Need For Speed ProStreet Review

Need For Speed Pro-Street TitleProStreet is a game with an identity crisis, and I think a lot of people who buy it are going to be either confused or irritated by this. It's also riddled with annoying bugs, though it is largely playable.

While ProStreet gives the initial impression that it's something to do with street racing, it's not. In fact, ProStreet is all about track racing, albeit production cars. In fact, the name sould probably have been ProTrack, suggesting production track racing. The closest equivalent product, and seemingly the inspiration for much of the content of the actual game is Gran Turismo A-Spec. The 'street' element of this game is almost entirely window dressing. The badly designed, and difficult to use menu system attempts to affect a bit of the US ricer/street-racer culture style, and there is an extremely annoying commentator who attempts to inject a little bit of street colour into proceedings, but make no mistake, this game is substantially different from its aging predecessor "Need For Speed: Underground 2", which was about actual street racing. The 'Pro' part, whether it's supposed to mean professional or production, is suitable enough I suppose, but you can forget the street - many of the tracks are not even substantially urban.

I'll try to keep this brief, I have a lot more I could say about this game, but I think only someone unreasonably interested in racing games would want to hear it.

ProStreet is structured very much like the old PS2 Gran Turismo 2, but it replaces the license system with a more linear progression, where success in various track events directly unlocks new cars. There's no rally events, but instead you get drag-racing, drift-racing and speed-trials. These modes sometimes feel a bit like the license challenges in GT2, so despite the names they have for things, it's really very similar. The progression system of ProStreet works quite well, allowing you to get straight into racing. However, it's spoiled a little by the fact you sometimes have to compete in events that you don't really want to, such as drag races, to proceed.

Car modification is also a lot like GT2. However, its balanced differently, and the cost and value of the various modifications isn't quite the same as in GT2. Some modification choices are much less detailed, particularly when it comes to engine, so in terms of performance mods, this game is behind the ancient PS2 game. In terms of visual mods there's much more than GT2. You have a lot of options to adjust paintwork and body-kit, but other significant visual mods, such as changing headlights, rear-light clusters, chopping roof pillars, and so forth are absent. Juiced 2 is better for visual mods, though ProStreet has a more interesting performance mod system.

Given the depth of the actual racing in ProStreet, interest in the looks of the cars is not likely to be the big selling point. Unlike Juiced 2, which is largely flash and style, ProStreet conceals a substantial racing game beneath its muddled attempts at a hoon-friendly exterior. Speaking of looks, the cars are rendered very nicely, and the tracks are detailed and mainly convincing, though the materials on the track and the various human characters don't seem quite right. Concrete, asphalt, brick, sand, all seem to glow strangely from within, and the gratuitously wiggling female track officials seem to be made from a sort of self-illuminating concrete. Dust and smoke effects are a bit suspect, particularly in cases where you produce a lot of them.

The racing game is dogged with a few bugs, worst are the halts or stutters that the game exhibits whenever it has to do any difficult physics. This is very much like the old Ridge Racer port onto PSone, where getting close to the track wall, or another car suddenly makes the game freeze for moment. There are times when this can really annoy, and there's little excuse for it on a machine as powerful as the PS3, particularly as many other games did not have this defect. I suspect a genuine bug is involved, but EA weren't able to fix this before shipping. It's really not an acceptable behaviour. The game also tends to hang on loading, sometimes hangs if you unplug the controller, occasionally crashes mid-race, and generally feels a bit fragile. By default, it saves whenever you do anything, and this is probably an attempt to work around the fact it crashes so often. However, the saving takes ages, and you soon end up turning it off and saving manually whenever it's actually worth it.

The physics in ProStreet is by no means perfect, and the way it handles power delivery and traction is strange, but it does a lot of things well. In particular, the steering interface is good, and you feel like you are largely in control of the car. The thumb-stick steering in ProStreet is possibly the best in a racing game right now; it's very easy to get used to and it doesn't punish you too harshly for letting the stick return to centre suddenly. Power and braking are fairly intuitive too, and are easy to adapt to. The hand-brake is a bit odd though, as it seems to slow you down far more than expected, but when you get used to it, there aren't many problems with this. However, I'd say that the Project Gotham series did hand-brake better.

Problems

The commentator is really annoying. I had to turn him off completely. Perhaps some people might like him. I did not.

The problems with the racing experience stem mainly from the AI opponent difficulty system. In fact, the difficulty system warps the whole game, and allows/encourages you to do some very strange things, which don't really seem to make a lot of sense. It will take a little time to explain this problem, bear with me.

Similar to GT2, ProStreet assigns a ranking to each car, from one to three. Rank one cars are mainly small and gutless, or old American clunkers: in here you get things like the 1980s Corolla and Civic, and the Nissan 240SX. There are also some US dinosaurs, like the ancient Camaro. Rank two has better cars, the Supra, Elise, RX8, 350Z etc, and rank three covers a very broad range of exceptional cars, top end 911s, works spec M3s, various crap American muscle cars that don't really belong in the category, and then some genuine super-cars like the Zonda apparently delivering the best stats.

The range of cars is not as good as GT2, and the bias in favour of making some styles of car and manufacturer look good is rather obvious sometimes. However, all racing games suffer from the latter problem to a greater or lesser extent. I suspect that EA have intentionally held back some cars that they know are popular because they want to sell them as add ons via online services. This is irritating, but not a breaking matter.

The difficulty issues arise because the game bases opponent difficulty, and the target times you have to beat to get bonus points (and these are very important) on the car's original ranking. It may modify it somewhat if you improve the car. It attempts to indicate this in the modification screen, where it shows you the ranking your car will have after modification, but there are various bugs with this. For example, the Elise is a rank 2 car in the car-lot screen, but if you buy one, it's magically a rank 3 car without any modifications. Usually, you have to at least add something to bump a car up a rank.

