Need For Speed ProStreet Review (Xbox 360)
I have to give EA a little bit of credit here. It must be a very tough decision to take a proven cash cow franchise like Need for Speed and change its direction. Taking the series that has become well known as a free-roaming, open-ended racing game and turning it into a circuit racer had to have the bean counters at EA nervous, and with good reason—NFS games cater to the largest market available, with the widest audience. When you pigeon hole it into a “legalized” circuit racing scene, you’re going to turn off a lot of people. The flip side is that you’ll find gamers who don’t traditionally enjoy the NFS style of game finding a bit more fun than they’re accustomed to having with the series. I’m definitely the latter. If you’re on the fence, read on.
As you have probably seen or heard already, the NFS franchise took a major turn with its latest iteration in Pro Street. Gone are the days of roaming the streets, running red lights and flying through intersections at 180 miles per hour. You won’t find cops to outrun or any laws to break (other than the laws of physics). What you will find, if you get past the fact that it barely feels like a NFS game and closer to a “Forza Lite”, is a pretty entertaining racing game. It will be pretty tough to ignore the drastic changes in the title, that’s for sure…but if you spend some time with it, you can actually find yourself having a decent bit of fun here. After you’ve gone through a few race days, upgraded cars, and really started tuning for track types, you’ll realize this is not the NFS that you’ve come to know. It’s a whole new breed, but that breed certainly won’t appeal to everyone.
For starters, you aren’t able to purchase one of many cars out of the gates, as you could with just about any previous title. You’re given a beater of a 240SX, complete with mismatching fenders and decals slapped around the vehicle. If you can win your initial “grip” race (more on that later), you’ll move on to a “Battle Machine” race day, a spec event where all competitors are given identically-tuned machines and all damage repairs are free. Yes, you read that correctly…damage repairs. In Pro Street, you’re actually penalized for driving like a maniac and slamming your way through the field, or ricocheting off of barriers due to overly aggressive driving. The Battle Machine events are quite fun, as you can experiment with lines and technique without worrying about pushing the car too hard or having an outrageous repair bill after a race, and you know that you’re being beaten by another driver, instead of being “out-machined” by a better vehicle.
Once you start moving from event to event in the game, you’ll notice that each event has various disciplines that you’ll need to master if you want to achieve the ultimate goal in the game, defeating the “Showdown King”. Each discipline has a king, and if you destroy enough track records in any given style, you’ll be invited to a special event for that particular class. Complete enough showdowns, and eventually you’ll get a crack at the King. Beat enough Kings, and you’ll get a chance at the Showdown King. It’s a pretty basic layout, but it works well overall. It also gives you an overall goal to work toward, since it would be a tough sell to convince the average gamer that he needs to master the various disciplines just for the sake of doing it.
Those disciplines, by the way, include grip racing, drag racing, drifting, and sector challenges. Grip racing is just a straight up race against other cars. However, you can have the cars broken down into classes for “Class Grip” races, where you’re only racing against the cars in your own class, much like GT races where you’ll have varying classes of cars out on the track at the same time racing each other. Sector challenges task you with trying to get the best time on a sector of a track and you’re awarded points for doing so. Drift races and drag races are self-explanatory—slide around corners for points in the former, and go as fast as possible in a straight line in the latter. Drag racing has seen a minor overhaul in Pro Street, as you have a tire-warming mini-game prior to each run, where you try to keep the revs in a “sweet spot”, which will increase your launch grip on the upcoming run. It works fairly well, but it’s got some kind of bizarre controls, because even with the wheel, the RPM output didn’t match the throttle…you have to feather it at the correct times to try to keep it in the correct location to keep the meter growing.
Speaking of controls, I firmly believe that you’ll either love them or hate them. They’re very strange. Not bad, not great, just…odd. There are things about them that I love, and things that make me scratch my head. For example, when you’re using the Microsoft Wireless Racing Wheel and you overcook a corner, the wheel will go “sloppy” in your hands when the front wheels lose traction. You know you’re pushing it too hard when you lose all tension in the wheel, and it’s usually followed by you plowing into a fence. However, no matter what assist level you set it at, there always seem to be assists on. If you touch the brake pedal, the car will stop incredibly fast with no tire lockups, even on “King” setting, which made it sound like you’d be assist-free. It’s almost impossible to get any rear end drift in the earlier grip cars, and it’s not until you upgrade to a Tier 3 car that you really have to worry about oversteer coming off of a corner at all. I realize they wanted to differentiate grip cars from drift cars, but as it is, the grip racing kind of gives you an ‘on rails’ feel, because it’s pretty easy to do with a well-tuned car.
