"To finish first, first you must finish," legendary motorsport commentator Murray Walker often said. And it stands to reason that to finish, it helps if you manage to start. This isn't something the PSP version of Need for Speed ProStreet managed to do late last year, when owners of all the other formats, including DS and mobile, got to play the game.
But what PSP ProStreet proves is that you don't have to be first off the line to stay competitive. The game drops any attempt at a backstory and simply tasks you with becoming the world's greatest street racer in the new Career mode. It's simple: win racing events to unlock more advance tracks and competitions. Any money won from meetings can be turned into vehicle upgrades or new cars.
You've no doubt travelled this tarmac before, and thankfully there aren't any cheesy cut-scenes to sit through or a hyped up announcer chronicling your climb to the top. Instead, you're plopped onto a static screen listing a slew of competitive racing events. Stripping away the over-the-top urban style so prominently featured in previous installments of the Need for Speed series makes it bearable. But on the flip side, it leaves the title without much personality and as a result ProStreet feels like a generic racing game, albeit a very competent one.
There are six different events in total: Circuit, Speed Trap, Lap KO, Gate KO, Time Attack, and Sprint. Unlike Circuit Races that have you running laps around a track, Sprints set you on a single stretch of road. As the name implies, Time Attack has you speeding to reach the finish line before time runs out, while Lap and Gate KO are straightforward races where the racer in last place is dropped at the end of each lap or following a gate.
That leaves Speed Trap, in which your goal is to accumulate the fastest cumulative speed. Gates record your speed as you run a course and you'll want to maximize your velocity at those precise points. It's a great inclusion since it completely changes how you approach driving: instead of aiming for the finish line, you're tailoring your driving to maximise speed at specific points along the track.
Venues come in a baker's dozen, each with a slate of six to seven events apiece, ranging from the urban highways of Tokyo to a seashore run to a replica of the Portland International Speedway. There's more than enough variety among the 13 locations and the track design is challenging without being brutal.
So you won't have a difficult time navigating the roads, not least as a result of a tight and predictable handling model, but you might come into some trouble going up against the computer-controlled racers. Unyielding in its racing strategy, the game keeps racers on a tight line on each track. Far from being aggressive, AI racers simply stubbornly stick to their designated racing line. Never will the computer attempt to strategically block your advance or move up on an opening if it conflicts with its predetermined course.
This makes racing against the AI at times frustrating and always predictable. It's easy to surmise what a driver is going to do, but overcoming them can often prove difficult. During Gate KO events, this can be particularly hard since you're forced into competing quickly to avoid being knocked out of the race at the next gate.
Damage modelling also makes things challenging, although its impact on a race is entirely dependent on your driving skills. Grinding against track walls and slamming into competitors slowly degrades your vehicle's condition, as noted by an icon of your car on the top-right.
Critical damage to the left side of your car, for example, results in poor handling and a tilt to the left. Obviously this makes steering a greater challenge, enough to deter you from incurring any damage during a race. And if that doesn't cure your brakes-are-for-chumps arcade driving ways, you also have to pay repair fees at the end of an event for any damage sustained.
Online play, meanwhile, ensures you'll get a lot of mileage out of ProStreet even if it's limited in what it offers. Any of the venues featured in Career mode can be played online with up to three other players. Disappointingly, though, none of the race events from single-player transfer online – you find yourself locked into standard Circuit races for every multiplayer match. Ditching Time Attack makes perfect sense, but leaving behind other cool events like Speed Trap and Gate KO restricts the appeal of online play.
Still, a comprehensive skill level system tracks your performance online, tallying wins and losses into a rank. Winning races obviously nets you points that increase your rank and competing against more experienced players rewards a greater bump up in rank should you succeed, whereas beating out a player lower in rank won't net you many points at all. It's an intuitive system that encourages you to seek out challenges instead of merely thrashing beginners for the sake of inflating your rank (and ego).
Full online play, along with a lengthy Career mode and customisation options, means there's a lot to keep you entertained, then, even if it is a little unassuming in style. While there are clear shortcomings that cause ProStreet to stutter in a few spots, the game still manages a podium finish thanks to solid racing mechanics and an impressive wealth of content.