A dash of Sim, a sprinkle of Action, a bit of Road Rage... Voila! Perfect racer!
Over the more than five years of their existence, Electronic Arts' Need For Speed series has always had a tumultuous relationship between its gameplay components: arcade and simulation.
Lady simulation flew, or better yet, drove solo in the first title, Need For Speed, released on the flagship 32-bit system: the 3DO. The game was pretty to look at and presented a unique racing experience, but it was too damn slow. The word "Speed" on the front cover mocked the game's buyers (fortunately, since it was on the 3DO, there weren't too many of those). It was a racing game that felt like members of the Gray Panthers Party had robbed a European car showroom and entered grand prix races around the globe. Simulation and Arcade met up on the PlayStation release of the same game, where speed was increased, new tracks were added and the game was now indeed fun.
In Need for Speed 2 however, Mr. Arcade decided to have his revenge, and left simulation doing math at the drawing board. As a result, the game had shorter tracks and little of the traditional NFS realism, adding up to another less than engaging racing experience.
Simulation took over to create NFS: V-Rally. The game was speedy, but the cars reacted too realistically and would often flip over with a quick tap of the D-Pad. Simulation and Arcade finally resolved their differences last year (with the help of a counselor) and joined forces for NFS 3: Hot Pursuit. Both elements blended together seamlessly, creating a game with fast and exciting races, exhilarating cops and robbers style chases, all while retaining realistic car handling and a nice (if a little forgiving) physics engine.
Today, the couple are still "so happy together." The latest release in the series, NFS: High Stakes, is all of the game Hot Pursuit was and then some.
The game's setup is similar to NFS 3. You have the options of playing time trial, single race, hot pursuit, tournament and a new mode: high stakes. Time trial and single race are commonplace on all racers, and High Stakes' versions vary little in setup from previous titles in the genre. Hot pursuit is the same great mode offered in NFS 3, where you can either evade the "five-0," or join the pigs and catch the bandit yourself. Although basically unchanged since NFS 3, hot pursuit mode's thrills feel as fresh as it did a year ago because of a more hostile computer presence.
Tournament again, is similar to NFS 3, but where those old races lagged at times, High Stakes has solved the problem by reducing races to two laps. This benefits the game by making racing considerably more aggressive. Races are almost always neck to neck, forcing you to pull off some tricky maneuvering. The final and new gameplay mode, High Stakes, is the closest thing to computerized gambling the PlayStation has created. In the mode, two players insert their memory cards into the system and load their best cars. Players race and the loser gets his or her car erased from the memory card. Ouch.
Car selection in High Stakes is comparable to NFS 3, with similar but updated versions of the cars. Cars range from the speed freak Lamborghini Diablo SV, to the monster of a machine the Mclaren F1 GTR, to a freakin' American tradition: the new Corvette. Cars are beautifully rendered in all their polygonal glory, with exacting detail, topped off with nice glossy finishes.
Once the asphalt is under your wheels and the race is underway, video game driving realism takes on a new meaning. As the speedometer jets past regular-law-abidin'-folk speed, enters drag race status and finally peaks at speeds that would make Indy Racers wet their pants, the console driving experience is defined. Races are fast and are rarely, if ever, sluggish.
Though arcade-ish in its gameplay, High Stakes contains many more sim elements than NFS or NFS 3. In tournament mode for example, each race win earns you a certain amount of money. This money can be spent to upgrade your existing car (improve suspension, acceleration and handling), or once a tournament is completed it can be used to purchase a new car. The one downfall to this is that players can race the easy tournaments that they have already won with their new souped-up rides, over and over again. Money can be accumulated and this dough can be used for an unfair advantage, by using it to buy all the car upgrades for following tournaments.
Along with the money element, for the first time in the series, High Stakes includes car damage. Running in head first to the side of cliffs at 250 Mph has consequences in the game, and all of the damage you put your car through is equated into a repair bill (where the money comes out of your pocket). This causes you to drive more cautiously and (gasp!) use the brakes. However, the damage system isn't without its flaws. I've tried repeatedly, and no matter how many times I crashed the cars, no more than $12K was ever needed for repairs. You can't even replace the cigarette lighter in a Ferrari for $12k.
Car handling in High Stakes is very sim based, more so than NFS 3. Cars feel distinctly different from each other, and all factors such as car weight and frame design affect handling. When cars have to make sharp turns, they require a precise alternation of braking and accelerating. For example, too much braking with no acceleration will cause massive spin outs. Unlike Ridge Racer type racers, the cars in High Stakes don't ricochet when they crash into walls, instead they come to a complete standstill and must be put into reverse.
Car collision also takes on sim characteristics. When your car is bumped on its side by an opponent, it will usually begin to fishtail. If you try to fight the swerving motion of your car by steering back and forth, a spinout isn't uncommon.
More than the added sim and realism, the greatest improvement over NFS 3 is High Stakes' advanced computer AI. Gone are the days when the computer opponents would let you pass them if you were cruising at a higher speed. In High Stakes, when you begin your attempt at passing, they react and swerve in your direction. And if you happen to make it side by side with them, they will ram into you before you can scream mercy.
The new computer AI makes the races rock. You simply can't win by only racing well and not hitting the sides. You must develop strategies of maneuvering between opponents and must learn how to combat the especially stubborn ones.
To add to an already complete package, graphic detail in the game is phenomenal. From rugged outdoors of Canada with exquisitely rendered tunnels and bridges, to the lazy small towns of Germany with fluid windmills and elaborate houses, every detail is created perfectly. Locations have much more detail than previous NFS installments and many more light sources are present. The look of each setting is mesmerizing and helps create an immersive racing environment.
But because this is the PlayStation, greater graphical detail means a lower frame rate. High Stakes' frame rate is noticeably slower than NFS 3's, and all too often the slowdown creeps up and detracts from the beauty of the game's visuals.
Need For Speed: High Stakes is a riot of a racer. In my books, it rates as the best racer on the PlayStation. For diehard simulation fans, Gran Turismo is still the king. High Stakes has many sim elements but it's definitely a mesh with arcade. However, as many may know, Gran Turismo ain't much in the way of thrilling action or multiplayer (It's not extremely fast and there are no real crashes or damage). In the end, High Stakes is just more fun.