With a first entry dating back to the early 1990s, Need For Speed is a mainstay of the racing genre. Iconic alongside franchises like Gran Turismo, Need For Speed has weathered its fair share of ups and downs along the way, but the main aim of delivering a thrilling, arcade-style driving experience persists to this day.
The franchise has never shied away from throwing caution to the wind and trying something new with successive reboots and attempts to rekindle the spirit of its 90s and 00s heyday. Whether your fancy veers more towards the grit of street racing, track racing, or the adrenaline-pumping thrill of a high-speed car chase, there’s a Need For Speed game for you.
Here’s a round-up of the best Need For Speed games, each one worth revisiting or trying out for the first time.
Need for Speed: Most Wanted
2005’s Need for Speed: Most Wanted took the best of series predecessors and threw in a load of upgrades and new features, enhancing the series’ signature police pursuits. Firmly rooted in street racing, the game delivered a snappy and responsive driving experience that truly came to life as you attempted to lose the fuzz through the surprisingly varied streets of Rockport.
Most Wanted’s polished pursuit system saw police respond differently depending on how much heat you’d built up, dialing up the aggression, turning to more drastic tactics like spike strips, and calling in the big guns in the form of a swooping helicopter when pushed to the limit. Endlessly exhilarating, it’s a true highlight of a hectic era for the franchise.
Of course, racing other cop-avoiding street racers formed a core part of the experience, all packaged in a suitable light and enjoyable story of revenge and plenty of era-appropriate kitsch in its so-bad-they’re-good cutscenes. A healthy selection of cars, all customizable to boost speed and looks, and a bevy of varied modes, including checkpoint races and online multiplayer, delivered hours of frantic driving fun that in many ways embodies the very best of what Need For Speed can be.
Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit 2
Although released nearly 20 years ago, Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit 2 captures the essence of the series for many who’ve followed its rocky history in the intervening years. It was released at a time when NFS was at the height of its powers and is a confident, irreverent racer that saw EA take the best of the series and iterate upon it with excellent results.
Set loose on a broad roster of varied and well-conceived tracks with a robust stable of luxury motors from big-name manufacturers like BMW, Ferrari, Jaguar, Aston Martin, Dodge, McLaren, Porsche, and Lamborghini to choose from, players don’t just vie for the top spot on the podium, but must also evade the cops in genuinely gripping pursuit sequences.
Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit 2 also allows you to play as the police, who’ve their own stacked arsenal of cars and equipment to hunt down speeders. Whatever side of the law you play on, the chases are systematically intense, breathless affairs soundtracked to an excellent playlist of songs courtesy of the EA Trax label.
Need For Speed: Shift
It’s hard to imagine a Need For Speed style without up-and-go arcade-style gameplay, but Need For Speed: Shift did just that. Shift focused instead on delivering a bonafide racing sim experience more akin to the likes of Gran Turismo and Project Cars. While never quite reaching the influence and quality of those competing franchises, Shift nevertheless produced something worth playing for hardcore sim fans.
Scratching the edgy street racing style for the precision and tech of touring cars, Shift offers complete customization of over 60 different vehicles ranging from luxury motors to hypercars rendered in stunning realism. Not merely cosmetic, customization extends to every aspect of the car: tires, brakes, gears, aerodynamics, and so on.
In-play, Shift is much more about mastering the art of driving with comprehensive physics and a decked-out HUD while offering ample ground to hone your skills on 19 tracks copied piece-for-piece on real-world locations such as Spa and Silverstone.
For a Need For Speed title, Need For Speed: Shift is a surprisingly authentic sim that offers a welcome break from the loud, arcade-style fanfare of most games in the series.
Shift 2: Unleashed
If Need For Speed: Shift was the trial run, then Shift 2: Unleashed is the culmination of EA’s efforts to deliver a tight and engaging sim racer. Conscious it had a solid foundation to work build upon, Shift 2: Unleashed is an exercise in refinement, offering all that made the original great while also throwing in some fresh features without overstepping the mark.
The driving experience feels more authentic than the original thanks to better crash physics, detail, and precision, aided by a slew of great additions such as the superb helmet-cam point of view, which brings every tight corner, accidental knock, and tunnel vision-inducing speed burst to life.
Shift 2: Unleashed’s career mode, in particular, brought a new layer to the experience by allowing players to dip their toes into a variety of motorsports, including drifting, endurance races, and circuits. With over 140 cars and 36 real-world tracks, there’s no shortage of content to chew through.
While Need For Speed games have suffered from a distinct lack of consistency over the years, Shift 2: Unleashed proved that restraint and sticking to what works undoubtedly pays off.
Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit (2010)
2010’s Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit succeeds in channeling the series’ roots and, to a certain extent, the original Hot Pursuit series, creating an accessible arcade racer with no unwanted faff or embellishments. Hot Pursuit’s core is the ever-thrilling head-to-head between racers and the police, and it allows players to jump on either side of the pursuit, with a full career mode for each.
Players are presented with a stunning open-world modeled on the West coast of the US. They can explore at their leisure while also jumping into various races and modes or dabble in the online component propped up by the record and achievement-tracking Autolog system. At your disposal is a wide variety of exotic cars that drive easy and fast with no customization elements whatsoever, making it an easy entry point for racing game novices.
