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NFS High Stakes (PC) Review

Background Info

The Need for Speed series started way back in 1994. It was one of the earlier games on CD-ROM, and was first released on the old 3DO CD-ROM console gaming system. In fact it was the reason I bought a 3DO, after playing Need for Speed in the store.

Since then Electronic Arts has updated the game on a near-annual schedule. First came the Need for Speed PC version, one of the best arcade racing games of all time. Need for Speed 2 took the game in a "fantasy racing" direction that drew a lot of criticism from fans of the first game. Last year EA returned to the more realistic tracks from earlier versions with Need for Speed 3 - Hot Pursuit, which also brought the return of police car chases. Now we have the latest in the series, Need for Speed 4 High Stakes. How does it stack up?

Presentation/Graphics : 98
The graphics in High Stakes are absolutely gorgeous. EA has achieved a new level of quality that is the closest to photo-realistic animation yet seen in a racing game. From the car models with animated drivers, to the tracks themselves, this game will leave you dropping your jaw. If you have a high power system with a good 3D card, High Stakes is the new game you'll use to show it off to your friends. The winter tracks in particular are visually stunning.

The attention to detail is quite impressive, and has gotten to the point where it actually impacts gameplay. For example, I was night-driving on a track that has a tunnel with a concrete divider. Just as there would be in real life, the divider had a flashing yellow warning light on it so I could see it coming. Another example is the damage model of the car - drive into something at night, and you'll lose your headlights.

The car models are also very well done. When new and shiny they look great. Damage takes the shine off pretty quick though, if you're not careful. Bump the car and it will get dented. If you roll it - God forbid - it will be bent, folded and mutilated. Right down to the shattered windshield.

There are some nice environmental touches on the tracks, especially in night driving. On one track where you drive through a village it really looks like night, with streetlights glowing and lights coming from the windows in people's houses. On another track you'll see a glimpse of a fireworks display. The weather effects of rain and snow are also superbly done.

If there is a flaw in the graphics, it is also in the night driving. Even with the gamma turned up all the way it is too dark in some areas to see which way the road is going. Neither of the two headlight options is perfect; real headlights allow you to see further down the road. But these are minor problems with an otherwise stunning graphics engine.

Presentation/Audio : 90
The audio, as in most EA games, is very well done. The cars all have a unique sound, and you can hear when other cars are coming up behind you. Tire squeal is used both to indicate loss of grip in corners and spinning wheels in low gear. As in Hot Pursuit you can hear environmental sounds at various points around the track.

The music, which I can only describe as "soft techno," is annoying and not really appropriate for the game. But I won't take too many points off for it as the designers wisely included the option of playing your own audio CDs. I'd rather the game developers focus on the game sounds than worrying about music composition.

Interface/Options : 89
The user interface is very good. The menus are easy to navigate and generally well done. Some parts of the interface are of exceptional quality. The "heads up display" menu options, for example, show you a "screen shot" that changes as you make your selections, so you can see exactly how you are setting it up. Another nice touch is that if you are about to enter a career mode race and you go into arcade mode, the game not only pre-selects the track but also the track conditions (i.e., weather, time of day, etc.) for your next race. This allows you to practice the track just as you will be racing it.

A couple menu items are a bit difficult to find - most noticeably the options menu for configuring the game. It isn't on the main menu, it only shows up once you've selected career or arcade mode. Presumably this is so that different users can have different setups. The ability to save any number of ongoing careers is a nice touch, but some users might be scratching their heads looking for configuration options, since most games have it on the main menu.

Another minor confusion may arise from the inclusion of both "Showcase" and "Showroom" menu items, which have similar (but not the same) functionality. The last minor problem is in configuring controller buttons. It's easy to do, but has an odd quirk whereby it will not accept your changes until you have re-assigned all six "major" functions. For example, if you just select you gear shifters, you won't be able to proceed until you re-assign the game functions that used those buttons by default.

Overall, however, the designers did a great job with the menu system.

The in-game controls are pretty good for an arcade racer. My only complaint is that novices may have difficulty with it, for a couple of reasons. First, the cars probably don't have enough grip, so they steer kind of like boats, with a response time that seems delayed. This allows for nice power-slides, and you can cut some nice swaths through a series of left-right-left turns. But inexperienced racers just seem to bounce off the walls.

The second problem for novice racers, probably not quite as serious, is that the automatic transmission works very poorly. If you have to decelerate it sometimes won't downshift, and you are left in too-high a gear, with no power. It's very difficult to compete with automatic transmission turned on.

Gameplay : 75
If there are two things that you can usually count on in an EA game, it's over-achievement in the graphics department, and under-achievement in gameplay. This was certainly true of last year's Hot Pursuit version of the NFS series. Does High Stakes follow in the same EA tradition? Well, yes and no.

