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NFS High Stakes (PSX) Review

Background Info

When Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit (NFS3) was released at this time last year it not only advanced the series, but set a new standard for Playstation racing games. While its reign at the top was short-lived, eclipsed a mere six weeks later by the mighty Gran Turismo, it remains a highly enjoyable game and one of the premier racing titles available for the system. Need for Speed: High Stakes (NFS4) enhances rather than overhauls NFS3 while at the same time clearly exhibiting the influence that Gran Turismo has left in its wake. The result is a game that remains true to its arcade roots but compromises a little of its free-wheeling spirit in the process of trying to keep up with the Jones's.

Presentation/Graphics : 88
Graphically, NFS3 was a revelation; a stunning blend of colorful and detailed backgrounds, environmental reflections, and spectacular lighting effects. Even the somewhat boxy looking car models were about as good as anything we'd seen up to that point, save for Porsche Challenge. What a difference a year makes. Just when it appeared that the graphical capacity of Sony's little gray box had been stretched to the limit, along came Gran Turismo and, later, the Japanese release of Ridge Racer Type 4 (R4) to dispel those notions.

NFS4 continues very much in the tradition of NFS3 in terms of graphics. While the trackside scenery lacks the visual flair of NFS3, there is no denying the beauty of the environments. EA has opted for realism over fantasy this time around, so don't expect to see a blimp the size of Manhattan flying overhead. What you will see are nicely detailed backgrounds adorned with moving windmills, trains, and so on. And like NFS3, these are expansive environments that really provide a sense of space.

The car models are a step up from last year's version. The sharp edges have been smoothed out a little, but these vehicles are still no match for those found in GT and R4. All of the other graphical treats make a return appearance including the above-mentioned environmental and weather effects, ultra-cool skid marks (although now they're of the disappearing variety), and paranoia-inducing red and blue swirls of light when trying to outrun the cops at night.

The bad news is that all of this graphical goodness periodically comes at the expense of the game's framerate. Under normal circumstances (ie. one-player daytime racing), slowdowns are less frequent and entirely tolerable. However, if you're the type that has to have every graphic effect active at once (eg. night driving, weather, traffic) and/or do a lot of two player racing, it's not that difficult to bring the system to its knees. The game maintains an excellent sense of speed (so crucial to any racing game), but there is so much going on in terms of the backgrounds, special effects, and vehicles, that the action is always one step away from bogging down. Fortunately, in all but the most extreme cases it holds its own.

Presentation/Audio : 94
The audio package in NFS3 featured perhaps the most effective use of surround sound I'd ever heard in a video game, and NFS4 continues that fine tradition. Engines roar, tires squeal, and sound effects ring out from every direction. It's a treat for the ears.

Less of a treat is the music. Not that it's bad mind you, just not particularly inspiring. The spartan techno beats that pervade the soundtrack offer little in the way of variety or character and wear out pretty quickly. WipeOut this ain't. However, the rest of the sound is so good that I prefer to lower the music to background level and crank the engine sounds and ambient effects anyway. Vroom!!!

Interface/Options : 75
NFS4's menu interface is simple and reasonably efficient, however it lacks the pizzazz of last year's model. Gone are the options to take a guided tour of each track (complete with narration) or to view a video presentation of your favorite supercar. Also, you have to dig a little deeper to find the options you're looking for this time around. This involves a little backtracking through the menus until you memorize which options are accessed from which sub-menu.

Where NFS4 really lays a clam however is in its control interface. I tested the game both with Sony's Dual-Shock controller and Namco's NeGcon. We'll touch on the actual control and physics model a little later but, for now, suffice to say that I was unable to find a configuration for either controller that I was entirely satisfied with.

Starting with the NeGcon, the game provides three pre-set controller configurations. Period. There is no option to customize them. Unfortunately, none of the pre-sets map manual shifting to the shoulder buttons, which is my preference. Shifting is relegated to the D-Pad up and down. It works fine and I don't mind using it, but I PREFER to shift using the shoulder buttons and the game should, but doesn't, provide that option.

The Dual-Shock can also only be configured to one of three pre-sets, none of which provide the use of the right analog stick to control gas and brake. Huh?! Fine, this is an arcade racer at heart and that means pedal to the metal most of the time anyway, plus the game does control surprisingly well using the X and square buttons for digital gas and brake, but what EA were thinking (or not thinking) here is beyond me. I'll guarantee that the first time you get behind the wheel of a tail-happy beast like the Ferrari Maranello, you'll be bemoaning the lack of analog throttle by the time you enter the first turn.

Gameplay : 8
NFS4 offers several modes of play including Test Drive, Single Race, Tournament, Special Event, and two-player. In addition, the popular and endlessly entertaining Hot Pursuit mode make a return appearance, and this time you can actually take on the role of a cop and run those pesky speeders off the road. Yahoo!

Conspicuously absent however, is a time trial mode with ghost car. In my opinion, this is a prerequisite for any racing game and the lack of one here is baffling, all the more so because it's substituted with the rather pointless Test Drive mode. Test Drive allows you to run one lap on any track that you've unlocked so far with some, but not all, of the available cars (including some that would normally have to be unlocked by winning tournaments). In Single Race mode you can run more laps, but the only cars and tracks that are available are the defaults and those you've earned by winning tournaments and special events.

Also missing in action this time is the Training mode. While of limited use to the regular player, it was a great way to introduce newbies to the mechanics and control of the game. As such, NFS3 will continue to be the game that I pull off the shelf when looking to entertain non-gamers.

