Need For Speed Games In Order

Need for Speed exploded into the video game scene in the mid-nineties and quickly became one of the best racing games around at the time.

Initially, the series was developed in-house by Electronic Arts, who still retains ownership to this day, but has swapped developers over the years. The two most notable studios to handle the property are Criterion, also known for the Burnout series, and Ghost Games, who’s since been reduced to an engineering studio for EA.

Considering the franchise has had a new entry release almost every year for the past two decades, there are bound to be some highs and lows.

Here, we’ll be listing all of the Need for Speed games in order of release date, including the main series, spin-offs, and remakes.

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Initially released for the 3DO game console, the original Need for Speed offered players high-speed thrills behind some of the flashiest sports cars money could buy. While it’s wasn’t groundbreaking or anything, it managed to stand out in a couple of ways.

For one, it featured a roster of licensed vehicles from iconic brands, a rarity for the time. Each vehicle was highly-detailed with interiors and unique models based on its real-world counterpart. This close attention to detail was ultimately met by glowing reviews from critics.

One of the more overlooked entries in the series, Need for Speed 2 ditched the generic highways of the original in favor of unique courses that provided some much-needed personality. It featured a ‘who’s who’ roster of 90s sports cars ranging from the McLaren F1 to the Ferrari F50 and even a few unconventional picks like the Ford GT90 and the Isdera Commendatore 112i.

Unfortunately, the game underperformed in the graphics department, especially on the PlayStation. This made it difficult to truly appreciate its superb vehicle selection. While later games look noticeably better, Need for Speed 2’s visuals have only gotten worse with age.

Hot Pursuit addressed its predecessor’s graphical shortcomings in a major way. The visuals were striking enough to convince Sony to use the game as a showcase for what could be achieved on the PlayStation. The physics were greatly improved, and tracks from NFS2 were revised and included in the game.

However, the star of the show was the new Pursuit system, which added cops into the mix. Police units could issue tickets, place roadblocks, and even pop your tires with a well-placed spike strip.  Hot Pursuit went over great with fans and the game is still fondly remembered to this day.

The next Need for Speed game would expand upon the Pursuit system and build a full-fledged single-player campaign around the feature. Additionally, for the first time in the series, you could outright buy cars and even race for pink slips.

While the game’s track selection was less than impressive, High Stakes was essentially more of Hot Pursuit with a couple of new features thrown in the mix. A bloated campaign consisting of several multi-race championships made it hard to pick up and play but a high degree of technical polish makes it one of the better entries to date.

Known as Porsche 2000 in certain parts of the globe, Porsche Unleashed was the first NFS game to shift its focus to a particular sports car brand. It was very much a product of the time and stemmed from a 20-year exclusivity deal between EA and the car manufacturer Porsche.

The game’s roster was made up of notable vehicles from the German automaker, and the single-player campaign acted as a sort of ‘greatest hits’ for the company’s exciting legacy. Although critics took issue with the abysmal handling and Speed of some of the older Porsche models, Porsche Unleashed is one of the more ambitious entries in the series.

By now, EA had the NFS formula down to a science. A sequel to Hot Pursuit was released in 2002 that improved upon the first game in just about every area. The roster included some of the most prestigious and luxurious supercars at the time, along with a diverse selection of courses.

The cars looked great, the tracks even better, and the physics were more responsive than ever before. To this day, Hot Pursuit 2 is a shining example of what makes arcade racers fun to play. However, due to performance inconsistencies between each version, the PS2 port was superior to the Xbox and GameCube versions.

Having exhausted the Hot Pursuit branding, EA tried to shake things up with Need for Speed: Underground, an edgier take on the NFS formula themed after tuner culture that placed a greater emphasis on car modifications.

Instead of a selection of fancy supercars, you would compete in racing events for cash, eventually saving up enough to unlock new vehicles or upgrades. Additionally, each vehicle could be customized and outfitted with various spoilers, decals, tires, rims, paint jobs, and more.

Building off the scope of the original, Need for Speed: Underground 2 introduced new events, vehicles, and customization options along with the freedom of open-world exploration. The game emphasized racing fundamentals and features some of the best car handling in the series.