High Stakes is quite a bit more entertaining than last year's version. A lot of this is because of the damage model. Gone are the days of bouncing off a guardrail as the fastest way around a corner. That will slow you down and damage your car now. So you have to drive more realistically. The career mode also encourages careful driving because you have to pay for car repairs out of your winnings. And since you also pay for new cars and performance upgrades, you don't want to waste any money.

Some reviewers have criticized the car upgrading system. It only has general upgrade packages for each car; you can't upgrade individual components. But I think EA made the right call here. This is an arcade game, not a racing simulation. And arcade racers will have fun trying to win money to upgrade cars, but I don't think most of them want to worry about choosing the most effective upgrades for their car. They just want to upgrade and move on.

The damage from crashes affects both the appearance and performance of your car. If you have a force feedback steering wheel you will actually feel the damage through force effects, making it even harder to drive.

The combination of damage and the simple financial model makes the career mode in High Stakes quite fun. Various tracks and cars are locked until you win various tournaments in career play. Normally the only thing track-locks inspire me to do is search the net for cheat codes. But somehow it works in High Stakes. And if you really don't like career modes, there are cheats for unlocking all cars and tracks. The High Stakes race itself, where you actually put your car on the line, is quite tense. Maybe even too much so - I suspect it will have a lot of people reaching for their PC's reset switch if they are about to lose the race.

In the arcade mode there are a number of options, everything from traffic to cop chases. The cop chase modes are well polished, with updated radio chatter and graphics (such as the chopper that chases you in night races, hitting you with a spotlight). But I didn't find them all that much fun, which brings me to some negative gameplay aspects.

My biggest beef with the game is the track design. EA still hasn't restored the non-circuit tracks that were so much fun in the original Need for Speed game. Not only are the new tracks much shorter than those long, winding roads, they just aren't as much fun to drive. Racing with cops and traffic on a circuit track just seems silly to me. In my head I know I'm going to be racing around the track to the same point again, so there us no real feeling of immersion or realism to the cop chases. It does not have that fabulous "being in a movie chase scene" that the original NFS captured so well (the only other game to reproduce this feeling is Midtown Madness).

The other problem with the tracks is that they are too narrow and winding. The title of this game is the need for SPEED, but there's only three or four places throughout all the game's tracks where you can really open the cars up. This is partly a symptom of circuit-only tracks - it's hard to have open stretches of road when the track has to circle around to the starting point.

The car physics and driving model is another area where the game could be better. It's better than last year's Hot Pursuit, but still not up to the standard EA themselves set in the original NFS game. The cars steer better than in Hot Pursuit, but they still don't really feel like cars. The accident and collision physics is also poor, still using the "canned" physics from Hot Pursuit instead of the exhilarating and sometimes terrifying 3D collision physics used in NFS.

There is a multiplayer mode, which could be fun. There's a matching service under development at EA. But at the time of this review it was not yet working.

Difficulty & AI : 64
The career mode is quite challenging. In fact it is too challenging for beginners or novice racers; I suspect they will get frustrated with it. It could have used more gameplay tuning. For example, the prizes for winning tournaments are too small. Even if you win every single race, and keep damage to a minimum, you will have to repeat some tournaments in order to buy the cars and upgrades you need. And most racers will not win every race, due to the narrow, winding tracks and the difficulty of steering the car. It's nice to have a challenging game, but they should have had some skill level options, even if it just meant bigger prizes if the user picks a lower skill level.

Another problem with the difficulty is the force feedback implementation of bad-weather driving. Driving in the rain is particularly bad. The wheel is violently jerked back and forth making it very hard to drive, and it's very unrealistic. It's gotten to the point where I actually turn off force feedback for rain races.

The AI of the drivers is not particularly good. They don't drive in a realistic way, but instead focus almost exclusively on blocking you. They are not particularly good at taking the best line through corners. Some of them know certain corners very well, but you can always gain on the AI drivers by cutting the right line through series of left-right-left corners.

The other problem I have is the track design, as previously mentioned. The tracks are not just winding, but they are also unnecessarily narrow. I think they did this so that you would be more likely to incur damage, thus making the races harder to win. I want the difficulty to be in racing good drivers, not navigating an artificially dangerous track. In some of the tournaments you actually race on the NFS Hot Pursuit tracks, and it becomes painfully clear how poor the AI is. There was no damage model last year, so the designers did not use the trick of overly narrow tracks. And on those tracks you will have no trouble at all beating the AI drivers.

Ironically, the wider old Hot Pursuit tracks are actually more fun to drive and race on. It's too bad the AI drivers can't put up a good fight on them.

Overall : 87
Need for Speed High Stakes is an enjoyable arcade racer that has made some significant improvements in the last year. If you liked NFS 2 or Hot Pursuit you will probably love this game. If you're an arcade racing fan I think you'll have fun with High Stakes. It's not as innovative as Midtown Madness, but it is the second best arcade racer released so far this year. If you prefer hardcore racing simulations, or if you were really big on the realistic aspects of the original NFS, you may not like NFS High Stakes.

By: Joe McGinn 7/5/99

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