Conversely, some of the earlier cars they give you are pigs. The starter 240SX is ok, but it really takes more time to turn than a stock Nissan would. You really have to throw your preconceptions about a car out the door when you go to drive them, and just accept the fact that “Tier1 is garbage, Tier 2 is better, and Tier 3 is the best”, regardless of what actual car manufacturer and model you are looking at. It sounds strange, but I’d almost prefer this game with “fake” cars than licensed vehicles, because it’s harder to convince me that a Nissan 350Z could destroy a Lamborghini in the corners because the Lamborghini somehow didn’t have the handling to keep up with a Nissan. If you expect a fully realistic driving model that recreates reality, then go grab Forza or a good PC sim. You won’t find it here, but after a few laps you will either “get it” or you won’t. It’s actually pretty enjoyable to me after I figured out what they intended for you to do, which is not over-brake corners. With the “grippy” driving model, you can really just tap the brake and coast through a lot of corners at ridiculous speeds without really losing grip, and judicious use of the throttle (not treating it like a digital on/off switch, but using that range of motion in an analog pedal instead) will let you zip around like a slot car. I enjoyed it more the more time I spent with the game, but it’s definitely not going to suit everybody’s tastes, I know that. Wheel users will definitely have an advantage in this one, as it's much easier to hold a steady line through a sweeping corner with the wheel than it was with the gamepad in my experience. I tended to fishtail a little bit more when lining up for a corner with the gamepad, and found hitting my marks quite a bit tougher on the little pad than the wireless wheel, but it's not to the level of Forza or NASCAR 08 where you had to tweak settings endlessly to get the car to control well enough to keep it on the track. If you have a wheel, you should feel pretty comfortable with Pro Street within fifteen minutes. If you're a gamepad-only racer, give it an hour.
Car customization is really deep this time, as it usually is with a NFS title. You have the various layers of paint, vinyls, and decals, but the tuning goes pretty far this time. I usually don’t mess with the actual tuning at all in a NFS game, but you’re almost forced to in this one, which will turn some people off. Slap a new stage 2 motor in your car and hit the track, and you might find yourself redlining on a stretch while the competition zooms past you. Take it to the wind tunnel to find out how your top speed is affected by the tweaks you made to the nose in the autosculpt area. There’s really some trial and error, since you may not need to know the exact speed you need on any given course until you run it. Thankfully, they let you run practice laps, but that’s after you’ve already committed your blueprint to a car and taken it to the track with you. If there’s a way to modify an existing blue print while in a race day, I haven’t found it. So you’d need to quit the race day, tweak the car, test it out, come back to the race day, try it again, etc. That will really irritate some people, but 95% of the time, you can probably decimate the competition by bringing a more powerful car to a race day. Much like the Gran Turismo and, to a lesser extent, Forza series, you can just slap aftermarket parts on your car until you have a juggernaut, then blow by the Civics and Audis for a quick payday. They even talk about it in some of the tutorials…”this is a run whatever you brought race”, and so on. It seems like it’s encouraged, which make those Battle Machine spec races even more fun.
You can customize the car all you want, but if you beat it up, you have to pay for it. As mentioned previously, you’ll have damage that accrues during a race, and you’ll need to fix it prior to the next race to compete. To do this, Pro Street allows you to use your in-game cash you’ve won, or repair markers that you win from dominating a race day. If you drive like a gorilla, you’ll be penalized on two fronts: one, because it costs you quite a bit to fix your car the worse you beat it up, and two, because you lose the “bonus money” you’d get in a race for finishing clean in the first place. I can’t tell you how deeply it gets engrained into your consciousness during a race to keep the vehicle clean. You’ll have some AI drivers that drive quite human-like—swerving to run you into the dirt, slamming into your quarter panel, and even spinning themselves out in an impressive display of coding. It’s nothing new, as PC sims have done it for a while, but it’s always good to see the AI fight for position with another AI car just as hard as it fights you, sometimes taking one of the (or both) cars out of contention. What makes it frustrating is when you’re trying to keep your nose clean and a driver just annihilates your door panel…costing you probably $500 in bonus money and $1000 in repair fees because he drives like a moron. It’s funny that a game that has such a non-realistic driving model can simulate the frustration of real racing so well…get hit on the track, then get hit in the bankbook. The graphics when it comes to modeling that damage are pretty sharp, too. You'll see paint scraped away, parts dangling off of the vehicle, and all kinds of evidence pointing to your lack of skill as a driver. The graphics engine overall is sufficient...almost all 360 games nowadays look pretty good, and Pro Street is no exception. You'll see a little framerate hiccup from time to time when you're in a pack of cars and some hit the dirt, creating dust trails as you race along, but it's nothing that really bothered me too much. The cars look good, the tracks look good overall, and it's not a chugging mess with the framerate.
