Who knew drummers made the best drivers?
ProStreet marks the third iteration of EA's Need for Speed franchise on the Nintendo DS, and in most respects it exudes the polish and fine tuning of a series already well-travelled on the platform. An impressive graphics engine, tight controls and robust multiplayer options make for an admirable package. However, there are some questionable design choices that seem to curiously neglect the nature of handheld gaming, and these are very much to ProStreet's detriment.
ProStreet's core graphics and gameplay make for good racing. The game's engine runs at a solid framerate, a feat that becomes more laudable as the environments shift from the desolate beginners' raceways to circuits winding though wooded hillsides or a Tokyo harbour complete with cranes and tall buildings. The sense of speed provided is satisfying for a portable game, but most importantly the races proceed smoothly even with multiple computer opponents jockeying around you. Displayed on the lower screen is a simple circuit map that is useful in gauging how sharp upcoming turns are going to be, as the camera views tend to stick fairly close to the cars. Based on a nice range of licensed vehicles, the car models are of good form but lack detailed textures, rendering them somewhat unnatural-looking in their simplistic glossiness.
The game's controls are intuitive and work well, with one minor annoyance. Steering is handled with the D-pad, but unlike some of its competition on the DS, ProStreet employs the diagonals as a way of executing degrees of turning without analogue control. Holding up on the D-pad and rolling your thumb left or right will enact soft steering in the desired direction, while holding down instead results in a hard turn. The aforementioned annoyance occurs when you inadvertently double-tap down on the D-pad, triggering a look-back function that shifts the camera to a rear view. This can easily be done when utilising hard steering around sharp turns—a most inopportune to time to lose sight of where you're going—so the ability to deactivate this command would have been welcome.
Alongside manual transmission for gear shifting (mapped to the shoulder buttons) and the car variety, this more nuanced steering control really differentiates ProStreet from more casual racing games on the system. Cornering is not simply a matter of breaking or letting off the gas pedal but rather a more complicated choreography that varies according to different types of cars and turns. Players that would prefer to keep the experience simple can select automatic gear shifting.
ProStreet offers two game modes from the get-go: Quick Race allows for a custom challenge against computer opponents and Career mode is the primary single player experience that serves to unlock further content. But across all of the game modes there is a variety of events to participate in, emphasising different elements of race driving and providing some variety from the core gameplay. Grip events are standard races around a circuit, while Drift and Drag focuses on sliding around corners and accelerating respectively. Time Attack and Sector Shootout encourage players to race strategically as they attempt to set the best time for a single lap or in a given section of the overall circuit rather than focusing on who is first to the finish line.
The diversity the events provide is welcome, if ultimately a bit limited. For example, time-based events feel only slightly different from standard races: opening laps become rolling starts and you may handle certain corners more recklessly in an effort to beat a sector record. On the other hand, the drag racing event is akin to a mini-game, though admittedly one that dovetails nicely with the racing theme. In this mode you simply heat up your tires at the starting line by mashing the accelerator, then time the start of your acceleration without jumping the signal and (as long as your car's performance stats compare favourably with your opponent's) shift gears appropriately to claim victory.
The Hydraulics event certainly does qualify as a separate mini-game, and a most incongruous one at that. This is in fact a rhythm game making use of EA's obligatory "Trax" for the game, which can be oddly challenging, considering what a seemingly frivolous addition to the game it is. Perhaps most confounding of all for a mini-game shoehorned into a DS game, it doesn't even use the microphone or touch screen! All that being said, Hydraulics can be an amusing diversion for those not turned off by EA's taste in licensed music, but it feels very awkward amongst the other events in Career mode.
Lone players will likely spend much of their time in Career mode, which puts you in the role of Ryan Cooper. This identity is largely meaningless as R. Cooper is simply a name that will appear next to your times and scores during Career mode, and nothing more. The non-descript Mr Cooper's career involves participating in Race Days, which consist of a number of events (usually six) that must all be won in order to successfully "dominate" the day. Winning individual events and days overall unlocks further sets of challenges and earns Mr. Cooper money to spend on repairs, new cars, parts, and aesthetic customisation in the garage between race days. Getting behind the wheel of a higher-performing machine is essential to keep pace in later events not grouped by vehicle class.
The essential effect of this structure is to limit players' ability to jump from event to event, as once a race day is entered it must at least be completed (achieved by winning 50% or more of the events in most cases) before the player can leave that day to tackle other challenges or visit the garage. Perhaps this restriction is intended to encourage players to take care not to damage their cars, as once they are wrecked they will remain out of commission for the rest of that race day. However, the drop in performance and financial cost associated with sustaining damage would seem to be incentive enough to avoid routinely totalling cars, and thus the trade-off made on restricting the players' choice does not seem justified.
As a handheld game, ProStreet is often at its best when you can quickly dip in to take on a quick event or two, but the restrictive career format often interferes with this. When you realise that you either need to do that extraneous Hydraulics challenge to complete a race day, or retire from it entirely (eradicating the victories that had been registered so far) in order to see what another set of events has to offer, it can be rather frustrating. While it is commendable for a handheld game to aspire to be challenging, the nature of portable gaming shouldn't be ignored and this simply is not a very intelligent or rewarding way of achieving that end.
Outside of the ups and downs of Ryan Cooper's whirlwind journey to crush all before him by tapping along to Junkie XL, ProStreet's multiplayer options are pleasingly comprehensive. Single-card multiplayer is predictably limited in car and track options but is, as always, a welcome addition for readily accessible fun with up to eight fellow DS owners. Multi-card play opens up the range of courses and cars on offer, including the ability to take your upgraded racing machines from career mode onto the track against your friends. (Please note that I was unable to test multi-card play personally for the purposes of this review.) ProStreet also supports online play with a nice complement of options, including custom vehicles, but online play limits the number of racers to four. In general the wireless mode runs fairly well, but online play seems to suffer from frequent glitching amongst competitor vehicles—shifting position spontaneously when in close proximity to your car—which spoils the feeling of racing side-by-side. Times recorded online are automatically listed on leader boards (and you can also upload your best Hydraulics scores), adding another competitive facet to the game.
Overall, Need for Speed ProStreet DS offers a substantial package with much merit to be found within, but it is not without its shortcomings. The core gameplay is well crafted and the different kinds of challenges and customisation can be thoroughly explored alone, offering a sophisticated complement to the instant fun of racers such as Mario Kart DS. Ultimately, though, the competitive edge of multiplayer will likely be the driving force in keeping players coming back for more. A few tweaks here and there could have made the experience more accessible and would have cemented ProStreet as a high quality DS game in its own right instead of a handheld derivative of its console cousins. As it is, Need for Speed stands a little awkwardly on the DS platform, but for those in search of a weighty, customisable driving experience on the go, ProStreet is a recommended purchase.