Not Arcade, not Simulation
Being the first part of probably the most successful racing game series on the PC, that fact alone should already be reason enough to give this one a go and have a look at what it was like in the beginning. The game welcomes you with one of its many FMV sequences, accompanies by nice but lo-fi rock music. The eight cars you can drive (Ferrari Testarossa 250, Lamborghini Diablo VT, Chevrolet Corvette ZR-1, Dodge Viper RT/10, Porsche 911 Carrera, Honda Acura NSX, Mazda RX-7, Toyota Supra Turbo) all are very fast, very expensive, very neat looking - in short, a dream come true. What's so special in Need for Speed compared to other racing games of the same age is how deep it goes into the details of those cars you can drive. Each car has its own showroom where you can get technical specs, a price tag, the history of the manufacturer and the car model, a photo gallery and a video clip. All of which is very interesting and well done.
The same goes for the six fictional race tracks you can choose. There are three courses and three long runs - on the first type of track you race a number of laps, the available sceneries are Rusty Springs, a closed race-track in the desert, Autumn Valley, a high-speed touring car race track and Vertigo Ridge, the graphically most beautiful race-track, leading you through a mountain area with a church, a village, a waterfall, a castle, a wooden bridge and many other sights. The other type gives you the possibility to drive a route from one point to another, over a distance of about 20 miles. Those tracks are divided into 3 runs of which the times are added at the end to find out about the winner. There you can choose from the city track which leads you from the suburbs through the industrial area into the down town of a big city, the coastal course taking you along sandy beaches and rocky cliffs of a beautiful ocean holiday resort, and alpine, which takes you from the farms in the lowlands up through frozen hairpins to a big lake. The details which you can see while enjoying all of those tracks were second to none when the game was released, and they are still impressive today.
In single player mode, there are 4 types of playing. In time trial, you race alone against the clock, while in single race, you have 5 opponents against you. The championship mode lets you simply compete in a single race on all of the six tracks. If you win the tournament, you will get a bonus car (The Warrior) and a bonus track (Lost Vegas). Achieving this, however, isn't that easy, because there is always one opponent which is very strong and wins all of the races if you don't. Which means that you can't just be "good" in most of the races in order to win - you have to place first in 3 of 6 races, because otherwise, the leader of the pack does. The last game mode is called duel, and this is where the fun comes in. You race against only one opponent, but this time around, there are two special things on the three road tracks. One, there is civil traffic which you have to avoid. Two, there are cops which will start chasing you if they catch you speeding. What follows is a high-speed chase in which you'll have to try and lose your tail, because if the cops overtake, you can't do anything but stop and receive your ticket, which costs a lot of time (but least doesn't have any other negative effects). Single race and duel can also be played together with a friend over a serial connection, a modem or an IPX network.
The cars all look very good, they even come with their own photo-realistic, animated cockpit which is probably one of the coolest features you can have in a racing game. Further, every car has its own physical behaviour, as well as its own sound effects which have been recorded from the real cars during the development of the game. This ensures that each of the eight cars really has its own character.
The game lets you choose if you want to use ABS and/or traction control - if the chosen vehicle supports them. After every race, you can watch a full replay or a selection of race highlights which the game automatically assembles from starts, drifts, crashes and jumps. There are even VCR-like controls during playback, which is far from natural for a game that age.
First of all, the menus are not really user-friendly. The rather important option of selecting a race type is hidden within a text menu, which seems even more absurd considering its use can change the options available at the main screen. What I also missed was a damage model for the cars.
The main downsides of the game, however, are the physics and the track borders. It's cool to let the cars each have their own physics and handling. But what good is it if the basic physics engine of all the cars doesn't seem realistic. After telling you that the cars have a nearly simulation-like handling realism, the actual handling is like a big joke. The cars seem way to unresponsive, and what you do is not finding the right strategy and braking tactic to cleanly drive around corners, but keeping your car in the bottom center of your screen and trying to drift it around so it doesn't hit the oncoming track borders. The feeling is beyond words, it just feels ridiculous if you play it. I think the mistake is the high expectation people (like me) have when firing up this game - even if the presentation and the features of the game make it look like a simulation, the game mechanics are as arcade-like as it gets. Which makes this game actually a member of neither category.
But the most annoying thing ever must be the border of the tracks. You see, the designers especially designed the tracks that way so it always seems logical why you can't leave the track. There's always a barrier, a wall or something like that which tells you why you crash into it and don't drive through it. And what did those precious programmers do? They placed the actual track border one or two meters inside the track. It will happen so often that you think you can cut the corner without hitting anything, when your car slams into that invisible wall and starts spinning or tipping over. This is no longer a technical limitation, it's a major design flaw and takes away much of the fun.
The Bottom Line
The Need for Speed is a game for sports car enthusiasts which enjoy taking a nice virtual drive in one of the most expensive cars you could get. The wonderfully detailed tracks and the whole presentation will make it worthwhile. But don't you dare expecting a driving simulation - if you don't take this game for the arcade racer it is, you will be very disappointed.