[Private Wheels] Need for Speed II (1997)

Private Wheels is a series of blog posts where I take a look at the representation of the private vehicle’s concept in every Need for Speed game. Previously I showed how the first game in the series captured the symbolic realm of the private vehicle as it is meant to be perceived by the advertisement through fetishization of luxury, gamification of Darwinian competition, and marketing-friendly presentation of the rebellion aspect. I advise reading the previous post before reading this one.

After the significant success of the debut, the sophomore game in the series, Need for Speed II, was released in 1997 to a somewhat mixed reception. Several technical aspects of the game can be conceived as problematic from the gameplay perspective, but I’d argue that the game’s primary weak point is of symbolic nature. Need for Speed II lacks saturation and focus—instead of presenting a playable power fantasy, it’s a confusing and unconvincing attempt to impress.

At first glance, everything is in place—fixation on the luxe-class cars is evident in the intro cinematic. It’s a full-motion video with two exceptionally fancy vehicles racing each other on a rural road. Camera fetishizes them from every angle possible—they are shiny, clean, sexy, and desirable. But they are not alone on the road—there are other cars, far less chic. Those are the mundane losers whose fate is to stay behind, honking their horns in sheer impotence. The video ends with both racing cars going in flames—not due to destruction, but ascension—an apotheosis of supremacy on the road achieved by the ultimate speed. These two shining comets turn into the game’s logo—Need for Speed II—it’s a need, a necessity, to be the first, the fastest, the sexiest, and ultimately the best.

What is it if it’s not the perfect opening cinematic for this franchise? It’s a straight continuation of the advertisement aesthetic gamified in the first game. But in this case, it’s also a false advertisement, for the game doesn’t meet the expectations. Need for Speed II abandoned its predecessor’s cooperation with Road & Track magazine in favor of collaborating with car manufacturers. This was meant to help developers achieve the maximum level of simulation possible—from the handling of specific cars to creating the most realistic sound effects. They recorded live the engine sounds of each car while driving IRL! Of course, the usual showreels for each vehicle with its performance stats, history overview, and fancy photos also included.

The thing is that this approach is not supported by the rest of the game—first and foremost, by the racing courses. These are now themed multiculturally. Instead of primarily American-centered courses of the first game, Need for Speed II goes international—not in a true geographical sense, but rather in a stereotypical pastiche-like one. Like a photo collage made of travel magazines, the game’s racing courses don’t represent specific geographical places—they build a certain vibe through visual clues. The Mediterranean course lies through the Middle-East-like city through ancient Greek-like ruins; the Mesoamerican course surprises us with jungles and giant Olmec-like statues; the Hymalayan course shows a lot of snow, dangerous bridges in the mountains, and even crashed planes. Almost everywhere, the road twists and turns completely illogically—nothing familiar with the utilitarian nature of roads. Evidently, the fixation on simulating the real thing was limited strictly to cars.

Nevertheless, even with vehicle simulation, Need for Speed II doesn’t show total commitment. 1997 was a time of vast technological advancement in digital gaming—3D acceleration, attempts at simulating real-world physics, real-time rendering, etc. But it was still in process—like a frontier with an optimistic attitude but not much of a real achievement. Cars in Need for Speed II behave strangely—on the one hand, they try to simulate accurate handling, so you must slow down during turns, but on the other, they fly away and roll on collision with mannerisms of a sponge foam block. Combine it with a previously stated abundance of roadway turns and twists, and you receive a pretty cartoonish spectacle not as an occasion but as a routine.

Additionally, the viewing distance and backgrounds are even worse than in the previous game—objects of scenery pop up from the fog and lack details. Indeed, good 2D graphics are much better than bad 3D. Overall, the game’s visuals make a great disservice to the power fantasy of driving the luxe car. It’s not that I’m spitting on a 26-year-old game from the modern-day technological top. Unlike the original The Need for Speed visuals that were pretty stunning in 1994, Need for Speed II looked not so good even for its time. The first Gran Turismo game came out the same year—and it was far more graphically impressive.

The audio department, on the other hand, is marvelous. I can’t objectively judge whether the in-game Jaguar XJ220 roars exactly like the real one, but I’m ready to believe it! Also, the music made a huge step forward, following the contemporary trend of the late 90s. Instead of the rebellious hard’n’heavy shredding of the predecessor, Need for Speed II entertains us with rebellious groove metal shredding with lots of electronic ornaments. Expectedly, music tracks suit the racing courses; for example, the music accompanying the Mediterranean course sneaks in some bouzouki-like interludes between the guitar shreds. Unfortunately, however groovy, the music here fails to amplify the rebel coolness of the game because there’s nothing to amplify.

Even the rebellion aspect of the formula is not fleshed out in Need for Speed II. There is an option to turn the traffic on when racing in Single Race mode against the sole opponent. This way, we can try to simulate the ‘feeding the losers with dust’ scene from the opening video. But bonkers physics turns every minor collision into an acrobatic circus, totally ruining the theoretical epicness of the moment. In addition to various mundane vehicles, there are also school buses for some incomprehensive reason. Feeding dust to school buses is not rebellious, even in the most sociopathic form of performative rebellion.

The worst offense, though, to a rebellion aspect of the formula is the lack of cops. A complete lack of cops. No matter how many school buses you’ll ram into rolling down the hill, not a sole cop would go after you. What is even the point of a performative rebellion if there is no one to avoid while rebelling performatively? All things aside, this is the most destructive blunder of Need for Speed II. Power fantasy shattered.

Need for Speed II: Special Edition was released the same year and, along with a couple of new cars and racing courses, added 3dfx Glide support. It made the graphics somewhat better but didn’t save the day in that regard.

After a good start, the Need for Speed series continued with a limp. Need for Speed II demonstrated the risks and limitations of the established formula. In order to power fantasy to work, it’s inherent to keep the arcade-simulation balance throughout every aspect of the game, or else—the gloss of the advertisement shall remain only in the misleading intro. Also, no cops—no need for speed. Only a distant wish. Luckily, the next game in the franchise understands this perfectly.

Private Wheels posts:

  1. The Need for Speed (1994)
  2. Need for Speed II (1997) <- you are here

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