Online saw a pretty nice upgrade with the user-created Race Day feature, which allows anybody to create a custom mix of events and disciplines, then upload them to EA’s servers to allow other drivers to race them. This isn’t a particularly revolutionary feature, since Test Drive Unlimited had these “online, but not real time” events months ago, but it’s still nice to have. If you have a hot lap competition set up, users are free to enter and post times whenever they want instead of having to be on the track at the same time to complete it. You’ll also have the typical online race options and events, but the Race Day feature is the only thing really noteworthy to speak of as far as online goes.
Another thing worth mentioning is the product placement. You can’t spend fifteen minutes without having advertising crammed down your throats. This is racing we’re talking about here, so it’s to be expected somewhat, but I haven’t really seen it taken to this level before. EA is probably raking it a lot more advertising dollars with this one than in any other previous game. You have the “Progressive Insurance Repair Marker”, advertisements on billboards and walls of practically every track...it never seems to end. Thankfully, I kind of like that bit of realism in a racing game, because that’s all auto racing is to the corporate world: rolling advertisements. It sounds ridiculous to say, but somehow it makes it seem a bit more realistic to have all of this advertising thrown at you, yet somehow puts you in a place that feels ultimately more believable. If that makes any sense to you, then you’re as crazy as I am.
What I also found odd was the option to purchase your aftermarket parts with Microsoft Points instead of in-game cash. So…in theory, you could buy a game, and then plunk down a few hundred bucks of real money to trick out every car you have without turning a lap. I’m not sure I like where the game is heading in that regard…first it was purchasing “unlockable” content in NFS Carbon that allowed you to have all parts unlocked immediately, and now we’re doing away with the download entirely and just dropping cash on it. Whatever happened to the good old days of “up-up-down-down-left-right-left-right-B-A-Start”? Easter Eggs used to be cool…now they’re another way to bleed the consumer, nickel and dime style, to death. Not sure I’m really liking the direction the industry is going with the microtransactions, but you’ll either live with it or get out of the industry, so I choose to live with it and let those with infinite disposable income waste it on a video game carburetor and shocks.
When it comes down to it, Need for Speed Pro Street is a racing game that’s focus is entirely on one thing: racing. There are no cute little stories or “other” things to do. You’re either on the track racing, or you’re in a menu making your car faster to go back out on the track and race it. That may turn a lot of people off, but for me personally, I actually enjoy this style more than the previous cheese-fests that had all the cutscenes and tried to use clichés and slang to earn more street cred. I tend to enjoy racing on a designated circuit quite a bit more than a makeshift city-block course, so it’s only natural that I enjoyed Pro Street more than previous installments. If you’re the type of racer who needs to have total realism, look elsewhere. If you’re the racer who can’t stomach the idea of EA really giving the Need for Speed series an overhaul, you’ll really want to look elsewhere. However, if you’re interested in some pretty believable racing with some surprisingly humanlike AI opponents and a handling model that is most definitely an “acquired taste”, then you may give it a rental. Unfortunately I can’t recommend this as a no-brainer purchase to anybody…but if you enjoy tricking out cars and setting blazing lap times, you may be pleasantly surprised by the amount of fun you’ll have in Pro Street..even if 75% of the online population says you’re a moron for doing so. It's almost impossible to recommend it ahead of Forza 2 or Project Gotham Racing 4, both of which do their respective simulation and arcade racing infinitely better than Pro Street. Pro Street is kind of caught in between trying to be realistic and not alienate its arcade fans, so it is the textbook definition of a "confused title". However, even with that confusion, it's pretty easy to get into the racing and have some fun if you let yourself.