The front cover of Need for Speed: Nitro proudly claims that it's the first Need for Speed custom-built for the Wii. It sounds like something worth making some noise about, with Wii owners until this point having to suffer poor ports of a mixed bunch of NFS titles. A game built around the Wii's strengths and its audience should, in theory anyway, provide an altogether better racing experience for the console's millions of owners. And yes, Nitro is better than the ports the console has had in the past, but it's still not a racer that many gamers will get too excited about.
Nitro is to Need for Speed what FIFA Street is to FIFA. It's louder, more colourful and easier to play. It has its own unique stylised appearance, with a kind of distorted perspective and caricature-like car models. Nitro is all about speed, with your command of the wheel playing second fiddle to the need to drift and use your boost. Races are a frenzied mix of high speed cornering, chained boosting and rampaging cop cars - that actually look more like monster trucks. This isn't like any Need for Speed that's gone before.
Cars here use a definite arcade-style handling model, with corners able to be glided around at the press of the brake button, initiating a drift. Your boost meter is replenished through drifting, drafting opponents (driving in their slipstream) and generally whizzing along at high speed, so you're never more than a few seconds away from being able to activate your nitro. Pick-ups aren't a major feature here, but you do get to use two while out and about on the tracks. The wrench is used to repair any damage to your vehicle, and the badge reduces your heat level with the cops and can focus their attention on cars ahead of you.
There are five control setups on offer, although I found those that didn't use an analogue stick to be far too tricky when trying to compete in the harder events. Nunchuck and Wii Remote was my control method of choice, but the single Wii Remote or Wii Remote in wheel methods might be a better choice for racing novices. The wheel is pretty self explanatory, but the single Wii Remote technique is unique. You hold the remote so it's pointing at the TV screen, then tilt it to steer. It takes some getting used to, but works surprisingly well.
Structurally the game follows a more traditional system, with five cities (unlocked as you progress through the career mode) each offering race events that earn you stars. The majority of these stars are handed out for a top three finish, but you also earn them for good use of drift and recording a great lap time. Some events hand out five stars if you meet all the criteria, while others only offer three, such as time trial challenges. The event types don't change from city to city, but the locations are all very unique, providing enough variety to keep the career from becoming stale.
As in most the NFS titles down the years, buying new cars and customising them plays a big part in the overall experience. Cash earned during events can be used to buy new models, while unlocked parts can be bolted on to existing cars if you want to make them look different. Certain body parts can be morphed, shrinking or enlarging some of the key features, and there's also the ability to choose your paint scheme and add on any graffiti that catches your eye. It's hardly Forza 3 levels of customisation, but it's more than enough for the game's target audience.
It's getting increasingly hard to judge presentation in Wii games. The gap between visuals in games on the Nintendo console and the best on Xbox 360 and PS3 seems to be getting bigger every month. Nitro certainly has a distinct appearance and runs at a smooth frame rate, but it's also bare in terms of detail, collisions aren't remotely realistic and certain tracks bring back memories of the original Turok due to the level of fogging. Nitro isn't an ugly game, with a flare that makes up for the relatively basic modelling, but the Wii is surely capable of better. If it weren't for the smart art design this would pale in comparison to some of the better racers released on PS2 towards the start of the decade.
Nitro's problem is that the game struggles to keep you interested. It attempts to engage you with new cars, a variety of events and some snazzy changing roadside details that change to reflect who's "owning" the track. The latter is clearly just a gimmick, even if it's quite cool to see, and adds little to the game. Four-player split-screen is a nice inclusion, and something Wii games should aim to include, but the core gameplay lacks the addictive quality that makes current Wii favourite Mario Kart such a hit. There's just no spark here that makes you want to return to it once you've had a short burst of fun flying around some stylised tracks at break-neck speed. Need for Speed: Nitro is a solid effort, but in the end it comes across as a fairly by the numbers arcade racer.