"With six tracks to choose from and a selection of authentic sports cars, The Need for Speed was the obvious choice for the gamer who wanted something else (or something more). You can choose from time trial, head to head, single race and tournament modes, and you can play with a friend by way of split screen or the little-used Playstation link cable. You can customize sound and controls to your liking. There are almost more options than you know what to do with. Unfortunately, most of the good news ends right there."
I've begun to suspect that I will never own a garage full of sports cars. While some may be discouraged by such a realization, I until recently took some measure of solace from the fact that I at least own The Need for Speed on the Playstation, a game I remembered enjoying because years back it made me feel like I owned all the cars of my dreams. I remembered the feel of sitting behind the wheel and drifting around curves. Between races, I would go to the showcase mode and view video of my sleek little beauties, or remind myself of the trivia surrounding their inception. In other words, I remembered a great game for the Playstation that to a certain extent captures the magic of owning a fleet of fiberglass beauties. Nostalgia can be funny like that sometimes.
Though The Need for Speed has been in my collection almost since I got a Playstation so many years back, I haven't played it a lot in recent years. When friends come over and want to play racing games, they usually gravitate toward newer titles like Gran Turismo 3 or even one of the newer Need for Speed titles. The few times we did spin The Need for Speed on the original Playstation, it just didn't seem so impressive as it once had. And now that I've played the game more extensively with an eye on the details, I see why: the game just isn't that good.
For its time, Need for Speed was arguably the best racer on the Playstation. But then you remember what 'its time' was, and you see why that is. There weren't many racers around at all, with Ridge Racer being the only real contender at all on a home console. With six tracks to choose from and a selection of authentic sports cars, The Need for Speed was the obvious choice for the gamer who wanted something else (or something more). You can choose from time trial, head to head, single race and tournament modes, and you can play with a friend by way of split screen or the little-used Playstation link cable. You can customize sound and controls to your liking. There are almost more options than you know what to do with. Unfortunately, most of the good news ends right there.
The minute you start picking your cars for a race, the trouble starts. Choose the Coastal track and you have only three cars to choose from. Switch to the Alpine and you suddenly have many more. For whatever reason, the developers decided to vary the selection of cars from one track to the next. Though this likely was due to the Playstationís limited processing power (or a first-generation inability to harness the machineís full power), it still hurts. Itís fun to imagine racing along a seaside in a Lamborghini, but youíll have to keep dreaming for now (unless you play subsequent racers in the series).
Once you decide on a vehicle from the selection available, the next flaw you witness is the load screen. Though at least you get to look at mostly clear images of the sports car you chose during the delay, this canít entirely mask the fact that load times are close to thirty seconds in length. Later, thereís another wait if you want to view replay highlights of a race. Not cool.
Past the load screen, you finally get to the race areas. Some of these are multi-lap tracks and others are segmented courses that run through a variety of landscapes within a general theme. For example, the Coastal region will take you past shoreside hotels, up the winding roads leading along the waterfront, through thick forestation, and even past an event where hot air balloons drift slowly skyward. Another favorite of mine, the Alpine region, lets you race past elk and through towering areas of forestation, then later along a suspension bridge before taking to the snow-capped heights where the race concludes. Thereís honestly not one location that doesnít have some sort of merit to it, from the rusty canyon area to the rather generic (but still enjoyable) race track more reminiscent of formula one racing.
Back in the day, these tracks were stunning. After a lifetime spent playing Super Nintendo racers, I was totally unprepared for this newfound visual splendor. But now, years later, the tricks developers were using are all too obvious. Backgrounds are flat images that hardly move at all in the distance, and closer up there are only polygonal mounds that as often or not have tiny tears that allow the background image to seep through. Imagine racing along a mountain road and suddenly seeing water appear on the grassy knoll to your left as you fly over a short hill. Itís disturbing, and the next minute itís gone. Adding to this visual deficiency is the way most foreground objects were rendered. Trees and brush arenít polygonal, for example. Theyíre just flat like cardboard, with textures brushed on as an afterthought. They work when youíre flying by quickly with your eyes focused strictly on the road, but they certainly donít impress in a world where polygonal everything has become the order of the day.
Cars likewise look passable at best. Sneak up behind a Corvette and youíll see it just looks like a pyramid of metal. If you looked at a screenshot from the game, then went out on the street and found a real Corvette, the resemblance would be minor only. Even the most detailed car model, that of the Lamborghini, is distressing. It looks like most of the other cars, but with a strip of black cardboard hanging in the air just above its back window.
