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It must be an interesting conundrum for EA: how to genuinely update their franchises each year and expand their appeal whilst avoiding alienating the hard-core fans. This is obviously more straight forward for their sporting games that can rely on an annual churn of new names, clubs and shirts to foster enough gamer desire for a new version. Racing games, such as Need for Speed, pose more of a head-scratcher. When Need for Speed: Pro Street plopped into the Inc Gamers doormat we were therefore intrigued to see what they had done to the long standing game franchise this season.
Perhaps it is telling that whilst games such as Juiced have taken their series into the dark nether-regions of the street racing scene, EA have taken it upon them selves to clean things up somewhat. This year they have chosen to follow the legal street racing career of Ryan Cooper. This not only affords less controversy amongst parents and guardians but provides that most sought after of gaming ciphers, the sporting star, upon which they can hang much of their game structure.
As such, the game's story is built around Ryan and his career, with a side plot of getting even with some of his more disrespectful foes. This progresses through a number of different race days that are made up of a variety of different events. Although the structure is different here, the majority of the elements will be instantly recognisable to those who have dabbled with the series before. Again we have the Grip races that provide eight car throw downs, checkpoint events that demand you reach each gate in a certain time limit, a revamped drift racing mode and a fare smattering of drag races. It is shame that things haven't been shaken up more this time around as there is plenty of potential for more varied and inventive events. We had expected more of a major revision to go along with the new Pro Street moniker.
Although a minor point this seems to reflect the more general simplification of proceedings that has been applied to this version of Need for Speed. Whilst this may appeal to the casual gamer, we think this alienates the franchises hard core fans somewhat.
The game's pacing also suffers from too little too late. It's not until you have literally put tens of hours into the game that you start to scratch the surface of the interesting vehicles. For what seems like an eternity you spent your days racing the dull and the mundane around the street tracks. Whilst this certainly makes it exciting when you do unlock a Lamborghini, this sets the stakes much too high and will likely turn many gamers off before they even get this far. The repetitious early play is made worse by this edition's omission of the police. We really like this feature in the previous game that meant you would suddenly find yourself being chased down by the local constabulary mid race. Although a minor point this seems to reflect the more general simplification of proceedings that has been applied to this version of Need for Speed. Whilst this may appeal to the casual gamer, we think this alienates the franchises hard core fans somewhat.
Pro Street awards progression not just on winning races, but (borrowing a phrase from Burnout) on dominating the competition. This is achieved by a scoring system that combines your finishing position, your time, and how pristine your car is. If your final score beats the others on the track, you have dominated the day and will be rewarded with cash and parts. This makes it essential to judge which car to bring to which race day, as although you can apply last minute customisations you can get stuck in last place if your ride isn't suited to the track.
Car customisation is of course a key feature of the game (or that is what its rhetoric would want you to believe). We found that after the initial novelty had worn off we most often skipped these options and headed straight to the race. The various mods you can apply to the car are pretty impressive, and involve everything from wind tunnel sculpting to a Forza-esque decal system. The problem is that the physical changes don't make enough difference to the car's performance, and the visual alterations can't be taken online. These two missed opportunities render the customisations a rather inert and mundane proposition. An opportunity missed we think.
Even if you can't show your pimped up rides off to your online chums, at least the PS3 version provides an online feature. This seems to be omitted in the Wii and PS2 games. You can pretty easily jump online and setup a custom race, specifying location, tyres and cars. These can then be played in either ranked or ad-hoc matches. Again this feature isn't really providing anything new, but it did provide a solid online experience with minimal lag and drop offs, so who are we to complain.
Along with its move away from the seedy underbelly of street racing, the car controls also seem to have been given a once over. They now feel a little more nuanced and less spongy than the previous games. EA are obviously taking a few tips from Forza here, down to the colour coded guide line on the track that provides an excellent visual prompt for where and how fast you should be on the track. It is probably here more than anywhere else that the game has progressed, unfortunately the sedate starting line up of cars means that many players may not stick around long enough to find out.
Visually, the game takes a real leap forward from last year. The PS3 version obviously outshines the Wii and PS2, but also does a good job of holding its own against the 360. It's good to see EA putting time and money into developing a more comparable, and in some ways better, experience for Sony's machine. The cars themselves are most definitely the stars of the show. They are rendered in some of the best high definition graphics we have seen so far. They may not have the attention to detail of the upcoming Gran Turismo 5 Prologue, but they have the added bonus of a real damage system. The vehicles start the races looking pristine and showroom fresh, but by the end they can look pretty badly mangled. The damage system was so impressive we often took to beating our car up on purpose just to see which bits would drop off first. The action in the slower cars is smooth as silk, although as you work your way up through the ranks the frame rate does suffer sometime as the engine struggles to keep up with the higher speeds.
In an effort to make their game more parent and media friendly, EA may have also washed away much that made the series interesting.
We would normally look for the visuals to be bolstered somewhat by some solid audio. Unfortunately this isn't the case as Pro Street's audio isn't really up to much. Although the engine sounds do their job (all-be-it in a hard to distinguish kind of way), it's the voice work that really drops the ball. Not only are the lines pretty cheesy in themselves, but they are repeated over and over. There are only so many times you can hear the name of your driver before it starts to grate on your nerves. On top of this is plastered some pretty derivative music which obviously doesn't help matters.
This may all sound like we didn't get on very well with Pro Street, which isn't really the case. We certainly had enough fun to justify the price ticket, it was just that this is fun we have had before. There simply isn't enough new content in this year's game to make it good value for money. If you haven't had a Need for Speed game before then this is as good as any, to introduce the series. But if you do have last year's edition, then you could just as easily dust that off as part with your hard earned cash.
To return to our original point, Pro Street is a game that has moved from dimly lit night-time locales to the more legitimate daytime pursuits of a professional racer. The problem is that in an effort to make their game more parent and media friendly, EA may have also washed away much that made the series interesting. Whilst this outing certainly presents the most polished Need for Speed, it also lacks some of the original pump and grind that sparked its original success.
With so many different perspectives it can be hard to know where to start - a little like walking into a crowded pub. Sorry about that.
But so far we've not found a way to streamline our review output - there's basically too much of it. So, rather than dilute things for newcomers we have decided to live with the hubbub while helping new readers find the columnists they will enjoy.
Our columnists each focus on a particular perspective and fall into one of the following types of gamers: