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TVG screams across the desert in this first look at EA's latest Need for Speed instalment - and there's not a cop car in sight...
After twelve solid years of instalments, it seems that gamers still feel the Need for Speed, and EA are of course only happy to oblige. Currently tuning up at EA Black Box the latest iteration, Need for Speed: ProStreet, is due to launch on Xbox 360 and PlayStation3 later in the year - with versions also in the works for PlayStation2, Wii, PC, DS, and PSP. Changing the format once more after a few years of roaming fictional city roads, ProStreet shies away from the open-world structure featured in Underground, Underground 2, Most Wanted, and Carbon, instead following the maturing street-racing scene onto organised, closed-circuit tracks. A teaser trailer released earlier in the summer has already confirmed that damage is making a return to the franchise, but with much more promised by Black Box.
TVG recently got a first hand look at the next-gen edition of the racer, which EA described as shifting with the change in street racing culture 'from Boy Racer to Street Racer'. Could this be the first true next-generation Need for Speed?
I feel the need...
One of the first things to be confirmed by EA about ProStreet, is that there'll be no police (somewhat obvious since the races take place as part of organised events). So if we're not all going to be evading the long arm of the law during Holiday 2007, just what exactly will players be racing for? Well the rivalries of the more recent instalments have now changed. Instead, the aim of the game this time around is to become the Street King, the master of all five disciplines in the more modern world of street racing - it's all about the performance of the car rather the superficial lick of paint or neon strips underneath the chassis.
Each of the disciplines, Grip, Speed, Drift, Drag, and Showdown, all offer very different racing experiences in a variety of environments, including many based upon real world locations such as the Daikoku-Futo Expressway in Yokohama, Japan, German autobahns, and the Nevada Desert. The events are much more built up than past offerings, with a party atmosphere of spectators and DJs acting as a hub to the race weekend, where players have to build up their racing skills to challenge for a shot at the Showdown event, thereby unlocking the next tier and pushing their chances of becoming the King (of the road?) Each of the event Kings will have their own sense of identity in the game, with their faces plastered in advertising, and recognisable cars - you won't forget who you have to beat. The idea of the race weekend and differing event types is that gamers will collect and amass a significant number of cars along the course of the ProStreet Campaign. For a race weekend, players will have to choose which cars they'll need to use (based on the events taking place), plus a back up, just in case the somewhat inevitable occurs...
Rocks 'n' Rolls
In an age of gaming where practically everything has to be customisable from vehicles to avatars (perhaps it's the videogame equivalent of that exotic online beast, Web 2.0?) ProStreet will of course feature extensive car customisable options for players to exploit to varying degrees. Three very different levels of customisation is being built into the title, which EA hopes will satisfy a broad base of gamers. Beyond the more straightforward 'make this go faster' option, ProStreet is due to feature customised packages for specific areas of the cars, or the most advanced stages that allow players to tinker and tweak with individual customised and licensed parts throughout the cars' setup.
Carbon's AutoSculpt feature will also make an appearance in this year's instalment, but Black Box's intent to deliver a more realistic street racing game has meant it too has undergone something of an upgrade. For the first time, the AutoSculpt functionality now affects the tuning and performance of a car, allowing subtle fractions of a second to disappear with every minute change. The inclusion of a Wind Tunnel will no doubt help players to realise their car's optimal output.
Between advanced tuning, and a more refined and developed AutoSculpt, it's perhaps no surprise that EA's latest Need for Speed will allow players to save their tuned specs and distribute them across the digital ether over the likes of Xbox Live and PlayStation Network. Christening the feature 'Blueprints', ProStreet aims to create player reputations not only according to their driving ability but also to their tuning skills, as Leaderboards will name both the driver and the tuner. It's certainly an exciting prospect for petrolheads, especially those who have already spent hours creating their custom paint jobs in the likes of Forza 2 over the summer. But with the aim of creating a very open car customisable experience in ProStreet, the studio found itself with something of a fairly significant problem in the form of...
...realistic damage modelling. It's the Holy Grail of racing games, where even the more 'serious' franchises like Gran Turismo and Forza Motorsport have failed to live up to expectations. Instead, it's been up to the likes of Burnout and Flatout to create total wrecks of their vehicles, but their lack of licensed cars has meant that Criterion and BugBear haven't had to abide by some of the more stringent rules that the likes of Polyphony, Turn 10, and Codemasters are subject to. That said, Codies' debut next-gen racer Colin McRae's DiRT did manage to achieve a high level of destruction even with licensed vehicles...
But EA Black Box are aiming to achieve something that little bit special, with the development of procedural real-time damage, a quite dramatic shift forward from the standard replacement meshes usually used in games, even in next-gen titles. Thanks to their revamped car customisation, and the fact that AutoSculpt now affects the performance of a vehicle, EA could never have been in a position to work out the billions of permutations open to players - so the traditional route was shut to them. The cars can now be privy to extensive damage, though the one trade off for getting the vehicle manufacturers to allow such destruction, is that cockpits will not crumple to what would be life-threatening proportions in the real world. Repairs can to be done over the course of the race weekend, though as seen in the first trailer for the game earlier in the summer, body panels can also get stitched up, evidence of EA's mantra for the game: Racing with Consequence.
As if the challenge of procedural damage wasn't enough of a challenge for the developers at Black Box, the team has looked at bringing another significant element into ProStreet, something that might sound superficial but actually seems to suggest more than that during gameplay: smoke. One of the objectives during ProStreet's development is to create a sense of connection between the car and the road, which is why they've focused on smoke. Tearing up clouds of white smoke from the rubber grinding on the tarmac, it's clear even now that EA's attempts haven't been in vain. Beyond the incredibly dense smoke that hangs in the air, it also wraps around the tyres themselves, creating a visual effect that literally astounds. But smoke will be more than just a visual effect, it'll also aid in racing. If you're closely following a car that drifts around a corner, spewing out clouds of smoke as it goes, visibility drops to near zero - forcing you to drop back, and allowing the gap between you and the guy in front, to widen.
Taking the wheel
So with that in mind, how is the game shaping up to play? The revamped, rebuilt, and renewed Need for Speed is promising a lot, but is it even looking remotely like it's actually going to deliver? The demo may only have been made up of one or two tracks, but if the rest of what EA is planning actually comes off, then ProStreet could indeed be the first true next-generation chapter in the series, with enough speed engrained into it to take your virtual breath away.
Actually, the sensation of speed in a racer is something that has perhaps been most successfully realised in Criterion Software's Burnout franchise, thanks in no small part to an excessively gluttonous use of motion blur. It was one of the few racing series' of the PlayStation2 generation that almost made your face gurn with G-force. Moving into the current crop of consoles, the use of motion blur has again been taken up by other racing titles, including Eden Studios' Test Drive Unlimited, but none have been quite able to achieve what the now Guildford-based UK studio managed in the likes of Burnout Takedown. However, EA Black Box is making a damn good attempt if the fictitious desert speed event, based on the real world Silverstate Challenge is anything to go by.
Racing against eleven other opponents in the aggressive heat of the desert (yup, EA has re-discovered the joys of sunlight in Pro Street), the fast-pace of the cars creates an almost white-knuckle experience, as the car struggled to stick to the road and execute perfect takes of corners. All the more impressive is that this sort of hardcore hyper-speed challenge won't be met by players until they've become skilled drivers - which EA estimated will take about twelve to fifteen hours of game time! If Carbon was accused of being something of an emaciated release, all indications are that Pro Street will be a more gluttonous sibling.
Besides the revamped physics, damage, densely hanging smoke, and a total shift in direction towards greater realism (certainly a departure from the last few years of the series), EA has totally rewritten the AI system of the rival cars. Allegedly more adaptive to the type of race event and their own individual abilities behind the wheel, the AI are out to win just like the human players, and will utilise a mix of aggression and varying amounts of skill to achieve that aim. Whilst that'll mean players can expect some dirty tricks from certain AI opposition, it also makes them more than fallible, taking risks and pushing their own cars to the limit. There were several times during the course of the demo where the opposition pushed too hard, and crashed out of the event.