Need for Speed is the 20th main title in the racing series and a reboot of the franchise. It is an open world racing game set entirely at night that returns to the underground racing and tuning culture best known from the Need for Speed Underground series. The player is a new racer in the fictional city Ventura Bay and soon gets introduced to the local street racing scene, hooking up with the characters Amy, Manu, Robyn, Spike and Travis. The story is told through cut-scenes with full motion video combined with digitized sections, shown from the main character’s first-person perspective. Those five characters each aim to impress five real-life racing icons that are present as actors in the cut-scenes: Akira Nakai, Ken Block, Magnus Walker, Risky Devil and Shinichi Morohoshi. The player can follow five different paths with overlapping storylines and the goal is to make a reputation to challenge and beat these icons and become the new icon of Ventura Bay. The crew members regularly keep in touch through phone calls and text messages.
Next to cash earned in races up upgrade cars and buy new ones, REP is an important currency to progress in the game. With each new level new events are opened up. REP can be earned for five types of activities: Build (customization), Crew (social interactions and synchronized driving), Outlaw (illegal activities), Speed and Style, as well as through actions in the open world environment, especially by combining maneuvers. Each of the activities is tied to one of the five characters of the crew as well as an icon, and the player is free to pursue one the five paths in any order.
There is a lot of emphasis on tuning the licensed cars for the aesthetics, performance and handling. Many upgrades are based on parts that first need to be won or unlocked. The garage has room for five cars. Customization options include Paint & Wrap to change an entire body kit or design each car element and decals in a custom way. There is also a Wrap Editor with many different types of paint jobs. Handling Tuning focuses most on the difference between drifting or opting for good grip. It is possible to upgrade a starter car to match the fastest ones in the game, so it is not required to sell and buy cars just to keep up. Racing is mainly arcade based and typical race types include standard races to reach the finish first (Sprint), drifting challenges and time based courses. Outlaw missions often include police chases and in some cases it is possible to pay the police a bribe so they halt the chase. There are also daily challenges.
The game requires a permanent internet connection at all times, even when playing solo. That also means the game cannot be paused during a race. The Autolog from previous titles, where scores and achievements are recorded and shared with friends, is still present. The online multiplayer continues the AllDrive concept of Need for Speed: Rivals. Instead of interacting with all online players, the game creates a lobby or copy of the game world where a maximum of eight online players are present. Participating in races is then done by starting or joining a crew. It is not a permanent organization and mostly resembles the idea of public and private matches. With each new game session a new crew needs to be started or joined, either privately with friends or for instance by joining a public crew. It is also possible to start a race and then bring in all friends of a crew.