If you were in the Headstart week of Need for Speed World, in which early birds could tour the world a week early, you'll have experienced a discouraging sense of isolation. The first multiplayer race I tried to join was a matter of sitting in a lobby with a single, silent avatar chosen from the small and self-consciously macho collection available.
The minute-long lobby wait was so pregnant with tension that I typed an embarrassed “hi” into the chat window, with 30 seconds left to the race. Fifteen seconds later, I got the reply “bailing if only 2”. He proved himself no liar, and some seconds after I was kicked back into the world. Was he rude? Was I expecting too much? Is it mentally ill to fall in love so easily?
As the week dragged on, it became clear that I couldn't honestly review the game as an MMO racing game on the basis of the races I was having. There simply weren't enough people. I experienced the reasonable but testing difficulty curve of single-player games - and their inferior Rep (NFSW's XP) rewards - and I initiated a lucrative set of familiar solo pursuits with the police force. But those multiplayer races - surely the entire point of a genre with MMO in it - were attracting a maximum of three participants, whether I was on the American or European server. Generously enough, you can take your drivers onto either server, a boon to anyone who keeps odd hours.
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It doesn't help that the basic, free-roaming world is almost completely aimless. Your physical relationship with other cars changes depending on what you're doing. In the free-roaming world, other players are ghosts that can be freely driven through. Collisions are possible with server-operated cars and cops, which stutter into existence as you drive around. But anything that you might want to elicit a reaction from - say, a human being - is untouchable.
So, unless you're keen on setting off a cop chase, or chasing a stranger around like a ghostly Labrador, there's little to be gained from roaming. Gaining a familiarity with the world might be a benefit, maybe, if you could define and invite people to your own races - as in Codemasters' poorly-reviewed Fuel. But otherwise, the thoughtful convenience of being able to teleport to a race start location renders a wider knowledge of the world redundant.
In turn, the ability to remotely join the queue for a multiplayer race renders the teleporting option redundant. This means that there's a inertia with free-roaming and the logging-in entry points are the busiest places. Occasionally, someone does a reverse donut.
If you want to interact non-competitively with people in a more substantial way, you can join a Stadium event. This is an area in which you can do anything you like - in less charitable words, there are no goals, and no point. Pose, ram each other, chat, take snapshots. Show off your new vinyls from the impressive - if not Forza-standard - customisation shop. See if you can spell swear words with the shapes. The first stadium - and the only one you'll see for a while - doesn't have ramps or banks, or anything to encourage driving around - it's a simple baseball diamond. Donuts it is, then.
At the other end of the action spectrum are those pursuits. High-risk rewards are on offer if you ram a police car. On impact, the world is wiped clean of other players, and suddenly it's one man versus an ever-inflating cop presence. It's easy to escape quickly, but that earns you a paltry sub-100 Rep. Avoid capture for extended periods, write off state property, and generally be a very rude chap, and you can expect exponential rewards. A six-minute pursuit bagged me nearly 1500 Rep - the same as four or five multiplayer wins. It's also - perversely, as a solo experience - one of the most enjoyable parts of the game, once you've invested a skill point in the radar skill.
It's tense, only slightly unfair, and the frustration of failure is easily matched by the jubilation of escape. If you do get boxed in with your Emergency Evade and Juggernaut power-ups empty or on cooldown, you'll still get a commiserating sliver of Rep. But that won't stop you slamming your gamepad on the desk and standing up like you've got something better to do, in a miniature impotent protest. That's a good thing. It's good to feel something. But it would have been so much better if I could have done it with a friend.
At Level 10, free players are capped, and the XP required to advance ramps up. So even a few days into NFSW's full release, with the early tracks brimming with newcomers keen to race, you'll find the tracks that are unlocked after Level 10 require patience to find a convincing challenge. You can play the old tracks, but the Rep rewards are diminished and you look like the awkward big kid who hangs around his old school because adult life isn't working out. "Sorry," I said, having won my most shaming victory yet. "There's no-one playing at my level." Six people ignored me. One replied “Sure.” I'm fairly sure he was shaking his head.