The real meat of NFS4, however, is the combination of the tournaments and special events. There are six of each, escalating in difficulty as you go. In an interesting twist, entry to many of the tournaments and special events is restricted not only by qualifying in lower level races, but also to specific models of cars. This forces you to drive most of the cars included in the game rather than zoning in on a favorite or two and sticking with them. As might be expected, additional cars and tracks are made available by performing well in the various tournaments and events.

Adding to the excitement is the fact that you are now racing for prize money that can be used to buy new cars or upgrade existing ones (Gran Turismo anyone?). The cash is also required to cover the cost of repairs. That's right, your car can now sustain damage. The damage model is nothing fancy either visually or in terms of how it affects your car's performance, but the monetary penalty will sure have you thinking twice about your reckless driving habits. There's even bonus money to be won for safe driving, but it requires a flawless run. Easier said than done considering that, in order to qualify for the bonus, you can't so much as knock over a single signpost. I've only managed to pull it off twice (in a row no less!), but don't ask me how. Starting the race in 1st place both times didn't hurt.

EA have expanded the roster of cars this year to include a couple of BMWs, a McLaren F-1, and the Porsche 911 (yes!!!) along with the usual assortment of Ferraris, Lamborghinis, Mercedes, and others. Each car handles differently and can be upgraded in three stages to improve handling, acceleration, top speed and so on. The driving model has been tightened up considerably from NFS3 and is now much more sim-like. I preferred the powersliding frenzy and big jumps of the last game but, make no mistake, NFS4 is plenty of fun to drive in its own right.

Control is spot-on with either the NeGcon or Dual-Shock controllers. I split my time about 50/50 between the two controllers, finally settling on the Dual-Shock for the long haul. This meant sacrificing analog gas and brake, but I picked up the ability to shift using the shoulder buttons and, of course, force feedback. Although EA should have provided the option to have your cake and eat it too, overall it was a worthwhile trade-off. The physics model reacts realistically and the vibration provides tactile cues when you start pushing your car beyond capacity. Sadly, the crash physics are of the same hokey variety as last year.

The track design, while not nearly as inventive as NFS3, is top-notch. Consistent with the rest of the game, the designers have opted for realism over fantasy. There aren't nearly as many shortcuts to be found throughout the game's 10 tracks (including three speedways), and gone are the otherworldly environments and multi-level racing surfaces of some of NFS3's courses. The tracks look and feel more like real roads. Despite their generous width and gentle curves the real challenge lies in driving them at breakneck speeds. For my money, there's nothing here that's quite the caliber of the Red Rock Ridge and Rocky Pass tracks from NFS3 but, if you enjoyed those, you'll find plenty to satisfy you in NFS4.

Hot Pursuit mode is back with a vengeance and, as mentioned above, provides the option of playing the role of a cop. Book your quota of speeders within the established time limit to unlock some surprises. You can even call for back-up or request a roadblock or spike belt to help you out. Two-player mode allows you and a buddy to team up as cops or face off against one another on opposite sides of the law. Cool! And speaking of head to head action there's always the High Stakes race, a winner-take-all event in which the loser's dream car is transferred to the winner's memory card. A great way to start a fist fight!

One final note about the gameplay... EA unwisely chose to do away with the rear-view mirror this year. With so much other activity on screen at the same time, I suspect the mirror was sacrificed in the interest of maintaining an acceptable framerate. However, I would gladly have given up a hot air balloon or two in exchange for being able to see what's going on behind me. A look-back button just doesn't cut it when you're approaching a curve at 130 MPH with an aggressive opponent hot on your tail or when trying to block out an elusive speeder in Hot Pursuit mode.

Difficulty & AI : 93
The AI of the computer drivers in NFS3 was a major problem area. Essentially the game was rigged. No matter how big a lead you staked yourself to, the other drivers were always poised to overtake you at the slightest slip up. Furthermore, the order of the drivers was predictable to the point that you knew when and where you would pass each opponent and how they would rank at the end of the race. This has largely been corrected in NFS4, but there is still some of that catch-up logic at play. This time, though, it's mostly in your favor, kicking in when you fall far behind. Taking and maintaining a lead is far more manageable and realistic than it was in NFS3. Also, you can no longer expect the same order of finish in every race. The drivers are of varying strength, but the weaker ones do come up big occasionally.

The overall difficulty of the game is scaled well, with the tournaments and events becoming increasingly hard as you progress through them. However, the game is artificially lengthened by the fact that you have to run most of the tournaments more than once. Like Gran Turismo, it's tough to win a tournament with an unmodified car. This means that you'll be racing tournaments multiple times in order to scrape together the cash required to either upgrade your car or buy the model you need for the next set of races. It's also a little too easy to win some tournaments simply by maxing out your car with upgrades and overpowering the competition (again, shades of GT).

The spacious tracks, which seem deceptively simple at first, provide good long-term challenge as you attack them with faster and faster cars. I really appreciate the fact that the developers didn't resort to cheap track design (as is all too often the case) in the guise of challenge.

Overall : 87
EA has loaded High Stakes with all kinds of goodies to entice fans of the last game, not the least of which are a bunch of cool new cars and the ability to drive the cop car in Hot Pursuit mode. Despite the shift to more of a simulation-style driving model, the game remains fast and fun with great sound, visuals, and track design. The lack of user-configurable controller setups, a time trial mode, and especially a rear-view mirror are unforgivable omissions, but the game manages to succeed in spite of them. As good as High Stakes is though, I won't be getting rid of my copy of NFS3 any time soon.

By: Pete Anderson 4/19/99

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