Tagging the Streets
It’s common wisdom that there have been a few too many Need for Speed games, but it’s not until you look at the DS lineup that you realize how true that is: Undercover, Prostreet, Carbon: Own the City, Underground 2, Most Wanted… Holy cow! That’s one for each year since the system came out. Is there anything left for Nitro to do?
Well, sort of. Nitro, a very cartoonish arcade racer, is Need for Speed in little more than name; the developers came up with something new, but only by breaking the mold. Nonetheless, it’s a fun, simple, well-made game that will meet expectations. Anyone who wants realism or depth should turn elsewhere, but it’s a great way to waste a few hours.
The setup is easy enough to learn. You can accelerate, brake, steer, drift, use nitro, and perform special moves (when prompted). The drifting feels a little odd at first, but once you get the hang of steering and letting go of the brake, it gives you almost perfect control over your vehicle. There’s a terrific sense of speed, especially when using nitro, though we wish the nitro bar filled a lot faster – you can only use a few speed bursts per lap, even if you’re good at the kind of flashy driving that builds nitro. We also wish it were easier to jump; if you don’t hit a ramp just right, there’s nothing you can do to right yourself.
The special moves (or “heroic driving”) are a new feature to this game, and while they’re a certain amount of fun to watch, in the end they don’t add a lot of depth. You can only perform them in certain situations: when you draft off another car for a few seconds, at the very beginning of a race, and when you reach an obstacle on the track (such as a police roadblock). An indicator moves along a meter on the side of your screen, and if you push X to stop it in the right place, you perform the move. You might get a speed boost or skid narrowly through the roadblock on two wheels. When drafting, the correct timing will make you jump clear over the car in front of you, which makes passing a breeze. Unfortunately, these are little more than quick-time events; cheap ways to enable you to do new things.
Another new feature is “tagging.” Strewn about each track are circular power-ups, and when you collect them, the scenery around that area of the track turns to the color scheme you’ve selected. This is spiffy visually, and you earn points for doing it (your final placing depends on your points, not just on your rank in the race), but it’s not exactly earth-shattering.
Speaking of visuals, they’re rather impressive. The sense of speed is amazing for such a small screen, even on the early levels, and we noticed very few framerate hiccups. The overall look and color scheme have a lot of panache, making you feel like you’re driving through a more colorful and vibrant version of the real world. Each of the six cities has its own slightly different flavor. Perhaps the only problem is that if you look into the distance, you can see the scenery popping in, but even this happens in style; the landscapes appear to draw themselves.
Single races are available, of course, but as usual the most engrossing part of the game is the career mode. There are six different cities, each of which hosts four to six races for each of the three main cups (Bronze, Silver, Gold). When you complete a cup, you unlock an especially challenging race in Nitro Cup. There are traditional races, “knockout” competitions in which the last place is eliminated in each lap, and checkpoint races. In the most frequent non-race event, you have to drive through destructible items on the track before time runs out. We could have done without these events; besides losing the sense of speed, they bring out the one severe flaw in the game’s controls: when you drive in reverse, the camera swings around to the front of your car, making it impossible to tell what direction you’ll be heading in when you start driving forward again. It’s actually better to turn 180 degrees with a drift than to back up.
This game is way too easy for way too long. We blew through the first two cups with very few losses. We hardly saw another car on even some of the Gold Cup races, and on the Nitro Cup challenge unlocked by winning the Silver Cup, we went the wrong way, turned around, and still managed to win on our first try. Players who want to meet heavy or even moderate resistance quickly should opt for a harder game.
Regardless, the bottom line is that even the easy races are just plain fun. Sure, it’s silly that you can pass someone just by driving behind them and pressing X. Yes, the rubber-banding is pretty severe. It would be nice if there was actual traffic on the streets you’re racing through. It’s true that the paucity of nitro is a bummer; combine it with the rubber-banding, and it’s actually a good idea to save most of the full bar you start with until the final lap. If you use it early, they just catch back up. In the end, however, the sense of speed, the style, and the well-designed tracks with multiple paths make Nitro a real joy to play. Even the music contributes to the fun, thanks to a good helping of EA’s licensed tracks (the ones chosen here are a blend of rock and energetic pop). The races are short enough that you always feel like beating just one more track before putting down the DS.
As a franchise, Need for Speed has long been known for its customization options. Given the arcadey, cartoonish, quick-thrills focus of this game, though, it should come as no surprise that the car choices here are a little limited. You’ll unlock plenty of new vehicles, but they’re usually just graphical replacements, and you can’t do much work on them besides adding paint and decal schemes. Perhaps the inevitable Need for Speed: Nitro 2 will expand on this area a bit, or at least use unlicensed cars so we can see some explosive crashes.
The game’s final important feature is multiplayer; it offers single- and multi-card local play for up to four players, but no online races. The lack of wi-fi support is a major disappointment if you don’t have DS-owning friends nearby, but it’s nice that EA preserved the get-together-with-your-buddies element that has always made racing games so much fun.
Need for Speed: Nitro isn’t the best racer on the DS. It’s not even the best goofy racer on the DS, an honor that will probably always belong to the console’s iteration of Mario Kart. It is, however, a lot of fun to play. With plenty of races in career mode, not to mention multiplayer, unlockable tracks for single races, and records to beat, this title provides hours of high-speed, exhilarating gameplay.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 4.6 Graphics
This game has a great sense of style; even the pop-in looks artsy. 3.7 Control
The drifting takes some getting used to, and the camera makes driving backward a pain, but otherwise no issues. 4.5 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
Licensed tracks from EA, plus great sound effects. 3.7
This game stays way too easy for way to long, but even so, it’s a ton of fun to play.
3.9 Overall Rating – Good
Not an average. See Rating legend above for a final score breakdown.