The upcoming Criterion Games-developed entry in the Need For Speed franchise has been pushed to late 2022 or early 2023, and you can thank the next Battlefield game for the delay when you see it later this year.
EA’s chief studios officer, Laura Miele, confirmed NFS’ new launch target to Polygon in an interview. Criterion will be assisting Battlefield developer DICE with getting that first-person shooter over the finish line, which is predictable as it’s likely to be EA’s biggest release this holiday season.
Considering that, and considering the fact the California-based publisher just dropped $1.2 billion on racing game developer Codemasters, management evidently felt it had the racing angle mostly covered for 2021 without NFS’ involvement.
Criterion Games, which developed 2010's Need For Speed Hot Pursuit and 2012's Need For Speed Most Wanted, in addition to the Burnout franchise, has assisted DICE with its assignments in the past on Star Wars Battlefront, the X-Wing VR Mission spinoff and Battlefield V‘s Firestorm mode.
In fact, helping DICE has been Criterion’s primary responsibility for the better part of the previous decade — a disappointing fate for the British studio responsible for some of the finest arcade racing games ever made.
Things began to move in the right direction when it was announced last year that Criterion would regain development of the NFS franchise for the forthcoming installment, after Ghost Games (now EA Gothenburg) produced the last four entries.
Ghost’s NFS titles were polarizing among fans to say the least, though 2019's Need For Speed Heat was massive step forward from the heavily scripted and microtransaction-laden Need For Speed Payback. Heat began to recapture the sprawling magic that made titles like 2005's Most Wanted and 2006's Carbon so great, but right as it seemed Ghost had started to figure NFS out, EA cut the studio’s staff and returned the franchise to Criterion.
If that seems like a lot of musical chairs, it is. In her interview, Miele talked about the pandemic and work-from-home nature of current game development necessitating extra help from Criterion, and that’s understandable. But as a fan of Criterion’s past work and Need For Speed, it’s worrying.
NFS hasn’t received the attention or patience from EA it’s needed to thrive in well over a decade now. Shifting teams around and giving folks their own project only to move them off of it to work on something they have zero creative involvement simply doesn’t instill confidence. Big publishers of EA’s and Activision’s ilk are often criticized for closing studios, but this degree of meddling makes it difficult for teams to do their best work — and ultimately more justifiable to close when their project inevitably comes up short.
We’ve seen it with this franchise before. Criterion’s 2012 Most Wanted reboot was kind of a mess — a fun foundation for an open-world racer with an absolutely barren city, a remarkably weak single-player campaign and absolutely nothing to do outside the car in a series known for its extensive customization suite. In the nine years since that installment’s release, enough cut content, concept art and footage has seen the light of day to suggest Criterion initially set its sights higher than the game we ultimately got, perhaps as a direct sequel to 2005's Most Wanted with a story, rather than a barebones reboot.
Or how about this project Criterion was working on back in 2014, that was supposed to take the studio “beyond cars?” This was to be “the biggest game Criterion ever made,” with wing suits, ATVs and all manner of weird vehicles in some absurd looking mashup of Motorstorm and Just Cause. It looked interesting. But it too never happened — the trailer above is all we ever saw of it.
Miele insisted that Criterion is comfortable with the decision to work on Battlefield, and that NFS remains the studio’s baby:
“They own the Need for Speed franchise; that’s why they managed the remaster,” Miele said. “Anything that’s happening within the Need for Speed brand, they are responsible for, or things come through them to ensure that they’re on board with it.”
Perhaps everyone just needs a little more time to finish their projects, which certainly isn’t a bad thing in the era of development crunch. But when Criterion ultimately does return to work on NFS, I hope it’s given the patience, resources and freedom to make the game it actually wants to make this time.