Of course, you neednít always be looking at the cars from behind. The game lets you switch perspectives so that you can even sit inside your car and watch as the steering wheel spasms when you zip around corners. Since this perspective seems to block off more of the track than you might like, thereís also a Ďroad-levelí view that works quite well. Neither of these gives you the same control as the last two options, which to varying degrees put you behind and above your vehicle of choice. The result is that most of these viewpoint options feel like novelties, rather than the joys they should have been.
If graphics are a disappointment, though, the sound department most certainly is not. The music that plays as you drive through each location does an excellent job of pumping up the adrenaline. Grinding guitar riffs and faint drumbeats are totally at home in this particular game, and there are moments the music grows more subdued as you race through some of the gameís more peaceful locations. Even the solid competitions pale in comparison to the masterful sound effects, though, which remain some of the best Iíve heard in the racing genre. Cars crunch convincingly when they ram against one another or the barriers along the side of the road. Each vehicle has a distinctive horn, and the nearly steady squeal of tires manages to sound quite convincing. Pass through tunnels or along a suspension bridge and thereís even an appropriate sound filter on such effects, so that you actually feel as if youíre in a more enclosed space. You can even hear the iron girders or stone columns rush by to the side.
Still, such details are only icing on what isnít such a tasty cake. Most people donít buy such games to look at scenery or listen to music; theyíre into the race. In this case, they were probably attracted by the promise of speed. Unfortunately, the game never really fulfills that promise.
For me, I found the typical race always starts out precisely the same, no matter what I do. The lights flash, and suddenly itís time to go and the cars ahead are lurching forward. Quickly, I switch out of neutral and into first gear (the rest of your gear changing can be set to take place automatically). My car slowly glides forward and, if anyone is behind me from a previous leg of the race, they bump against my back side or zip around me like Iím standing still. This is true no matter what gear shifting maneuvers I make, and is true whether Iíve been revving my engine pre-race or not. It makes me suspect thereís an invisible fat woman in the seat beside me, weighing me down. You may well come to the same conclusion.
Once a race is going more properly, about half the cars that passed you so quickly at the start are easily overtaken, and then itís a matter of overcoming the last four cars. The third and fourth place cars know this, and they work together to make sure itís difficult to do so. Come up on a car and it will weave into your line of sight so that you have to steer wildly just to get around it. Meanwhile, it slows its speed incredibly so youíre stuck bouncing against its bumper while the saucy Porsche that was trailing you a moment ago flies by like its butt is on fire and itís racing for the nearest water hole. The minute everyone has passed you, the slow car just in front of you shifts into overdrive and suddenly youíre in eighth place.
The rest of the race is spent passing everyone yet again, straining to reach first place as you careen wildly around corners. After awhile, Iíve come to the realization that the best way to get anywhere in the game is to keep the accelerator floored most of the time, and liberally apply the brakes on just about every corner in existence. This will allow you to slide around them better than if you go into a corner and try to accelerate out of it (as you would driving a car in the Ďrealí world). The cars in this game drift so wildly that youíd almost think itís some sort of gimmick to allow you to boost forward (such as in Ridge Racer). Any such notions are brutally murdered the minute your car starts to spin. Suddenly, itís a nightmare just righting your vehicle and following the road again. Losing control for even a second is a bad thing.
Unfortunately, itís hard to remain large and in charge when your cars drive so crappily. Not only that, but you often wonít even realizing youíre going fast until you fly into a corner, look down and notice the speedometer says youíre going 150 MPH. Too late, you realize the game feels youíre going twice the appropriate speed. Your controls turn to nothing and you bash some invisible barrier, just short of the trees drawn in the distance, or a stone wall, or some other obstacle. You arenít rewarded by the promised sense of speed and you donít even get to see a spectacular crash. Itís hard not to feel cheated at such times.
But if Iím complaining so much, why donít I give the game a lower score? Itís easy. This game was a pioneer. Most every good racer Iíve played since builds on what you find here in one way or another, whether itís from the Need for Speed franchise or not. Sure, the package here is rough and stopped being a rewarding experience some time ago. But it was once a good game. Letís retire it with some sense of dignity. It deserves that much.
Staff review by Jason Venter (Date unavailable)
Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.
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