Monday, December 05, 2011

Need for Speed - Nitro

A solid arcade racing experience for a system that should have had one a long time ago.

Being an arcade racer on a Nintendo console is a less-than-enviable situation, given that you're eventually going to be compared with the venerable Mario Kart Wii at some point. Fortunately, Need for Speed Nitro manages to hold its own against its heavyweight competitors. Nitro is EA Montreal's re-envisioning of the Need For Speed franchise, and represents their first attempt at tailoring it specifically for the Wii, instead of adapting the usual multiplatform versions.

The effort definitely shines through, as most of the numerous control schemes (including Wii Wheel, Wii Remote and Nunchuk, GameCube and Classic Controller) work very well, and the squished-looking stylized cars and colorful graphics play to the Wii's strong points. Instead of half-heartedly attempting a realistic look, all the game's cars feature drastically chopped and slammed looks with huge wheels; most of the cars look like Rat Fink should be hanging out of them. The bright colors, loud engine noises and generally over-the-top aesthetic will make any old-school Burnout or OutRun fans feel right at home.

Nitro features simple car customization for body kits, spoilers, hoods, wheels and more, which you unlock via the Career mode. The Wii Remote is a nice touch for customizing, as you just click on the part of your car you want to change, and the game swaps parts accordingly. There's no performance-based modification for the cars -- instead, you upgrade to new vehicles with slightly higher stats. All the cars tend to handle in the same way, though, so the upgrades are usually just slightly faster or tougher.

There are a number of different race modes offered, including Circuit, Drift, Speed Trap, Time Attack, Elimination and Drag. The Drag mode is particularly fun, as it narrows the course to four lanes of traffic that you swerve between, while dodging oncoming vehicles and focusing on getting perfect shifts. Don't worry, simulation haters; this mode has the only manual shifting you'll find in the game. Other modes, specifically Time Attack and Speed Trap, are surprisingly unforgiving (more on these below). The game also has a neat little burnout trick used for launching your car at the start of race, where you rev your engine in synch with a green gauge. But Nitro's strongest accomplishment is its speed. The game feels fast enough, but hit the nitro boost and things get extra hectic; scenery hurtles by (at a slick 60 frames a second) while you narrowly swerve around traffic and avoid slamming into your opponents and walls. Much like Burnout, the more reckless your driving, the faster your nitro boost bar charges.

Nitro shares its career progression with NFS Shift, awarding stars based on race placement, lap time, and style score. While the first several races may allow you to get all the stars in a single race, later challenge require some very precise driving in order to get 100% completion. The Time Attack races in particular are very unforgiving, requiring the player to drive down super-specific lines and take every possible shortcut. The difficulty isn't overwhelming for general career progression though, as there's a large selection of races to complete, and you'll usually be able to scrape together enough stars to progress, even if you're doing poorly. The game's "steering assist" option is a big help for casual gamers, too, making the game significantly easier to play.

Nitro does have its share of problems, starting with the inability to switch to a different camera view. The default chase cam view is too close, and makes seeing things directly in front of your vehicle annoyingly difficult. The pursuing police A.I. is also fairly schizophrenic, sometimes brutally ramming you off the road with a low wanted level, and then just casually cruising behind you when you're at the maximum wanted level. The arcade-style physics are also somewhat unreliable, as the cars' bouncing around can mean a wildly different outcome from collision to collision -- sometimes your car will be slightly nudged off course, while other times you'll do a standing flip into a wall and have to restart the race. And despite the variety of race types, there are relatively few courses to race on, and they all feel very similar to one another, which makes the game feel more repetitive than it should.

While gamers may be quick to dismiss Nitro as a shallow racer aimed at casual gamers, it's actually fairly difficult, and gamers looking to totally complete the game will have a decent challenge facing them. Unfortunately, the "shallow" moniker does apply in some respects, as the single-player Career mode is quite brief and represents the bulk of the game; plus, the absence of online play does nothing to help this. Given the slim pickings for racing fans on the Wii, though, it's easy to recommend NFS: Nitro, as it brings a solid (if however spartan) arcade racing experience to a system that clearly should have had one a long time ago.  
SYSTEM: Nintendo DS, Nintendo Wii



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