There are two Need For Speed games out this year, and they couldn't be more different. In one lane of the motorway we have NFS: Shift, a title that prides itself on razor-sharp authenticity and photorealistic graphics; then on the other side of the barrier, heading the other direction, we have Nitro - a racer so hellbent on OTT thrills that even the cars themselves are caricatures. Oh and Wez has just reminded me that Need For Speed World Online is also coming to the PC. But since I know little to nothing about that game, I can't fit it into my extended metaphor. Let's just say it's a service station, or something.
Need For Speed Nitro is a game that revels unashamedly in the excess, adopting an old-school arcade model and then spraying it with the bling-y colours of streetrace culture. There are power-ups, cops to be avoided and loud "urban" beats to encourage head-bopping. While it may technically occupy the same genre as the likes of Forza and Gran Turismo, Nitro may as well be set on another planet. The game's 15 tracks are set in four real-world cities - Cairo, Singapore, Madrid and Rio de Janeiro - but given that the trackside scenery morphs to match the colours of whoever is currently in the lead, I wouldn't book any holidays on the basis of what you see here.
A comparable "same-but-different" approach has been taken to the game's 35 vehicles: they look like their real-world counterparts, but with exaggerated, larger-than-life designs. Even the classic VW Beetle, one of the very first cars you can use, has been given a hotrod-style makeover. As a result of this stylistic choice, the official car manufacturers have relaxed the rules that often restrict the in-game use of their vehicles. This in turn has allowed EA Montreal to chuck in a hefty set of graphical tools, enabling you to redesign your rides with various brushes, stamps and logos. If you want to give your motor a pink polka dot makeover with avocado go-faster stripes, you can. You'll feel a bit stupid, of course - unless you like to hang around Shoreditch on a Friday night. If you do, you'll probably think it looks hilariously ironic.
As welcome as these customisation options are, Nitro will live or die by the way people respond to its retro arcade values. EA is certainly doing its best to make the game accessible, offering no less than four different control systems: you can use a single remote on its own, in the Mario Kart steering wheel, or with a Nunchuck attached. You can also use a GameCube controller if you happen to have one lying around - a surprising option, but one that will no doubt please the handful of people who take it. The other three setups seem to work well, although I suspect that most people will stick to the Remote-and-Nunchuck combo as this seemed to be the most precise arrangement: using the thumbstick to steer, with acceleration and braking mapped to the A and B buttons.
The demo code that EA showed off last week was an early build, but this didn't stop the game from running at a decent lick of speed - even during split-screen two player races. The framerate was noticeably less smooth during these match-ups, but overall the action remained very playable. There's always fun to be had in drifting around corners at speed, and there's something refreshingly unpretentious about a game that's still happy to have massive pick-ups floating on the track. In addition to spanners that act like storable health kits for your bashed-up motor, you can also grab a police bribe that lowers your heat level and transfers it to the victim of your choice.
Yes, Need For Speed's boys in blue are back. If you drive dangerously - and let's face it, it's almost impossible not to - the swift arm of the law will show up to ram you about and box you in. On the plus side, Nitro also gives you an opportunity to join the force yourself. In Elimination races you'll constantly be pestered by a ticking clock; as soon as the timer hits zero the driver in last place is wiped out, only to be resurrected as a cop car. At this point your sole aim is to disrupt the other racers, and like the real police you're at liberty to hassle whoever you want. I found it particularly gratifying to drive the wrong way around the course, smashing headfirst into the poor sod in first place.
From what i've played so far, NFS Nitro has the potential to be a fun and speedy racer that doesn't take itself too seriously. It's certainly not going to be as flashy as Shift, but then there was no way that the Wii could ever pull the required level of graphical trickery. In any case, I suspect that most Wii owners would prefer a dedicated game for their console, rather than a watered down version of the 360 and PS3 instalment. It'll be hard for an arcade title like this to make a name for itself amid the heavy competition, but if EA Montreal stick to their current course then Nitro should please a few Wii-owning petrol-heads.
Need For Speed: Nitro will be released on Wii on November 17.