Need for Speed ProStreet is one of the more bizarre high profile releases of the year. Given the Need for Speed series' history as an action packed, police chase filled, illegal street racing spectacular, EA's decision to focus on legal street racing in semi-realistic handling cars is hard to believe. Many of the series' trademark features return, but whereas previous games have been great fun and easy to get into, ProStreet has positioned itself awkwardly near the Forza end of the racing genre scale - not exactly what Need for Speed fans will be expecting.
ProStreet drops the illegal racing in favour of properly organised street races, with you playing Ryan Cooper, a guy who is disrespected after the game's opening race. You'll get a story of sorts, with Ryan working on his career and an eventual showdown with racing legend Ryo. Sadly these are badly acted, look poor and have none of the character seen in the previous two Need for Speed titles. Fans of the cheesy brilliance seen in Xbox 360 launch title Most Wanted will be sorely disappointed.
The game sees you moving from one race day to another, with each day comprising of numerous events. While winning is important, the game puts more emphasis on dominating the day, with points earned being tallied up over the course of the day. Certain race days provide all competitors with the same car, evening out the field and meaning any car damage won't cost you as the car isn't from your personal garage. When you enter a race day with your own car, you'll lose all race day progress if your car is totalled, meaning you need to keep it in shape, either by paying cash or through the use of repair tokens.
Race types are pretty standard, with the usual lap races, drag events, time trials and top speed challenges. What's missing, though, is the frenzied chases by police cars and the open city of previous games. There are plenty of race circuits in the game, but lots are simply previously played tracks with a few different corners. While a game like Forza 2 can get away with this, as part of the enjoyment comes from nailing each track and shaving seconds off your best lap times, in ProStreet the car handing simply isn't up to the same standard - the result is a game that becomes rather tiresome quite early on. It's worth noting that the default Wii control scheme isn't up to much either, with the tilt steering mechanic simply not offering a high enough level of control.
Online options are plentiful in the Xbox 360, PS3 and PC versions of the game, with the user created race days being the biggest feature. As in the single-player career you can go online and race in a series of events that make up a whole day, giving you a real chance to make rivalries and develop online friendships. Sadly lag was evident during many races, but the game was still playable. Online leaderboards are also available for every race in the game, and ghost cars can be uploaded for others to use in time trial events.
Car damage is a big deal in racing games, and ProStreet excels in this area. Damage has a serious impact on the gameplay, making clever driving key, and the look of the damage on your car and those of your rivals is excellent. The physics system can see your car leave the track, go spinning through the air and crash into the tarmac, with pieces of bodywork flying off, smoke spiralling into the air and your hopes of a successful race day in tatters. It's just a shame that this rather excellent damage model wasn't built into a more traditional Need for Speed game, as it's the kind of feature that long-time fans will really enjoy.
Presentation is as expected, with plenty of in-your-face menus and cutscenes, MTV-generation music, an incredibly annoying commentator and plenty of in-game ads. The in-game ads (which also stretch to the Achievements in the Xbox 360 version) I can live with, but the option to use real cash as a way to unlock cars is taking things a little too far. The next-gen and PC versions look solid, although the frame rate isn't as smooth as it should be. The PC game can look just as good as the Xbox 360 and PS3 versions, although you'll need quite a hefty machine to turn all the maximum visual settings on.
The Need for Speed series over the last few years has provided gamers with an excellent alternative to the likes of Forza, Gran Turismo and PGR, but EA's decision to move closer to those kings of the racing genre was a big mistake. ProStreet isn't a bad game, it simply doesn't hold a candle to its competition, and Need for Speed fans will be left wondering where all the fun has gone from the illegal, turned legal, street racing series.