There’s an epic quality to gunning around at breakneck speeds on wide-open roads with the police in tow and one that reminds us why Need For Speed stands confidently alongside the best racing franchises in gaming history. Hot Pursuit is NFS at its raw best – simple, uncapped fun.
Need For Speed: Underground
Latching onto the rising prominence of the tuning scene in the early 2000s, Need for Speed: Underground represented a major shift for the series, one that produced its fair share of backlash from fans but that ultimately produced one of the best NFS games.
A dive into the customization-heavy world of street racing, Underground saw players transported to the fictional Olympic City, a teeming urban backdrop for your rise from eager newcomer to underground racing supremo. The storyline, a novel addition at the time, weaves an entertaining tale of street racing crews and fierce rivalries that captures the thrill of illegal street racing.
Along the way, you’ll unlock upgrades for your cars, ranging from performance improvements to cosmetics. While customization was nothing new, Underground’s comprehensive options were impressive, instilling a sense of ownership for each unlocked car and competently channeling the piece-by-piece improvement of the real thing.
Beyond the career mode, Underground also features a selection of modes, including a knockout mode, sprint mode, and the challenging drifting mode, where players unlock points for sustaining the longest drifts around a track.
Underground’s critical acclaim and commercial success led to Need for Speed: Underground 2, which improved the experience in every respect.
Need for Speed Rivals
A cooperative effort between Ghost Games and Criterion Games, Need for Speed Rivals is one of the best-received NFS games of the modern era. Rekindling the ever-engaging pursuit premise, it draws from the series’ roots while introducing an online experience.
Presented with an open world, players travel to specified events, either speedlists for racers or assignments for cops, through which they progress and unlock fresh content. In action, pursuits form a central part of the experience alongside races, which can be played either against a surprisingly versatile and aggressive AI or seamlessly with other players.
What Need For Speed Rivals may lack in depth, it makes up for the arcade mayhem of cops vs racer tussles and expansive online open-world. With an arsenal of gadgets at your disposal like spike strips and shockwaves, the gameplay is fast-paced and action-packed, aided by quality visuals, superb sound design, and a scenic setting.
Need for Speed Heat
The most recent NFS entry in our list, Need for Speed Heat is a glitzy affair steeped in neon and bombast for a showy, modern arcade experience that makes the very most of EA’s Frostbite engine. It’s accessible, free of the unnecessary filler of recent entries or always-online requirements, and does a stellar job of reviving the pick-up-and-play appeal of the NFS’ past.
It isn’t perfect – no NFS game has been in a long time. But, it packs in enough thrills and engagement to scratch that high-octane racing itch. You’ll rarely pull your foot off the gas. Still, there’s enough subtlety to the driving experience to make navigating through Palm City’s traffic and evading a formidable cohort of cops a satisfying challenge.
The plot may be a throwaway affair of street racers aiming for the top of the local racing scene and the ongoing efforts of an overzealous local police force to hamper their progress, but it never defines the experience. The highlights are the day-night cycle and a risk-reward structure that pushes you to engage in just one more ill-advised chase enticed by the pull of a big payout both in cash and reputation.
Need For Speed: Most Wanted (2012)
2012’s reboot of Need for Speed: Most Wanted didn’t so much slap on a coat of next-gen gloss and call it a day as make a concerted effort to pay homage to the original with some choice improvements that mostly hit the mark.
Need For Speed: Most Wanted drops Rockport for the city of Fairhaven, an online multiplayer open-world playground ripe for racing and stacked with destructible structures. With entirely reasonable comparisons to Burnout Paradise, Most Wanted opts for a more fast-paced, chaotic experience veering more to pure arcad. There’s no customization, and gameplay is very much geared towards multiplayer, with a single-player mode best avoided for its sparse content and underwhelming experience.
Unlike the original, players are free to chart their own route across the city during races with the ever-present threat of an escalating police threat there to scupper their plans of victory. Competing with friends for the crown of ‘most wanted’ provides enough engaging and straightforward fun to make Need For Speed: Most Wanted one of the better NFS titles developed in the past decade.
Need For Speed: Underground 2
A successor to the well-received original Underground, Need For Speed: Underground 2 pushed the envelope in every respect, from cars and customization to events and modes, all while maintaining tuning culture themes of the original.
Underground’s customization suite was impressive, but Underground 2 pushed it to new heights with virtually every aspect of a car open to modification. From sound systems to exhaust tips, many of the customization options weren’t simply decorative embellishments but affected performance, with, for example, spoilers helping to manage downforce. While racing is at the core of the experience, many an afternoon was spent at the time piecing together the flashiest cars.
Another highlight was the pivot to a semi-open world format, where players have to drive to races and even seek out hidden ones by roaming the fictional Bayview. Nowadays, this feels par for the course for racers, but at the time, this shift was game-changing, offering levels of freedom previously unheard of in arcade-style racing games. Most importantly, Need For Speed: Underground 2’s world feels exciting and worth exploring.
Carrying over many elements from the original, Underground 2 picks up the same storyline adding more length and intrigue to the experience, propped up by plenty of engaging modes and 30 cars from imports to SUVs.