So, if you modify a rank one car to rank three performance, the game seems to still treat it as a rank one, maybe rank two, with respect to difficulty. You can modify the 240SX you get at the start of the game to match a 911 GT turbo in performance, and make it corner better than an Elise, and you'll get to race against cars that are basically crap. However, turn up in that supposed rank two Elise, and you find yourself facing insane 800HP cars with aggressive drivers who are almost impossible to beat unless you get past the lot of them at the start of the race.

Oh, I forgot to mention, unlike GT2, where you can qualify for grid position, you always start at the back of the grid, behind a load of computer cars that ram the crap out of you, which costs you both points and money - for expensive cars, lots of money. The sluggish movement and continual blocking behaviour of the computer cars tends to annoy. If they're going to drive slow they should get out of the way, but they don't. When they drive fast they are almost more annoying, because they will ram you from behind on corners, or magically whizz past you on the straight then let you out accelerate them elsewhere. Sometimes you can put this down to them using their nitrous boost, but it happens too often for that to excuse it all.

So, you are penalized quite heavily for using a good car, or at least one that started off good without you altering it. Sure, you can modify an Elise to make it quite fearsome, but then you have to work with a car that has far too much power to be stable out of corners, and that hits crazy speeds on the straight that make it very hard for you to react or make minor steering corrections. It's much easier to keep the game slowed down, drive a crappy car and defeat weak AI opponents who practically let you win.

Other things that annoy include the incongruous track side signposts that appear on some levels (which you can smash through like balsa wood), the wacky damage system, and the bizarre economics system. The handling of cash and car damage is important to how the game works, but it seems short some play-balancing somewhere, and the problems with the damage system, which puts too much emphasis on looking pretty, lead to annoyances and detract from the fun of the whole thing. It feels as if the damage system was badly designed from the outset, and the way track-side objects integrate with damage owes more to ticking points on a feature list than delivering good game-play.

The extra race types

The drift and speed challenge modes are fairly decent. There are issues with the way the game scores drift racing, but you can learn to work with this, most of the time. The drift racing suffers from a bad learning curve and poor opportunities to practice car control on suitable friendly tracks. Drift tracks are all start to finish races, with a single lap. You can't loop around them practising, and instead have to go through a sluggish restart procedure.

The speed trials remind me of the Ridge Racer style. They are long, fast races with cambered corners and gentle bends. The computer cars are well spaced out and you can get past them easily. When it works well, the sense of speed is very good: not even Burnout seems as quick. There is a mode where you have to score top-speed through a series of checkpoints, and another mode that's a straight race. The down-side to speed trials is that the crashes are very expensive, as they nearly always total the car, and even a few minor bumps at high-speed will cost you a fortune. However, the main problem with the speed trials is that the thumb-stick doesn't tone down its responsiveness with speed to allow better fine control, or at least, not sufficiently.

The drag racing is a tiresome annoyance that you have to go through to progress through the game and win the best prizes. It consists of a very tedious tyre-warming mini-game, followed by an equally tedious start-timing and gear-shifting game.

The difficulty system really shows its broken nature in the drag races, as you can score more points by coming last with a slow car than by winning with a fast one - and it's much easier to control a slow car in the drag races and make perfect shifts every time. I really had trouble with the drag races because I had a rank 3 drag car that in theory was unbeatable. It was useless, as the computer cars would set impossible times, three or four seconds below my cars theoretical best. Once I started to use an old 86 Corolla as my drag car, I found myself breaking track records and scoring huge points. Nonsense? You bet. Of course, I have to make sure not to improve the Corolla's engine, or it becomes a rank 3 car...

Summary

The muddled concept will leave a lot of people disappointed. The people who wanted a street racing game don't get one, and the people who want a serious driving game will find the 'street' trappings are mainly an annoying affectation, much like the awful commentator, who is probably the single most annoying thing in the entire game. I also suspect that many people who might enjoy this game will be turned off by the naff 'street' pretensions inherent in the presentation and game-title. The drag game is a joke, and should have been dropped: I doubt either camp would find it entertaining.

Lots of content in this game, and the core 'grip-racing' game is fairly solid. The difficulty system is a bit broken. This is made worse by problems with the steering system when driving at high speed, which discourages use of the faster cars. It all feels a bit buggy, crashes far too often, and continually annoys with halts and stutters. In terms of solid, serious race games, this is a fair offering, but still not as good as the games it copies: GT2, GT A-Spec and GT3 on the ancient PS2. It's a pity they rushed this out of the door without finishing it off properly, the makings of an excellent game were in there, but they messed it up with a rushed shipping, poor testing and the usual errors.

Footnote

Since writing this I've looked at the GameSpot review, which offers a rather different perspective. It's fairly clear from their review that they didn't play the game extensively, and this is probably why their concerns are different to mine. With limited play, you might well get the impression that the game involves a lot of slow racing, but around 25% of the way through that changes dramatically. I never bothered with multi-player, so I can't comment on that. I have only played on PS3, so I had none of the frame-rate issues they complain about on PC. As for the advertising, I barely noticed it, but I certainly wouldn't be happy to find that I was wasting my internet bandwidth downloading new adverts for EA to push in my face.

Clearly, I agree with GameSpot regarding the useless drag-racing mode, but they had nothing at all to say about drift or speed challenge, and I suspect they never even got that far.

I notice that GameSpot also hated the career menu, which is messy, hard to navigate and even harder to tell what you have selected.

Their comments on audio are fair, but apply to just about every racing game out there. Arguably, Dirt has the only decent engine sounds at this point, and the music on all of them just irritates after a while: music plus deafening engine noise isn't really a good mix of sounds whatever you do with it.