Version tested: Xbox 360
Driving games have done a lot of odd things over the years to get noticed. Mario Kart gave you shells to fire. MSR gave you points for losing traction. Ridge Racer let you drive sideways round corners. Need For Speed was, on and off, about running away from the law. This one isn't though - this one's about street racing kids going straight. Which is an apt description, since you basically can't steer.
Things start off badly as you sit on the grid holding down the accelerator while your car visibly fits in front of you, bouncing around like a washing machine while a negligibly attired stripper pouts you down to the start. As soon as you hit the first corner you lose it, because turning further than 10 degrees at anything faster than a crawl isn't going to happen, leaving you to pump the brake for ages and ease almost completely off the accelerator in order to get the nose round anywhere near far enough. It's not that difficult to master the cornering once you accept these rules (and there are three degrees of Driver Assist options to help you if you struggle), but being proficient at ProStreet is more like being good at scouring pans than being good at, say, dancing. Or racing cars for sport.
Strangely it's all best played out in the wider third-person view, which pulls back as you accelerate, because this accentuates what speed you have and couples well to a physics model that really drags at your tyres if you let a wheel slip off the track into the dirt, and won't let you get away with mowing down sign-posts or anything like that, either. As a result, going fast is a precarious feeling, and the game's best moments involve threading your delicate, hand-built racers at pace through networks of long but slight opposing corners. The other camera options aren't really worth exploring - there's a bonnet cam instead of a bumper cam, which makes things feel floaty and slow, and a closer third-person effort, and for some reason the driver's-eye view feels more like you're pinned to the windscreen somewhere above the dashboard, so it's a bit like playing as a tax disc.
Visually the cars are generally pretty, and there is a tremendous amount of customisation to be done for those so inclined, which is of course where a lot of ProStreet's depth really lies. Not only can you buy and pin tons of upgrades to your various cars - altering driving characteristics in the process, and even doing clever things like testing downforce in a wind tunnel - but you can record your preferred set-up as a "blueprint", which you can then share with friends. Not a bad idea, that. Damage modelling, too, is done extremely well, with bumpers hanging off, bonnets getting mashed and as much crumpling as you've seen anywhere other than Burnout or your washing basket. That said, the systems governing repairs are a bit forgiving - there are all sorts of repair markers to use, or you can spend cash, but it doesn't really cripple you as it might, and it doesn't really incentivise you to drive any safer - you were already having to brake far more than usual anyway.
Equally un-groovy is the bizarre "wobble" effect that seems to have crept into Need For Speed recently as you drive around. I'm not sure whether EA's trying to compensate for the 30fps frame-rate (which is fine), or whether it's an artistic choice designed to emphasise what speed there is, but it's the sort of over-compensation that sees otherwise sensible men spend hundreds of pounds on having another exhaust pipe. You are still driving a Ford Escort.
Not that there's anything inherently wrong with wanting to make your car look pretty, whatever Holy Moly presumably says, and ProStreet's presentation is certainly clued in to the world of boy racers and shouting at you when you walk home through car parks wearing the wrong trainers, but it's not really my taste. Indeed, there's a risk of doing my grouchy-old-man routine about all the shouting neon and hot-pant misogyny if I don't watch it. But actually, objectively this isn't so much tasteless as just trying too hard. The Ryo "Showdown King" character who 'disses' you in cut-scenes whenever you win is like a gurning adolescent bully with bum-fluff and a rich dad, and the announcers, who talk over almost every screen, are the sort of people who say things like "hip" and "rad" without a trace of irony, and keep referring to "my man Ryan Cooper" (that's your name - you can't change it) in a way that makes you clench your fists until the nails cut through the skin.
But then you can always turn some of it off and concentrate on customising your car and racing. It's not very exciting, but there's lots of it to do, with several events in each of the many Race Days and Showdowns you attend. There are standard multi-car races, which are what they are, and Time Trials, where you're racing around the same track as the others but spread out, a bit like Formula One qualifying sessions. There are also Drift races, where you throw the back of the car out for as long as possible to gather points. These aren't actually that bad (and I understand that last year's equivalents robbed you of all your points for going off the track, which ProStreet mercifully doesn't), but the lack of attendant speed and the fairly generic drift mechanism aren't going to gang up on PGR or OutRun with any particular success.
The worst events are probably the Drag Races, which aren't much more than a mini-game, but are put to way too much use. They're basically the 10-second-race thing from The Fast And The Furious (which most of the dev team can probably quote verbatim), and involve warming up your tyres by doing wheelspin with the right trigger (trying to hold a cursor in a green bit on a grip bar as much as possible), and then doing the actual race. This is a case of holding down the accelerator (without overheating) at the start line and then using the LB clutch and right-analogue gear-shifting to build up speed quickly. So in effect, it's pressing two buttons when prompted, then pressing two buttons when prompted, and then doing two more rounds of it. And then doing the entire thing again. It gets more difficult, and if you invest yourself enormously in tuning your car then it's possible to derive real satisfaction from reducing your best times by fractions of a second, which is of course the game's intention, but it's too much hard and repetitive work to get to that point, and my enthusiasm dwindled long beforehand.
Sector races are more interesting. Each track is split into four sectors, and the person who goes through one the fastest "owns it" until someone beats the time for that sector. Anyone who takes over ownership of a sector banks some points, and anyone who goes through subsequently without beating the target time gets nothing. That said, can anyone spot the fundamental flaw? It's that the first person off the line (cars start one after another, ala Time Trials) gets to bank four sectors' worth of points on the first lap. If the second person beats all of those times, he or she gets four sectors' worth of points too. But if the third person beats the first set of times but not the second, there's no reward at all. You can't fight for a better starting position, so that's that really.
Elsewhere, NFS' relationship with the Internet is confined to PS3 and Xbox 360 (the version tested here), and the ability to define your own Race Days full of events and custom racer line-ups is nice enough. EA also uses your broadband connection to serve in-game advertising, and it may not be overly intrusive (it's not like EA doesn't already fill its own games with fairly blatant self-promotion), but squeezing you for shareholder value is taken to an alarming new level at times here. One of the load screens tells you to send EA an SMS to buy the ProStreet mobile games, and every time you buy a car in the shop you're asked whether you want to use in-game cash (i.e. what you've worked for) or Microsoft Points. You can already download premium bundles of cars from Live to save you the trouble of actually unlocking them, which seems a bit pointless to me, and also neatly breaks the difficulty curve of the game for anyone who does it anyway.
In a brilliant racing game, you could forgive this sort of thing, and the occasional botched mode, and the annoying presentation, but ProStreet is far from a brilliant racing game. It's tolerable enough and will certainly last you a long time, but it seems a shame that what used to be one of EA's better, more reserved racing games has become quite so loud, desperate and mediocre in an attempt to distinguish itself, and that what it does get right in this year's iteration is almost completely divorced from the track where so many of its contemporaries excel.
5 / 10