The classic racing sim comes to DS with a new twist.
The Need For Speed franchise, known for its realistic driving physics and the detail with which you can tweak your car, has recently taken a left turn on Nintendo's platforms. Need For Speed: Nitro debuted on the DS and the Wii with a burst of color and light-hearted speed, tossing away the hardcore nature of street-racing simulation and introducing an all new style.
The game plays on the DS much the same way as another well-loved racing game: Mario Kart DS. The game bypasses use of the touch screen, relying on the D-Pad and face buttons to power your way through the tracks. It's not a particularly creative control scheme, but it gets the job done without any confusion or awkward fumbling. The game controls very well, with tight enough steering to feel responsive, while still giving you the freedom to make quick turns using a drift feature on the shoulder button.
There are three modes in the game: Race Now, Career, and Multiplayer. Race Now is exactly what it sounds like: pick a mode, pick a track, and head out in the car of your choice. Most of the options will be locked as you first begin playing. Playing through the Career mode will slowly unlock tracks, modes, and cars for you to use in the other modes.
The Career mode is where the fun, light-hearted approach gets a little lost in the design. The game is split into six cities, all of which must be unlocked at the easiest difficulty before the medium difficulty is accessible. In the easiest difficulty, Bronze, each city has four races. This means you must complete 24 races on easy (and it is quite easy) before the game allows you to be challenged. Likewise, you must complete each city on medium, Silver, before hard, Gold, is unlocked. In Silver, each city has 5 races, so this is 30 races at Silver before Gold is playable. If you find Bronze and Silver too easy (which is likely, as I breezed through them without having to restart more than a few times) you must play 54 races before the game gets interesting. This is inexcusable, and really prevents the player from wanting to play the game for very long; we're talking a good 3 hours of gameplay before things really pick up and the challenge kicks in.
The stages themselves are split up into 10 modes, most of which break down into one of three categories: race some cars, aim for some stuff, or cross the finish line before time runs out. The races are pretty straightforward, and play out just like they do in every other racing game: you race against 3 other cars in a 3 lap race around a track. The game occasionally employs the Heroic Driving System, which consists of quick-time events that allow you to leap over an opponent or around an obstacle, which are usually triggered by staying behind an opponent for a certain amount of time. Another type of race called Knockout eliminates the last place opponent on every lap, an idea taken right from Burnout. In fact, the game uses the right shoulder button for a "Nitro" boost much the same way that the Burnout games have a turbo feature. Need For Speed: Nitro feels in many cases like a "lite" version of Burnout, minus the crashes.
Another type of stage has you smashing objects or hitting targets along the road. Sometimes these stages take place along a usual course, and sometimes only in a open-field, closed off portion of a course. There are several variants, including having to hit a certain percentage of the objects or targets before time runs out, and having to hit an object or target to add to the clock in an attempt to finish the course.
Lastly, there are some exceptionally long 1-lap courses that have a start, finish, and time limit, and ask merely that you finish the course before time expires.
Despite there being a large amount of gameplay types, most of them feel similar to each other, and because you have to play so many of them before you get to the more challenging stages, they tire quickly. The game controls well enough for them all to be enjoyable, but unless you really enjoy the gameplay, you'll be bored sooner rather than later.
Visually, the game meets, but does not exceed, expectations. In the first few minutes after powering the game on for the first time, you are taken through a tutorial and the frame rate feels very solid. After you take to an actual course, however, the frame rate begins to suffer depending on how many opponents you are racing against. In the Knockout courses, the frame rate noticeably improves after every opponent that is eliminated from the race, making each lap feel like your car is controlling differently.
Artistically, the game feels bright and colorful. Many of the courses feel similar, however, and aside from a course where you are driving on the tracks of a roller coaster, they don't seem particularly creative. There are graffiti tags that each car identifies with, and you can color the world even further by collecting these as you drive, but they don't serve any real purpose aside from acting as a collectable.
The game offers single-cart and multi-cart multiplayer. I was unable to test the multi-cart multiplayer, but the single-cart multiplayer offers you a single race per connection, without any real options to speak of. Functionally, it works, but the frills are nonexistent.
Need For Speed: Nitro is a perfectly average racing game on DS. You probably won't be blown away by it, but if you're looking for specific type of game to fill a gap in your DS library, you could pick a worse title than this.