Need for Speed is one of the biggest racing franchises video gaming has ever seen. Throughout its long and somewhat chequered history, the series has put a number of different spins on its arcade oriented style of racing, often dabbling with illegal street racing and police pursuit in some form. There’s nothing like going flat out, dodging in and out of traffic on the highway while trying to evade the three police cars on your tail, with their radio chatter about upcoming road blocks in your ears.
And this massively multiplayer version of the game doesn’t stray from this formula. It presents players with a large open sandbox of a city, marked with icons representing the start lines of street races. You can either drive to these (or teleport directly via a map click to save time) and sign up for an event, wait for others to join and away you go to load up the track. Alternatively, if you don’t fancy racing you can ram a city police car and enter pursuit mode, having to evade the chasing cops while causing as much damage as possible to score points. Litter bins, bus stops, and bigger targets like petrol stations can be destroyed (or to hit the police where it really hurts, try totalling a doughnut shop).
All is not well in Need for Speed’s sprawling online city, however. It’s a bit like London in that nobody talks to each other. The chat box is mostly dead, save for the odd question (and often that’s in a foreign language as these are European servers). At any rate, interaction between players is minimal. You can add people to your friends list, and form groups to chat, although no one ever seems to bother with the latter. A news feed keeps you up to date with your friends’ achievements, which is a smart touch, but really, the city of Need for Speed World is just a glorified lobby for setting up races.
True, engaging with the cops in pursuit mode utilises the full city setting, and you’ll see other people burning around town, but there’s no meaningful interaction here. Okay, we understand why player-on-player collisions are turned off; to prevent griefing. But there’s no reason why the developer couldn’t have introduced, say, an option for human controlled police cars (unmarked, perhaps, with a Starsky and Hutch style roof light) that could be allowed into other players’ pursuits. Or something, anything to make the city feel a bit more alive.
While Need for Speed World might not be particularly social or friendly, it does have one advantage over London, and that’s the lack of any congestion charge. This is one city you don’t have to pay to drive around. At least to begin with anyway: the game is free to download and play up to level ten, which will probably take the average player a good six to eight hours to reach.
To progress beyond that level, the Starter Pack must be bought, which costs £15. This also nets you a bonus car, and some boost points which can be spent on various micro-transactions within the game such as experience point bonuses. As you level your driver up, new skills can be selected from a small pool, so he can become an expert race starter, for example, with a chance to get a turbo-boost if the car’s revs are timed just right as the lights go green. More cars are also unlocked as the player progresses up through the driving ranks.
Gaining levels is fairly slow going after the first few, and requires racing and re-racing the same events over and over again. There isn’t much in the way of variety here, with a small selection of sprint races (point to point) and circuits (laps). And that’s your lot. It’s all a bit disappointingly thin on the ground. Further problems are caused by the lack of popularity of some of the city’s tracks, so you tend to race on an even smaller sub-set to get a full field of eight vehicles (two- or three-player events just aren’t the same).
Need for Speed World’s controls and physics are distinctly arcade by nature, and also distinctly glitchy. This is high speed racing where the brakes aren’t often needed, and even when the odd sharp corner looms, it’s very possible to smash your way along the outside of the turn without losing much velocity. Reinforcing the game’s arcade nature, and also making the human opposition you face more interesting, a range of power-ups can be purchased. As well as nitrous boosts, these include nefarious inventions such as the traffic magnet, which turns the race leader’s car into a magnet which literally pulls oncoming vehicles towards him. Nasty indeed, though it can be countered with the shield power-up.
Unfortunately, any fun we had strategically deploying power-ups was largely negated by the physics and lag issues the races suffer from. The handling of the car itself is reasonably responsive, but the collision modelling seems pretty out of whack and generally lacking in finesse. What doesn’t help is that the game has no real feeling of solidity, as player cars lag and skip around, particularly when there are lots of vehicles on screen. Computer controlled traffic also ghosts in and out, which is highly off-putting. To round all this off, we kept being dumped out of races as they were loading up for no apparent reason.
What also got our back up was the lack of any option to redefine the keys. Yes, we were playing with the keyboard, as our steering wheel wasn’t supported by the game (in fact, the list of supported peripherals is fairly limited). As it happens, we don’t mind driving with the keyboard anyway, providing we can pick our own keys. However, we were stuck with the slightly awkward default scheme. Not being able to remap the control keys just isn’t good enough, quite frankly.
Ultimately, Need for Speed World came with too many disappointments for us, from the limited number of possible race events to the flaky physics and lag issues. On the positive side, it’s free to try and we did enjoy some close-run races, plus evading the police in pursuit mode is reasonably entertaining for a while.
However, we’re not sure many players are sticking it beyond the free level ten point of the game. We rented a higher level Porsche for three days using our boost points, and struggled to find many players to race our shiny new silver supercar against. So we ended up parked in the street, posing, much of the time. Which, we suppose, is quite realistic, thinking about it…