7 best Need for Speed games ranked: From Underground 2 to Hot Pursuit

need for speed heat artEA

Need For Speed is one of the most recognizable driving series in the world. EA’s arcade phenomenon has spanned 25 years and produced some incredible games, so we’ve decided to go through each and rank the 7 best ones.

In total, to date, there have been 24 unique Need For Speed games in the mainline portion of the series. Spread out across multiple generations of consoles, players have grown up smashing, evading, and drifting their way through hundreds of tracks and scenarios.

From basic track racing to intense street action escaping the law, Need For Speed has had it all. Not every game has been an undisputed success, whereas some have absolutely captured the hearts of many.

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So here’s a definitive ranking of the seven very best Need For Speed games.

two cars racing in nfs carbonEA
Our first entry is a well-liked and respected one.

7. Need For Speed: Carbon (2006)

Despite a reduced focus on the Police element that fans had come to love over the years, Carbon’s on-road presentation was definitely on par with what was expected at the time.

It was in the unenviable position of following a hot streak of NFS games and whilst it didn’t do anything memorable or seriously inventive to reinvent the racing wheel, Carbon’s freer racing formula, and larger open-world meant that fans had many hours to enjoy and waste away in the area of Palmont.

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BMW turning a corner in NFS shiftEA
Moving towards a more realistic and grounded experience wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but it worked.

6. Need For Speed: Shift (2009)

Shift was a literal tonal shift away from the destruction and physical carnage of other Need For Speed games, instead, focusing more on a concentrated driving simulation game akin to Gran Turismo or Forza.

Whilst some of its user-friendly arcadey roots did bleed through into the car handling, Shift was a lot of fun. Featuring a lot of licensed beauties from Lamborghinis to Bugattis and world-renowned race tracks such as the Nurburgring and Laguna Seca Speedway, Shift offered something very different and equally gripping and engaging.

car smashing through a billboard in nfs most wantedEA
The open-world element was borrowed but executed brilliantly.

5. Need For Speed: Most Wanted (2012)

A lot of comparisons were made to 2008’s Burnout Paradise when it came to the 2021 version of Most Wanted, but that’s not a bad similarity to have.

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An open city filled with collectibles and smashable billboards, its city of Fairhaven was a tremendous playground to explore offering different types of events all across the varied terrain. It retained all of its classic arcade-racer identity and furthered the inter-connectivity of the NFS online universe with its Autolog feature.

cars battling against police in nfs 3 hot pursuitEA
The driver vs police aspect would be seen in many later racing games.

4. Need For Speed III: Hot Pursuit (1998)

The 1998 edition of the ‘Hot Pursuit’ name is still seen by many as a hallmark entry into the annals of racing as it refined and revolutionized the police element.

As well as competing against other high-speed foes to determine the king of the road, you also had to negotiate the looming threat of the police. Crossing them would result in adrenaline-pumping chases in which they would deploy spike traps, catch you for speeding, and generally stop at nothing to take you down.

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Combined with a great selection of tracks and cars, many feel this is where the franchises really kicked into another gear.

picking a car in nfs undergroundEA
Underground did extremely well for EA and the potential for a wider-ranging racing game was there for all to see.

3. Need For Speed Underground 1 (2003)

The Need For Speed equation was pretty much solved and in full effect by 2003, which is why it was a gutsy move from EA to whip out the whiteboard eraser, scrub those thoughts, and rebuild NFS with a complete reboot.

In hindsight, it was a stroke of genius. Underground would go on to sell well over 10 million units as players couldn’t get enough of its new story element, its array of customization options, and a thumping, pulsing soundtrack.

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So exactly do you follow an unmitigated success?

car drifting around a corner in nfs underground 2EA
It was like Underground 1 but better.

2. Need For Speed Underground 2 (2004)

Why, you do it again, but go bigger and bolder of course!

The narrative aspect returned with a deeper look into the life of the underground and the length of depth of the modifications possible for your vehicle. To capitalize on its predecessor’s freshness, Underground 2 introduced more events to vary the gameplay and the expansive nature of its free-roam mode made it a more than worthy successor.

police car lamborghini in nfs hot pursuitEA
Seriously, how cool does this police car look?

1. Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit (2010)

Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit – the 2010 iteration – just about manages to encapsulate the primary goal of every Need For Speed game – break-neck exhilaration and entertainment.

It also welcomed a brand new mechanic to the series that completely turned the tables, instead of running from the law, you became the law! If you’re a sucker for free roam, then Hot Pursuit may not have been for you as it concentrated on preset races and events with specific race conditions.

But this was offset by all the game-changing devices you were allowed to use on the police, and your opponents, the debut of the intuitive and easy-to-use Autolog online system, and tons of longevity and variety in its events.

Need For Speed has always been seen as one of the great arcade racing experiences and Hot Pursuit 2010 is the quintessential entry.

If you enjoy this ranked list, then we have plenty more for you to read and debate for yourself:

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