Written by: Rik

Date posted: June 27, 2007

Extras:

Minor improvement #15: The dashboard and interior are now in full 3D. Gosh.

Now that was a quick climbdown. Last month, in our review of NFS: Porsche 2000, we said that we wouldn’t be reviewing this game, the fourth in the ubiquitous Need for Speed series, any time soon: “For the time being, at least, we’re going to skip over that one – sure, it may seem lazy, but if EA can’t be bothered to put the effort in, then neither can we, frankly.” Bold words indeed, but between then and now, we, er, changed our minds. If we start adopting that kind of attitude, we’re no better than EA itself, and, more to the point, if we’re going to express sentiments about a game – good or bad – we may as well review it rather than mentioning it in passing elsewhere on the site.

Anyway, Need for Speed: Road Challenge is essentially an updated version of EA’s previous effort, Need for Speed 3. Eagle-eyed gamers will have noticed that the number ‘4’ isn’t mentioned anywhere in the title, and with good reason too. In days gone by, the extra features in NFS:RC would have been released as a data disk for NFS3 and greeted with a lukewarm response from both public and press alike, with the latter most likely remarking, “For die-hard fans only – we’d recommend waiting for the proper follow-up.” The ‘proper follow-up’ in this case would probably be NFS: Porsche 2000, the fifth in the series, which not only differs significantly from its immediate predecessors, but is also a damned fine game in its own right.

We’ve already been all kissy-kissy with that one though, and Road Challenge is the game up for consideration here. As often seems to be the case, EA chose different names for the European and American releases, so US gamers will probably have known this one as Need for Speed: High Stakes, a title which doesn’t make a lot of sense, but is at least vague enough to avoid a misleading description of the game’s content. “Need for Speed: Road Trousers” would have been a more fitting moniker, as once again we have to endure the preposterous charade of driving round and round in circles on a circuit that’s dressed up like a piece of road.

External shots like this actually make the game look quite good. It’s not so impressive in motion, unfortunately. Nice rain, though.

Still, we put up with it in NFS 3, so I guess we can’t complain too much. The terms ‘Road Challenge’ and ‘High Stakes’ refer to the game’s most significant addition – a career mode that, predictably, starts you off with a crap car and no money and allows you to progress by winning races, accruing money and upgrading your vehicle. The action takes place on a series of all new ‘roads’ – all of which seem to have been sealed-off from the public for the purposes of these races, as you and a handful of opponents are allowed to saunter round each circuit completely unmolested by any civilian traffic or any other distractions to speak of. Why, then, call it ‘Road Challenge’? Why even bother coming up with new ‘real-life’ circuits in the first place?

More significantly, racing against a number of opponents on completely empty tracks only serves to highlight the limitations of the game engine. As with NFS 3, the cars don’t really handle very much like cars at all, and you could be forgiven for thinking that you are in fact racing with hovercraft instead. At high speeds, you glide effortlessly across the tarmac, with little indication of whether you actually have any traction on the road, and this, combined with some woolly steering, means that you rarely feel like you’re actually driving a high-performance car. With this in mind, round after round of circuit racing isn’t a particularly appealing prospect, especially as your AI opponents also seem to hover on top of the road, weaving around hypnotically as if they were all tied together with a piece of string and being pulled along by a gigantic, dribbling toddler. As for the tracks themselves, the new ones all look pretty good, but, again, they show up the game’s shortcomings by featuring narrow roads and tight, twisty turns that your car can’t really handle too well.

The McLaren F1 is a bit too nippy to be effective in this game. It certainly shifts, but then five seconds later, you’re crashing into a fence.

Aside from the circuit races, there are also some special ‘High Stakes’ events (which explains the US title, at least), where you compete against a rival driver for the keys to his or her car. If you lose – well, you lose your car instead. While certainly a mild diversion from the usual racing, it’s hardly a deal-clincher, and generally the career mode is a bit of a snooze-fest. For those who can be bothered to put the time in, it could be said to add a bit of longevity to the single-player experience, but, to be honest, there hasn’t really been enough thought or effort put into it to make it a genuinely worthwhile addition.

Truth be told, the option to race in a tournament with a handful of others on completely empty roads was available in NFS 3, but it was largely ignored due to the game’s excellent ‘Hot Pursuit’ mode. NFS:RC has retained this mode, although a few differences should be noted. In general, the police are now more tenacious, and they veer across the road to cut you off with a much greater degree of accuracy than before. They can also call on helicopters to spot you on the road, and the spike strips and two-car roadblocks of old have now been replaced with a much more effective method of placing large lumps of concrete across the carriageway. While this certainly makes progress a bit tougher than before (especially on the more twisty-turny courses on offer in this game), it also makes the whole thing seem like more like a contrived ‘you vs. the cops’ situation. While civilian traffic does pop up occasionally, the roads are generally much less busy than in NFS 3, and most of the time it seems like it’s just you and the filth racing around in circles. It may be that some people really enjoy the cop-baiting aspect of these games, but personally the appeal of the likes of Test Drive and the original NFS was always to take a fast car for a spin out on the road whilst trying to avoid police attention.

Hmm – which depressingly underpowered sports coupe should you choose? 9 out of 10 hairdressers prefer the yellow Mercedes.

In theory, we should have no hesitation in recommending Road Challenge over Need for Speed 3. The graphics are a bit better, there’s a bit more polish here and there (cars can now take damage, for example) and when you consider that it also features all of the tracks from NFS 3 as an unlockable bonus, it all seems like a no-brainer. Unfortunately, though, I just didn’t enjoy this game very much. The career mode is dull and adds very little, while the changes to the ‘Hot Pursuit’ mode aren’t really for the better. The overall impression of Road Challenge is of a slightly sloppy and unfocused title which attempts to seduce you with superficial improvements over its predecessor (and I did find myself thinking ‘My, that rain effect is quite nice – maybe this one is better’) without actually adding anything of substance. We could knock marks off just for laziness, but we’ll settle for the fact that it’s just not quite as good. It’s slightly less petty, you see.