Late last week, Electronic Arts made a stunning announcement that not one, not two, but three games bearing the Need for Speed name are in development. Joining the already delayed Need for Speed: Undercover on iPhone, Need for Speed: Shift is gearing up for release later this year on PSP and Need for Speed: Nitro will come to DS around the same time. The latter two games are being presumptively hailed as "delivering the ultimate racing experiences" at a time when opinion of the series is at an all-time low.
Need for Speed: Undercover stalled with a score of 5 in December, falling in line with its abysmal Metacritic average. As for the PSP version, it managed an even worse 4. Roger Hargreaves wrote in his review that it's "the worst PSP version of Need for Speed to date." EA Black Box didn't rev up a decent racer on either handheld.
We're still awaiting release of the iPhone iteration, which has already been delayed more than once. Although its iPhone outing has been shown briefly at a trio of Apple Store special events, EA has been stingy about showing Need for Speed: Undercover to the dear old press. As of today, we've yet to play or be shown the game.
Perhaps that's due to worries of poor reception for the latest instalment of a series in clear decline. The underwhelming critical response to Undercover is emblematic of the general disdain for the series. While last year's ProStreet earned an 8 from us on DS, Carbon: Own the City the year before that was a failure at 5, and Underground 2 barely fared better. To put it simply, three out of the last four games in the Need for Speed franchise have earned a failing grade.
Sales are declining, too. Undercover posted the worst retail performance of any game in the franchise during the last five years according to data from NPD. Surprisingly, more copies of the game were sold on DS than PSP. ProStreet didn't sell much more in 2007, though. The annual decline in sales shows waning interest by gamers. That, unsurprisingly, is a byproduct of EA's insistence on releasing substandard instalments.
Instead of pumping out another set of games, EA would be best served by parking Need for Speed in the garage a year or two. Let it rest. The series is coasting on fumes, each new game more disappointing than the last. How will the latest new games fare any better? To advocate a complete abandonment of the franchise would be unwise since it's given us some great racing games, just not in the last few years. Giving it some time could shift the creative energy around a new instalment, not to mention heighten anticipation for that next game when it finally does hit two to three years from now.
At least some wise decisions are being made in the midst of this questionable expansion of the franchise. Need for Speed: Shift, which is headed for PSP, is being produced by Michael Mann who was a line producer on the well-reviewed Most Wanted. Hopefully his eye for design can revitalise this stalled series. We can't say anything with regard to Undercover on iPhone or the EA Montreal-developed Nitro as we know so little about who is working on these titles and how they're shaping up.
We're justifiably pessimistic about the outlook, though. Something dramatic must occur for these new games to make a 180 from the franchise's disintegrating track record. Rushing new instalments out the door before the end of the year sounds like an odd strategy for doing that.
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