Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO) games are notoriously difficult to review, due to their constantly evolving feature set and rules. Akin to providing a match report of a football game at half-time, an MMO review can only serve as a document of the game at a certain point in time. Need For Speed World has recently exited its ‘beta’ status, meaning the game can only now be considered a finished product, though much is still up for change.
Disclaimers aside, Need for Speed World (NFSW) is a free-to-play open-world racing game, melding previous games in the series such as Most Wanted with the online facility of Criterion’s Burnout Paradise. Players can participate in Sprints (end-to-end races) and Circuits (lapped races) by selecting them from a map interface, or take part in a police pursuit by ramming a local law enforcement vehicle. These features are connected with a free-roaming Explore mode that includes other random players wandering aimlessly around a well-detailed city.
The driving itself includes Mario Kart aping power-ups – everything from the standard Nitrous to the infuriating and near game-breaking Traffic Magnet (causing non-player traffic to careen towards an unsuspecting rival) is available, provided you have earned their use first. Power ups can be garnered through a random choice after a race from a deck of 5 cards or purchased using the in-game “Boost” currency.
The environment plays a major part in winning or losing, too. Most of the races have shortcuts, requiring one eye to be on the radar in the corner to anticipate them. Structures marked with red arrows can be driven through to cause a hazard to the drivers behind – everything from scaffolding to a dinosaur model can be employed to stymie any overtaking. Pursuits provide a neat diversion from the racing element, but the time gamble involved in these will put many off – apprehension provides a paltry Rep and Cash payout, but successfully evading the police can earn a reward equivalent to winning multiple races.
Cars can be bought with Boost or in-game cash, which is earned after taking part in races or pursuits. Experience (or “Rep” as it’s called in the world of NFS) counts towards your Driver Level, which unlocks new cars, skills and power-ups at each level. Customizations prove to be a cheaper alternative to going purchase-mad with the various car models available, improving a car’s top speed, acceleration and handling with a few egregious bodywork additions. EA’s canny money-making schemes are exposed in the car dealer’s showroom in the guise of car rentals – cars with double the capability of the standard models can be rented for three days, for a price, of course.
The graphics are visually impressive and scale well – our high-end PC and mid-level laptop showed little difference in performance. Network issues sometimes creep in though, with juddering cars and empty lobbies occurring more than you might expect at the post-beta stage. Social features such as friend lists and private races abound, though there does not really feel like a need for this stuff since the races are a solitary experience. The Stadium photo mode feels particularly flat and pointless at this stage, with players dropping in, driving around for a bit then warping somewhere else.
For an MMO in relative infancy, NFSW has shown a good foundation of features and the levelling system provides enough incentive to keep people grinding through races, but the Sprints and Circuits do not unlock fast enough to keep the game from feeling a little repetitive between levels. The handling of the vehicles is as arcade-y as you might expect from a Need for Speed title. Expect ramming into a barrier at 130mph to merely impede your progress for a few seconds, because there is no damage to speak of beyond cosmetic fissures. Ambient traffic can cause problems during a race, particularly since they can drive straight through the neon arrows marking the route, often providing a frustrating instant fall down the race placing.
So, as mentioned, the foundations are there. But great MMOs are not about foundations; they need hooks to keep people playing. Currently NFSW’s free-roaming mode is woefully underexploited, and the rigid nature of the races available makes the game feel a little claustrophobic; once you have played each race once, it is all repetition until you unlock the next level. The advantage NFSW has is that it is free to play up until level 10 – after that, it is not possible to level up without putting some hard-earned cash in – but sufficient to decide whether or not it is worth playing. EA still have some work to do before convincing anyone of that.