Version tested: Wii
Did you know that while Need For Speed is one of the biggest-selling gaming brands in the world year after year, no one gives a stuff about the Wii versions?
Don't believe me? Last year's Need For Speed Undercover was, wait for it, the 126th best-selling Wii game in the UK, at which point "best-selling" seems like the wrong description. NFS Undercover on Wii was outsold by gaming powerhouses such as Pippa Funnell: Ranch Rescue, Big Catch: Bass Fishing, and the unforgettable My Horse and Me. To put it into perspective, Mario Kart Wii outsold it 66 to one. Wahoo indeed.
But is anyone surprised? It's been glaringly obvious since the Wii launched that few people want a graphically crippled version of a multiformat game with novelty controls. And you can't exactly start on the Wii and scale up either. That's probably why EA has finally taken the decision to craft versions that play to each format's strengths instead.
So far it has paid off, with the highly promising Need For Speed: SHIFT rebooting the flagging franchise in some style on PC, PS3 and Xbox 360. This week, it's the turn of Need For Speed: Nitro to demonstrate that a cartoony, more casual approach to arcade racing can get us excited in a completely different way. In theory, anyway.
Developed in-house at EA's Montreal studio, the contrast between SHIFT and Nitro couldn't be greater. With realism thrown out of the window like an empty crisp packet, Nitro is the product of a team high on a Starburst sugar rush, giddily recalling the sweet innocence of old-school SEGA racing games rather than the fretting about double wishbones and adverse camber. Evoking the primary-colour madness of Crazy Taxi, the gurning sideways-screeching of OutRun and Burnout's face-wobbling boosting, Nitro cherry-picks some of the most enticing ingredients that arcade racing fans could desire.
With this you get the standard Arcade or Career modes, and race types in each comprised of our good friends Circuit, Elimination, Drag Races and Time Attack, as well as Speed Trap, which, as you might recall from past NFS titles, means having to clock up unfeasibly fast speeds through a series of three checkpoints. Events take place in five locations - Rio, Cairo, Madrid, Singapore and Dubai - and progress is a matter of accumulating the required number of stars across each tier before the next one unlocks. Standard stuff, then.
The control system conforms to all the configurations under the sun, with support for the Wii wheel, Classic Controller and even the GameCube joypad. If you prefer steering by pointing the Wii remote forward and twisting it left or right, you can do that, though being horribly old-fashioned I plumped for the nunchuk style, where you actually get to steer with the stick. On the track, you can boost off the start by tapping the A button to keep the revs in the green zone, and then you rarely need to let go of the throttle.
Bumps and prangs are easy to brush off during races, with the game happy to keep the car moving at high speed even when things aren't working out for you. There's also a drift mechanic that a three-year-old could grasp, with a tap of the B button sending the car into a sideways screech that's nearly impossible to screw up. There's also a simple Burnout-style boost system, which rapidly builds up through any positive driving manoeuvre, be it drifting, drafting opponents, or staying in the lead. Activating it involves flicking the Wii remote forwards.
A few trademark Need For Speed elements creep into the gameplay in the form of the police, who will join the race halfway through and try and run you off the road. Progressive damage hinders your ability to boost, so it's important to try and keep them off your tail - either by boosting out of sight, or picking up police badges from the track which ensure they chase one of your opponents instead. Should you take too much damage, spanner icons litter the track so you can perform instant repairs.
Where Nitro starts to deviate from the norm is the way it combines race performance with trackside art, so hoardings and buildings reflect the custom colour and design of the race leader as they roar around the circuit. When you storm into the lead and start to 'own' the race, the track starts to paint over your opponent's design with your own, or, as EA puts it, the game starts to paint "the story of racing supremacy". It's a gimmick, of course, but the slick, exaggerated art style is actually one of the most engaging aspects of the game, with a rock solid frame-rate and great sense of speed adding to the alluring arcade feel. Compared to some of the soulless Need For Speeds of the past, Nitro's kid's TV eyeblast injects an urgency that has been sorely lacking.
The game comes with around 30 disproportionately chunky car models to buy, unlock and drive, interpreted from the real thing. You get to choose from city cars, street cars, performance cars and supercars, including the Ford Escort RS Cosworth, Corvette Stingray, Subaru Impreza and the VW Type 2 camper van. Each is rated in terms of speed, handling, acceleration, drift and strength, but customisation is limited to cosmetic changes only, which unlock as you progress.
Despite all the in-your-face urgency of Need For Speed: Nitro, however, the truth is that the gameplay really doesn't hold your attention for long enough. Perhaps that's the point. Maybe EA assumes that its potential audience will pick it up for a quick blast, and come back to it over weeks and months - but that's a big 'if'. Played over the course of several hours, Nitro struggles to maintain your attention for more than 10 or 15 minutes at a stretch, the simplicity of control poorly supported by content that fails to compensate with ideas and evolution of its own. Repeat play is tiresomely monotonous, with the same few tracks blurring into one another, and the same handful of race modes offering precious little variety.
Even the distinction between car classes fails to develop the gameplay, and within the first half an hour you feel like you've seen pretty much everything the game has to offer. It might scream 'excitement' at the top of its tiny lungs, then, but Need For Speed: Nitro's initially endearing zest quickly degenerates into repetitive strain. Making an Wii exclusive for a casual audience is one thing, but stripping the game of any substance whatsoever won't do its chances any good either.
5 / 10