Need for Speed has been topping the Christmas charts for so long now it's become as festive as mince pies and tinsel. If it hits the Xmas number one slot again (which will make it the third time running), Cliff Richard will have to change his seasonal song to include the words 'hydraulics' and 'carburettor' to fit in with the mistletoe and wine.
Yet while the series has achieved great critical success on home consoles, the DS iterations have been patchy to say the least. So it's a relief to announce that ProStreet is not only by far the finest NfS on DS yet, but also the best racing 'modder' on the platform.
Even in your first race you'll notice that the wide open roads, the sense of speed and the handling are exceptional. Gone are the narrow and confined tracks that have blighted many a racing title on the platform. Here there's enough room to jostle for position, drift with freedom and generally work up a good clip of speed to test the hardware's capabilities.
Visually it's very appealing, with excellent trackside scenery (including, bizarrely, giant monkey statues) and vehicles that actually look like their licensed counterparts rather than coloured boxes on wheels. Details such as drift marks etched in tarmac and grassy verges help you judge sweeping bends perfectly and the generous draw distance encourages skilful seat-of-the-pants racing rather than rote learning of courses.
If there is one major criticism, it's that there's very little sense of place or story in this year's outing. You play Ryan Cooper, a speed junkie intent on becoming the Street King… and that's pretty much it. You're thrown into a series of Race Day events and when you come out victorious at the end you feel slightly used and wondering what the point of it all was. It's a bit like a mystery one-night stand conducted entirely in the dark. Good fun but random and emotionally unsatisfying.
Thankfully, the game modes are varied enough to take your mind off the lack of a plot. There's Grip (all-out racing to see who has the fastest car), Drift (who can go sideways around corners best), Drag (for the acceleration junkies) and Speed (an event that tasks you with maintaining a consistently good top speed).
The Drag and Drift events are particularly strong, requiring varied skills for success. Drag is essentially a reaction test: once you've put enough heat into your tyres, you have to unleash your car bang on the green light and then shift and nitro your way over the line to beat your competitor. Drift is equally superb, requiring delicate braking around corners to max-out your powerslide bonus.
Vehicle handling is particularly good and while there is only a handful of licensed cars they all feel noticeably different on the road. Weight, physics and the effects of damage have been judged superbly and once you start modding your rides, you'll soon have favourites for each race type. For instance, the Dodge, with its snaking tailfin, is great for drifting, while the VW Golf is excellent at Grip events (at least in the earlier stages of the game).
Meanwhile, in terms of presentation ProStreet is classic EA: a fantastic front-end, edgy music and slick menu delivery with clear stat and performance updates. But structurally it does something that's incredibly annoying. Each Race Day consists of around five or six events. If you complete a certain percentage (usually three) you can move on to another Race Day. However, to 'dominate' the Race Day you have to complete all events in a single sitting. Come back to a partially completed Race Day and you have to start back from the beginning.
This isn't so bad in the early Race Days but later on, when some meetings can take over ten minutes, it's frustrating to be forced to either commit that slice of time or start back all over again at a subsequent session. Why the need to dominate? Well, it's sometimes a necessity in order to build up enough reward money to then buy a better vehicle or upgrade the one you have after a Race Day meet.
Apart from this daft bit of thinking, ProStreet is a forgiving though not easy game. Rival racers will clatter you to get track position, force you to make mistakes and generally pose a serious threat. There is a quaint 'time rewind' feature, so if you really mess up you can try again, but in the heat of competition you probably won't find much use for this. We feel it's a bit like stopping a football game to get video evidence of everything from fouls to throw-ins. Unnecessary, in other words.
There are plenty of other inclusions, thought, and you'll even find an interesting – though incredibly tricky – rhythm-action game called Hydraulics to unlock. The idea is to show off your vehicles hydraulics system by keeping time to the music. As the beats reach the circle in the centre of the screen you must press the appropriate button. Mistime too many notes and its back to the garage.
With a very strong multiplayer mode, which enables you to play varied race types (and even the Hydraulics game), ProStreet emerges from its development garage as a thorough and compelling package that easily trumps all rival modding titles on the DS.
But can it achieve the Christmas number one slot again? Put it this way, does the Queen like giving speeches?
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