Unlike its predecessor Road & Track Presents: The Need for Speed, Need for Speed II has its gameplay more focused on arcade racing, including a simpler driving style, as well as courses with exotic settings and high jumps.
Need for Speed II features various game modes which can be played in single player or in multiplayer through 2 player split-screen, with additional online options on PC including modem, network, and serial link multiplayer.
- Knockout - A series of two-lap races involving every course of the game, in which racers that finishes in last will be eliminated. The last race with the two remaining racers takes place in the bonus course, which can be unlocked upon winning the event.
- Single Race - Standard circuit races with a specific number of laps set by the player. Opponents can have their skill level and car type chosen, as well as their quantity, which can be changed to one or a full grid of 12 racers.
- Tournament - A series of four-lap races involving only the regular courses, which can be raced in any sequence. Winning this event unlocks a bonus car.
Each of these race types can be customised with catch-up mode. Players can also choose from different driving styles; simulation and arcade, in which the latter has cars more prone to drift and better regain of control after collisions. In each race course, an interactive soundtrack will be played, which is directly adapted to the gaming situation.
The car list mainly consists of European sports cars and concept cars from the 1990s. Every car's brake bias, downforce, and gear ratios may be fine-tuned. Vehicles can have their body colour changed.
Players can also enter a vehicle's Showcase to view commented performance statistics and history, as well as slide show, and a short video presentation of each car.
All courses follow circuit configuration, and are set in various differing environments around the world. Need for Speed II also introduced the possibility to go off-road and to take shortcuts.
- Proving Grounds - An oval test track based in Norway.
- Outback - Australian inspired route featuring landmarks based in Sydney such as the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge.
- North Country - Northern Europe based on Germany and the Netherlands.
- Pacific Spirit - Running across a city, a national park, the Lions' Gate Bridge, the SkyTrain and BC Place from Vancouver.
- Mediterraneo - Coastal and cliff-side route set on the Greek coast.
- Mystic Peaks - A highland route covered in snow set in Nepal that passes through high mountains and tunnels.
- Monolithic Studios - The unlockable bonus course, based upon a Hollywood studio and themed after various famous films.
Need for Speed II has composed themes, as well as interactive racing soundtrack, in which race music adapts to in game situations. Each course features two unique themes, with songs featuring elements based on the different locations's aesthetics.
A Special Edition of Need for Speed II was released in 1997 which includes additional vehicles as well as new bonus cars, a new course, mirrored and reverse driving directions, a new driving style, and 3dfx Glide support.