chronological campaign that traversed across different eras of Porsches.
It was a game where you could drive a 356A from the 50s and a brand spanking new 911 Turbo (996) from 2000. The customization details were also immense. Every single part of the cars was upgradeable. Flywheels, exhaust systems, inlet manifolds, types of tires, hoods, quarter panels, even the tire pressure was adjustable! The game also came with a Factory Driver mode where you performed a host of fun and exciting tasks as a Porsche test driver. The Porsche Chronicle section also had small documentary clips talking about different types of Porsche cars. This was perhaps the most immersive Need for speed game ever. However, the only reason it doesn’t top the list of the best need for speed games ever, is that it features only one car manufacturer. Some people weren’t thrilled with that. Oh, and it’s imperative that you play it on PC and stay away from the infinitely worse PlayStation version.


Need For Speed: Most Wanted (2005)


The top spot on the best need for speed games list belongs to 2005’s Most Wanted. It blended the aesthetics, cars and environments of the classic era installments with the open world and street racing culture of the Underground era. This game is definitely the gold standard with which every modern NFS instalment is measured. And so far, nothing has measured up to it. And there are many reasons for that. If you enjoyed Underground’s tight physics and street focus, but didn’t like the perpetual night time city environments and missed cop car chases, Most Wanted took care of all that.
The fictitious city of Rockport was the perfect backdrop for Most Wanted’s extremely notorious and addictive pursuits. In fact, Rockport is still one of the best open worlds in racing games history. It featured a great mixture of different environments, spanning dense, urban streets to winding mountain roads, that each hold something for everyone. Need For Speed: Most Wanted triumphs on all fronts, even the video cut scenes are fun. After all, which teenage boy didn’t have a crush on Josie Maran after playing this game?

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