Skill points are earned immediately, and can be distributed in three areas: Race, Pursuit, and Explore. It's a shame you have to specialise, because the game wants you to do all three things - I'd have preferred more a more granulated selection and two points per level. However, after a few essentials (Radar and Ram for pursuits, and skill-awarded Nitrous boosts at the start of a race) these skills aren't really pronounced enough to be imbalancing.
Boost is Need for Speed World's micro-transaction currency. With it, you can buy short-cuts; how fair that feels is up to your own conscience and how visible the cheat is. Essentially, you're all playing by the same rules, but people with more Boost can take advantage of those more often. It will be most illustrative to describe what I spent my £15's worth of boost on. I'll use sterling here, instead of a euphemism that's designed to feel like easily-spent Monopoly money.
- £2.70: Three days of 25 per cent reputation boost
First things first: I paid to have my reputation earned from races and pursuits boosted by 25 per cent. This means 20 per cent less life spent getting to those unlockable cars and vinyls. The first few levels are all sprints, with a circuit race opening up around level four. Circuits offer slightly different power-ups, such as One More Lap - but they're still races.
Unlocking new races makes the world fuller, and more interesting, and you progressing faster hurts no-one. Buy with a clear conscience. You can also buy a 25 per cent cash boost for the same amount, if you're a breadhead.
- £1.62: Tier 2 car rental
I rented a powerful Tier 2 car. I'd have had to wait until Level 12 to legitimately buy one, and my money situation was taking a hammering from a string of failed pursuits. This rental car's power embarrassed my Mazdasport 3. It even showed up the other cars in the same class, which could only be bought for those in-game dollars.
Handing over the Boost for the rental, I felt like a disgusting fraud. But I dutifully joined a race, and was thrown in with a single opponent - also in a rental car. This was a relief, but the next race was against two regular cars, and the hostility was justifiable and plainly expressed. "Another rental car noob," I was told. When I crashed into a wall, I was told, "LOL fast car noob" from the finishing line. Rental cars in multiplayer races, then: bad form.
- 60p: 5 x Nitrous / 60p: 5 x Juggernaut / £1.20: 10 x Traffic Magnet
After every completed race, you get to choose one of five bonus cards. They contain cash, rep, or one of the power-ups that help you boost, sabotage leaders, ram cops, and escape pursuit. These cards are your only free source of power-ups, and the random nature means you're bound to run out of your favourite items. However, the fact that you can earn them without spending Boost provides the ideal cover for anyone wanting to buy their way around the track. Even the cooldown time can be circumvented with the "Ready!" power-up, allowing you to spend those power-ups as quickly as you like.
Need for Speed World should be a dirty game. A clean race, with no ramming or power-ups, is still enjoyable, but it only becomes a matter of fantastic pride and fury when you're calling traffic magnets or slamming someone into an oncoming car. It's a shame the free access to power-ups is fettered by the mean bonus cards system and Boost purchases, because with more power-ups - and more varied power-ups - this could be a great, filthy racer.
The beta has seen a few bugs, so I'll share my experience over installation on three PCs. On a two-year old Dell desktop that cost £400 and only barely met the minimum spec, the game ran perfectly, and played well over a wired network. My three-year-old gaming PC looked much better, but over a wireless network, there was some lag. The PC in an office, meanwhile, has never been able to log in, with an unhelpful message that pops up before I can even get into the world. Googling shows other people have had the same problem - so that's another reason to try out the trial version before shelling out £15 or $20 for the Starter Pack, which awards you that amount of Boost as well as allowing you to level up freely.
It feels like the opportunity to do something interesting has been lost with Need for Speed World - or not realised yet. Larger races. The ability to define and share your own races. Multiplayer pursuits. It's fairly obvious that the only reason this is a PC exclusive is because Xbox Live Arcade or PlayStation Network can't accommodate the Boost system, because NFSW appears to have been built with console sensibilities in mind. It's a real shame that the MMO aspect of World is effectively a needlessly elaborate lobby.
There is scope to do some interesting things here. And there is room to do them, yet. Just don't buy the Starter Pack until you've exhausted the free trial.
6 / 10