EA's long-running racing series is going through an identity crisis.
The Need for Speed series has long been the king of the street racing genre. Part of its appeal is being able to get into the seat of an exotic tuner car and race around city streets, skirting the law. Although Need for Speed ProStreet keeps the tuner culture that laid the foundation of its forerunners, it abandons just about everything else that has made the series what it is up until this point. Developer EA Blackbox may have focused too much on the world the game emulates, rather than making sure the game was fun to play.
Instead of racing on the streets under the cover of darkness, as has been the trend with recent NFS games, ProStreet legitimizes the street racing world by creating a series of race events at tracks scattered in real-world locations. Each event features multiple races that showcase a combination of grip, drift, drag, and speed racing. To win an event, you need to do well across all racing disciplines. Points are scored based on performance, and if you earn enough points you'll win the event and be able to move on to a new competition somewhere else.
You can't do much without a car to drive, and ProStreet has plenty of options to choose from. There is a wide range of tuner-friendly cars, starting with the Golf GTIs and Honda Civics on the low end all the way up to the Ford GT and Lamborghini Murciélago in super car territory. There are about four dozen cars to be had, and every one of them can be tricked out with the usual handling, performance, and visual upgrades. EA's Autosculpt feature is back, giving you an insane number of customization options for everything from the shape of your front bumper to the size of your exhaust tips.
In previous NFS games, upgrading cars was a pretty straightforward process. All you had to do was slap a bigger engine in your favorite car and you were off. Upgrading cars in ProStreet is not as easy, because you need to juggle four different cars at once. One of the most annoying things about the game is that each racing discipline requires a different car from your garage. That means you'll need no less than four cars ready to go at all times. If you want to compete in the later stages of career mode, you'll need to keep all of your cars up to date, which means you'll be spending four times the money doing so. Money does come in fairly large quantities over the course of the game, but since there are multiple cars to deal with, you'll come across situations in which you'll need to choose one car over another when it comes time to dish out a critical upgrade.
The game gives you plenty of new cars for free to help you along. Challenge events feature sets of cars that everyone in a race must drive, and if you win you'll be rewarded with one from the set. The nice thing about the cars you win is that they are pre-tuned with good upgrades that will last a while before you will need a more powerful car. However, if you win a car that's tied to a particular discipline, you are locked to using that car, as it is kitted, in that discipline. You do have the option of changing a car's discipline in your garage (say, from speed mode to grip mode), but if you do you'll lose the car's preset upgrades. You can still re-equip the parts that were stripped off in the mode change but it's a pain trying to find all of the individual parts that were originally on it, particularly the aerodynamic parts. It would be a lot more user-friendly if you could just switch the car's mode and keep everything on it without going through this hassle.
ProStreet's menu and progression system is very confusing. I didn't understand that a car may not be used across multiple disciplines until I the game told me I needed to have a speed-tuned car to enter an event with a speed challenge race. (Before the game was released, EA sure made it sound like one car could be used for all event types.) It wasn't obvious where I could purchase such a car until I started exploring menus. It's even a chore to navigate the highly stylized career mode map. Events are denoted by icons that are arranged in a way that doesn't make it obvious which direction you need to move in order to scroll through them. An icon on the map may be below another, but pressing down on the D-Pad may not always scroll you down to it. Also, the event order is also a bit off: after finishing the first tier in career mode, one of the final tiers opened up even though the competition was too fast for the cars I was capable of purchasing at the time.
You don't even need to finish first in a single race to win. At least, it's possible with how events play out. In each race event, you get points for finish position, avoiding car damage, and final race time. If you have a really fast car, you can get a load of points for completing a race with a record-breaking time even if you don't finish in first against the computer-controlled competition. In the later tiers of career mode, while struggling to find a set of cars that would make me competitive in each racing mode, I found that I had won an event after finishing first in only one of the six races within that event. Huh?
