Greased lightning, goooo greased lightning! Preview

Greased lightning, goooo greased lightning!

Cool cats, greasers, badboys and beatniks, prepare to relive the golden age of American automotive craftsmanship. I'm talkin' about powerful horseless chariots with massive engines - 450hp turbo V8, manual 4-speed gas-guzzling leviathans, complete with blower and dual carbs. Run, little V4 engine, RUN! Because these babies look mean and sound even meaner. We're going back to an era when cars were built for longevity, steel was considered safe and an economy commuter car was called a "bicycle."

Motor City Online is Electronic Arts' upcoming gift to the cyber grease-monkey, as well as my newest obsession. Fast, furious racing and intricate customization are the name of the game. All cars are licensed (Chevy, Ford, Plymouth) and date from the classic 30's and fat fender 40's to the obscenely powerful muscle cars of the late 60's and early 70's. There are over 60 cars included with additional vehicles available for download after launch. Tack on a brand new racing engine and I think we have a show-stopper, folks.

Anyone who has been following the lengthy development process behind MCO has undoubtedly noticed the name change. Let us clarify. The change in name (originally Need For Speed: Motor City) has brought some fundamental changes in gameplay. The single player option has been completely dropped. The game is now titled Motor City Online for a very good reason: it's online only! There will be no gameplay at all offline. That sucks, we know.

But before you pelt us with rotten cabbage, there's more. Motor City Online will require a monthly subscription, the amount of which is yet to be announced. Fortunately, when you become a member of EA's online gaming network, your one monthly fee pays for all of EA's online subscription based games, like Majestic, Earth and Beyond or the anxiously awaited Sims Online. Nice.

But enough with the backstory - let's get to the nitty gritty.

You start off by picking your desired 3D character (who can be seen behind the wheel) and buying a car. No, your first car is not a pretty one. But you'll be fixing that soon enough…

There are five race modes: Drag Racing, Open trial, Street Racing (here you'll find pedestrians and traffic), Circuit Racing and Sponsorship Racing. In a Sponsorship race, you are provided a car (usually better than yours) to race with on a specific track. But you don't have to pay for any damages incurred. This is great for learning tracks and earning risk-free cash. Sponsorship can be played as time trials or against other racers. You can even hold your own races and charge whatever dollar amount you want for players to participate. And many races can be adjusted so that higher or lower ranking players with faster (or slower) cars can't join. This keeps things even.

In the beginning, Time Trials are the quickest way to obtain sizable amounts of cash. You also receive a paycheck of $1000 of virtual MCO money every Friday at 5 o'clock. Now you can begin to seriously customize your new purchase. Just try not to live paycheck to paycheck.

More than a hundred parts make up one car in MCO, though the game ships with over 2,000. Go to the workshop and marvel at the extensive parts selection, from simple spoilers and wheelie bars to intake manifolds, cam shafts, crank shafts, various suspension parts, radiators, blowers, brand name engine blocks, paintjobs and so much more. The customization engine is like none other. You'll even need to consider your car's weight and the heat it puts out. The attention to detail is amazing!

Still, you don't have to be a hardcore car nut to get into this game. It can be as complex as you want it. Classic car-freaks, however, will find themselves right at home. You can even personalize your license plate. Plus, parts have a working wear-and-tear system so the guy with the best parts won't have the best parts forever. Take that, Fonzie.

Once you really get going, you could easily spend all day obsessively tricking-out your car. Eventually, you want to bend some corners, mark your territory with a few skid marks and really see if it was all worth the effort. But it better look good, right? After all, you're still paying for this sucker.

MCO is a fine looking game with a lot of style. At first glance, the interface may seem a bit intimidating with all the links, buttons and options, but it's laid out intelligently and is easy to navigate.

You'll race across 24 different tracks with more to be downloaded after the game has shipped, and so far things look great. Motor City thankfully takes advantage of hardware T&L (transforming and lighting) to help produce some terrific graphics and effects such a dynamic lighting and shadows. Finally, we see the payoff for purchasing last year's high-end graphic cards. These cars truly do look like their real-life counterparts.

And they move like them, too. Using authentic 4-point suspension physics, vehicles rock, roll, sway and fishtail just like some of us remember. Point-specific damage modeling compliment the games spectacular crashes and wipeouts and can cause very noticeable changes in engine sounds and handling - just like a real car. You can also watch the replay from a number of different camera views and slow motion speeds (laid out just like the old NFS replay interface).

Who knew keyboard driving would be so easy? Of course, a wheel or an adequate controller is optimal to lessen those inevitable wipeouts and crashes. Hope you're ready to pay the mechanic.

Let's say you don't have the greenbacks to repair your heavily damaged engine block. Maybe it's time you take advantage of the MCO community of auto-philes. Buy or sell parts and paintjobs to friends or user-run garages and at Ebay style auctions. MCO offers persistent chat systems such as full e-mail and instant messaging to keep in touch with friends, fellow club members and other players. This is a good way to touch base with players randomly selling parts or to hear about a nice Sponsorship race.

Motor City Online is easily the most fun I've ever had with a driving game. EA has created much more than a simple racing sim, which, as of this current build, delivers on all things promised. The customization is endless, the racing is great and the level of commerce will keep this gem in your rotation for many gaming sessions to come.

Prepare to brandish your digital monkey wrench this Fall.