Hands-On: Need for Speed ProStreet

NFS_ProStreet_360.JPGIf there were an award for ‘Best Improved Racing Franchise’ this year, it would probably go to EA’s upcoming Need for Speed ProStreet. The latest iteration of the long running series blows the doors off the last couple of entries and just might start a shift in recharging the overpopulated street racing genre. Stepping away from the mostly arcade physics and outrageous crashes that were turning the series into a sort of “Burnout Lite,” the new direction based on precision handling and avoiding damage makes each race a thrilling, tightly focused fight to the finish line. Some quality hands-on time with the Xbox 360 build at EA’s holiday event showed off the new racer quite well with a single desert-based track and AI opposition that reacted more like real drivers than perfect, race line following drones.

What struck me instantly was the visual style that featured super-realistic cars and a sense of speed that reminded me of some of those great 70’s car chase films such as Vanishing Point. Sure EA has done next-gen NFS games before, but the combination of even better car models and dynamic camera work really sells the white-knuckle driving action. Once I got my hands on a controller, things got very interesting when I hit the accelerator. For starters, you can feel (well, on the 360 version) all four tires gripping or sliding on the changing road surface a lot more than in previous NFS games and hell, even better than a few off-road games I’ve played. The handling model is excellent, with the game relying on your knowing how to negotiate turns correctly and applying brakes where necessary. On the demo track, the goal wasn’t simply to come in first, but to have the highest overall speed on the course. However, as I was soon to discover, merely flooring it then trying to play the old way by taking a shortcut through a roadside object or another car would be disastrous driving at its not so finest.

An attempt to blow past two cars on my left side by trying to knock down a telephone pole showed me the game’s biggest change as I slammed into the pole with my car’s right side and wrecked out of the race completely. As I sat there cracking up with my eyes popping out of my head as my poor ride sat there now a busted wreck, it was explained to me that the dev team really wanted to give players a truer racing experience this time out. That formerly speedy car I’d just crunched up would be pretty much the result if this had happened on an actual track. My second to fifth attempts at the track were failures as well – two different telephone poles and another car were smashed into followed by a fifth place finish before I took a few deep breaths and scored two wins in a row. Amazingly, the AI was suffering as much as I was, as cars in front of me took themselves out of the running with their own crashes. By the way… the damage model simply rocks.

You might think this instant race over stuff would make for sheer frustration, but on the contrary, this extra realism made me want to see more than the single demo track. EA is certainly betting the farm that many other hardcore racing fans will want to take this ride as well. The game retains a few of the old street racing elements, but there’s no more of that forced, annoyingly faux cool “illegal” aspect this time out. Now, the game feels like an actual series of racing events or something you’d see on the Speed Channel. In addition to the excellent camerawork on the cars, after a race, the camera dips in and out of a nicely modeled group of onlookers, dancing girls on platforms and huge balloon characters that look like props on loan from the Wipeout franchise. Fans of the cop chase element will have to get their jollies elsewhere, but if you’re into hardcore customization, this is where you’ll want to be.

The graphics were coming along just great overall with the mixture of fantastic car models, solid engine sounds, squealing tires and crash effects making for quite a visceral experience. Of note are the rich smoke effects that come from the aforementioned squealing tires – not only do they look convincingly real, you can use that smoke from skidding around turns to temporarily blind the AI (and yup, live drivers on the couch or online) into wrecking into a roadside object or other cars. Locations based on real-life roadways such as Tokyo’s Shuto Expressway, the Autobahn and the Nevada desert should be as eye-popping as you’d expect and treacherous as races go on. Car debris stays on the track throughout a race, and damage needs to be repaired between events, so you’ll need to strive to finish in the money if you want to keep going.

You can also expect to see tons of customization options and licensed aftermarket parts along with options to tweak just about anything on your car. The great Autosculpt feature is back along with a wind tunnel so players can check out the changes their modifications have on speed and handling. If you’re not a good fiddler, fear not, as the game will contain some powerful pre-built cars for each class. If you’re confident in your car designing skills, you can use the new Blueprint function to share your wild ride with other players online. The great thing about this is if your car is used by other players in winning races, you’re credited onscreen, which just might result in a side business tweaking cars for other online players. I’m not sure how virtual currency if any will exchange hands for your hard work, but I’m sure we’ll see some really powerful custom whips cracking soon after the game ships.

In addition to the new Speed Challenges, Drag, Drift and Grip races will also be part of the game plan, but as these sections weren’t playable at the event we’ll have to speculate that the dev team is pouring just as much effort into these areas. How the online play is shaping up is also a question mark; however, it’s probably a safe bet that the game will attract fans of both arcade and simulation styles of racing as both elements are well represented. In addition to next-gen systems and PC, ProStreet is set to hit the Wii, PlayStation 2 and PSP on November 14, making it a great holiday gift for street racing fans who own these consoles. We’ll take a look at the final version in a bit and let you know if Need for Speed ProStreet has what it takes to be the king of the road on the racing scene.

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