To further complicate things, you can go on to "dominate" an event if you accrue enough points to reach a secondary target score, which falls more in line with what you'd normally need to truly "win." Dominating events is how you earn new cars and unlock special challenges that will help you reach your ultimate goal of taking on Ryo, the Street King, who is the master of all four racing disciplines. Each discipline has its own lesser king, and to get to Ryo you need to take down each of them first by dominating enough events from that discipline, then working your way up a discipline-exclusive series of events featuring just races of that type. This appears to be independent of the main career mode; all you need to do is meet the requirements, regardless of how far you've progressed.
Once you solve the jumbled mess that is the game's menu and progression system, or if you do the smart thing and ignore it all, you can finally get in a car and go racing. The on-track action is good. The game includes real-world racing circuits such as Portland International Raceway, Texas Speedway, Mondello Park in Ireland, and Autopolis in Japan, just to name a few. The real circuits complement the more realistic, simulation-style feel the cars have compared with earlier NFS games. It's not Gran Turismo by a long shot, but cars in ProStreet certainly behave more like cars would in real life. The cars roll in corners, lunge forward under heavy braking, and get wobbly in high speed corners. If the grippy back-end of a super car breaks loose in one of those fast bends, you're probably going to spin and total your car. If that happens, you'll need to fix it with cash or a free repair marker (oops, I mean a Progressive Insurance Total Repair Marker) before you can use it again. Bouncing off walls is a big no-no in ProStreet, since too much damage will result in more than paint damage and scratches. Your car's performance will be adversely affected, spoiling your chances of getting a good score in the event.
The car's feel translates very well to the Wii Remote, which is held exclusively in the sideways position for all race and drift events. The tilt steering controls are the best on the Wii since Excite Truck. In the slower cars, everything you want the car to do happens without any problems. The control is very tight and natural. I enjoyed going into corners very hard, slamming on the brakes, and then flicking it into the apex of every corner. Even during drift events, once I figured out how differently the cars handled in drift mode, I was counter-steering through fast corners with relative ease.
However, once you get to the faster cars, particularly in the speed challenge events, the controls feel less natural. They are still responsive, but it feels like you're holding a steering wheel that isn't there. I was never completely comfortable getting behind the wheel of a car like the Ford GT because even the slightest controller movements would be enough to upset during high-speed cornering. If I'm barreling down the autobahn at 220 miles an hour, I would like to be confident that the slight movement to reach for the B button to activate nitrous isn't going to trigger a big speed wobble.
I would have selected a different control configuration to get that confidence back, but alas, there are no other control options. The game is played in Remote-only mode, and that's it. Need For Speed Carbon has a wide variety of control settings, including the Remote tilt option, so why force a single setting on us in ProStreet? The only remnant of control variety is drag mode, where you must hold the Remote in the pointer position, hitting the gas with the B button and shifting gears with a remote flick upwards or downwards. It's fun to do that. Why can't I be given a control option to do it in the rest of the game? The game does include Family Play control assists, but those only help with braking. That doesn't do much for people looking for the best control scheme possible.
The lack of control options, the confusing menus, and the game's other shortcomings are secondary to the game's overreaching problem. In basing the game on real-world street racing events, EA has shifted focus away from what makes for a fun racing video game. Drift races, which were held on long, twisty, made-for-entertainment race tracks or canyon passes in previous NFS games, now take place on their real-world counterpart: a strip of asphalt no longer than a half-mile with two or three good corners. Drag races feature two cars going head-to-head on a standard drag strip. Although each location has its own unique drag strip, after a dozen trips down the quarter-mile you start to realize that you're really not racing against anyone. You're just going through the same burnout and shifting routine over and over again. Speed races are the only ones that actually feel like the Need for Speed of old, but they feel a bit out of place when looking at the game as a whole.
ProStreet focuses on the racing aspect of the tuner culture, but it's missing the bigger picture. Tuner events have a lot more to see than just races. People go to them to see pretty cars, pretty girls, and talk to other car enthusiasts about their rides. The game tries to capture this atmosphere, but in trying hard to do so it forgets to deliver a streamlined gameplay experience. The different disciplines may work in the real world, but not so much as Need for Speed ProStreet presents it in video game form. While racing game fans will find a decent NFS game behind the hip-hop facade, most people shouldn't bother with it.