While cop chases were noticeably absent, most of us were too busy decking out our Mitsubishi Eclipse and Nissan 240sx to even care. Years later, the game is still remembered fondly and has even achieved cult status among NFS fans.

We have finally arrived at what’s probably the most significant NFS game to date, Most Wanted. The game was meant to bridge the gap between classic NFS and the edgier, more modern entries. What we ended up getting was a cross between the tight handling and physics of the Underground games with the cop chases of Hot Pursuit and its sequel.

More importantly, Most Wanted introduced us to one of the best racing game open worlds, the city of Rockport. While it wasn’t the biggest virtual sandbox by any means, an abundance of unique scenery ranging from vibrant city blocks to mountainous roads that would twist and turn during heated police chases kept many of us hooked for hours on end.

Need for Speed: Carbon saw EA hitting yet another creative roadblock after releasing back to back hits. In an attempt to recreate the success of Most Wanted, the game incorporated elements from Hot Pursuit and Underground while telling a new story inspired by street racing culture. 

The main issue was Carbon lacked the personality or charisma of any of the games it was attempting to mimic. It featured mostly bland urban environments that were made even less attractive by the perpetual night time setting.

Released during the late 2000s when racing sims were starting to surpass arcade in terms of popularity, Need for Speed: ProStreet was meant to compete with the Grid and Forza franchises. Instead of driving souped-up tuner cars down slick city streets in perpetual darkness, we were treated to gritty circuit races on some of the best tracks in the series history.

Highlights included Japan’s Autopolis and Ebisu circuits, Portland International Raceway, and the Avus loop in Germany. The only issue was EA’s lack of experience with developing a more sim-based racing game. This resulted in inconsistencies with the game’s physics that made it practically impossible to drive some vehicles, in addition to annoying minigame mechanics that felt tacked on and unintuitive. 

After the failure that was ProStreet, EA returned to the drawing board until eventually landing on Need for Speed: Undercover as their next release. The game was a desperate attempt at capturing the rebellious attitude that permeated earlier entries and, in that respect, was somewhat successful.

However, in just about every other category, Undercover was a far cry from the glory days of Hot Pursuit and Underground. From its generic open world and uninspired campaign to lackluster graphics that could have easily been mistaken for a mobile game, Undercover lacked the technical polish that put the franchise on the map in the first place. 

Considered a spin-off to the main NFS games, Need for Speed: Shift was a much more successful attempt at drawing in racing sim aficionados. Development was outsourced to Slightly Mad Studios, best known for the Project CARS franchise. The end result was better than anyone could imagine.

Need for Speed: Shift was able to deliver satisfying touring-car simulation racing without falling into any of the pitfalls ProStreet had encountered. Vehicle handling was superb, graphics were impressive, and the career mode would scale according to your current skill level.

With more serious racing sim fans taken care of, EA set their sights on casual audiences with their next spin-off, Need for Speed: Nitro. The Wii version was developed internally by EA Montreal while Firebrand Games was tapped to produce a modified DS port.

As you would expect, the game prioritized Speed and excitement over realistic driving mechanics. To better fit the Wii and DS hardware, Nitro featured a more cartoony art style that helped give it a ‘family-friendly’ aesthetic.

The next spin-off would be an ambitious multiplayer-driven experience in the form of Need for Speed: World. Presented as an online always racing MMO, the game was very much ahead of its time, which also played a role in its inevitable demise.

Essentially a cross between Most Wanted and Carbon, NFS World offered an assortment of activities that connected you with other racers in real-time. To account for the increased player population, it featured a larger open world that merged the best parts of Hot Pursuit’s Rockport City with Palmont from NFS Carbon.

By this point, the franchise’s glory days were in EA’s rearview and the industry had moved on to account for the growing interest in more sim-based racers. Desperate to bring back fans, they entrusted Criterion Games of Burnout fame to create a remake of 1998’s Hot Pursuit.

While the updated version didn’t quite have the same feeling as the original, it did a great job at modernizing the classic NFS formula and benefited from the Hot Pursuit branding. Environments were more prominent and detailed than ever before, and gameplay felt satisfying aside from a handful of technical hiccups.

For their next release, EA had Slightly Mad produce a sequel to Need for Speed: Shift that sought to distance itself from the main series even further. Shift 2: Unleashed expanded upon many aspects of the original while doubling down on its commitment to true-to-life racing.

To this point, the game features dynamic crash physics along with highly-detailed models of real-world cars, drivers, and tracks. It ended up being a success, with critics praising refinements over the first game and overall close attention to detail in its vehicle and track designs.  

Much like NFS: World, The Run was simply too ambitious for its time and didn’t offer the kind of experience fans had come to expect from the series. Instead of churning out yet another circuit racing campaign, the game narrowed its scope to one single long interstate chase spanning coast to coast.

While there was some novelty to the general idea, the campaign’s brisk four-hour run time didn’t go over well with fans. Even worse was the fact that most of that time would be spent watching in-game cutscenes, playing out scripted moments, and completing non-driving quick-time events.

After the success that was 2010’s Hot Pursuit remake, Criterion got to work on a remake of another series highpoint, Need for Speed: Most Wanted. Yet again, the game would end up playing less like a 1:1 retelling of the original and more like a reimagining of the NFS formula with a bit of Burnout Paradise’s attitude sprinkled on top.

Unfortunately, many of the remake’s changes fell under scrutiny. The campaign was reduced in length, car customization was completely absent, and aggressive AI rubberbanding made races feel unfair to the point of frustration. It’s a shame the game wasn’t given the development time it needed considering how much fans admire the original. 

Released as a cross-generational title for PlayStation and Xbox consoles along with PC, Need for Speed Rivals is often regarded as one of the more underrated entries in the series. It was the first NFS developed by Ghost Games, who would go on to make the most recent installment, 2019’s Need for Speed Heat.

While sacrifices were made to ensure the game was compatible with both console generations, the Xbox One, PS4, and PC versions have aged remarkably well thanks to better quality graphics, faster load times, and a new dynamic weather system. Sure, the campaign was a bit hollow, but at its core, Rivals offered a solid arcade racer with all the bells and whistles you’d expect. 

In 2015, the series would see its first original mobile title release for iOS and Android devices. Developed by Firemonkeys Studios, Need for Speed: No Limits was a stripped-down free to play version of a traditional NFS game that featured fully 3D graphics.

It incorporated many elements from previous games, such as illegal street races, police pursuits, and car customization. However, its aggressive free to play model was ultimately panned by critics for gatekeeping much of the game’s content. Additionally, races were cut short and operated on a timer to manipulate you into spending real-world money.

Serving as a soft reboot for the series, 2015’s Need for Speed was meant to mark the start of a new generation for the franchise with Ghost Games and EA leading the charge. The vision was clear: they wanted to create a definitive NFS experience that boasted superb visuals and the most robust customization engine the series had ever seen. 

Unfortunately, this prioritization meant that other parts of the game would go underserved. As a result, 2015’s Need for Speed features some of the worst vehicle handling we’ve ever experienced in a premium triple-A game. Thankfully, fans forgot about it rather quickly, and EA quietly tossed it on the growing pile of failed NFS reboots.

If 2015’s reboot rubbed some players the wrong way, Payback was a total slap in the face for anyone who still considered themselves a NFS fan. The game was nothing more than a soulless cash-grab that rested entirely on the Fast & Furious movie franchise’s popularity. 

To make matters worse, Ghost Games repeated many of the same mistakes they had made with 2015’s NFS reboot. There was an over-reliance on scripted cop chases, and the new card-based upgrade system felt overly complicated and designed solely to get you to spend real-world cash.

We’ve finally arrived at the most recent entry in the series, Need for Speed Heat. Yet another Ghost Games production, the game would be the last project to come out of the studio before EA had them revert to an engineering studio for the Frostbite engine.

It’s not the worst NFS by any means but is definitely far from the franchise’s golden age during the early to mid-2000s. Upon release, Heat received mostly mixed reviews from critics, no doubt due to the bad taste left behind by the recent NFS reboot and Payback. That being said, it features several improvements over its predecessors and bodes well for the series’ future.

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Justin Fernandez
Justin Fernandez

As a fan of both indie and triple-A games, Justin finds joy in discovering and sharing hidden gems with other passionate gamers. In addition to reporting on the latest and greatest titles, he manages GamingScan’s social media channels.

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