Title: The Need for Speed
Publisher: Electronic Arts, sponsored or endorsed by Road & Track magazine
Developer: in-house
Release Date: December 9, 1994
Platform: 3DO, PC, Playstation, Saturn (released in that order - this w/u deals mainly with the 3DO version)
ELSPA Rating: 11+

Revolutionary 3-D graphics, Dolby Surround Sound and superbly accurate physics models
combine for white-knuckle racing in the world's slickest supercars. Choose from eight of the
hottest exotic cars, three demanding courses and multiple real-time racing views. And relive
those bone-shaking collisions from any of six instant replay camera angles. You'll soon be
feeling the Need for Speed!


There are, or there were, comparatively few reasons for acquiring a 3DO console. It was born at the beginning of the first next generation, competing with platforms it was generally technically inferior to: the Sony Playstation, Sega Saturn, Amiga CD32, NEC PC-FX and the (cough) CD-i. This game was probably the 3DO's killer app; it sold 3DOs (when I bought a 3DO console on eBay, it was mainly so I could play the original version of this game), in that respect sharing a stable with titles like Return Fire, The Horde, and Mad Dog McCree.

Well, maybe not that last one.

The Need for Speed (yes, the title does begin with "The") founded the notorious series of racing games whose numbers make perilous the pipelinking of all the titles in one sentence. I contend it has yet to be surpassed by any of its spawn (although a couple have come close); it is a highly enjoyable and rewarding game that is recent enough to look good and play in a fairly realistic fashion.

TNFS was developed with Road & Track magazine, whose logo also adorned the games's packaging and menu screens. The magazine assisted in matching the vehicles that appear in the game with their real-life counterparts as closely as possible.

By today's standards, TNFS is a very limited game. There is no goal to speak of so the player must define it themselves. The game simply presents tracks, cars to race them on and two play modes. It is more of a toy than a game.

Cars

Eight cars are available: a Ferrari 512TR, Toyota Supra, Lamborghini Diablo, Acura NSX (U.S. version of the Honda NSX), Mazda RX-7, Corvette ZR-1, Dodge Viper and Porsche 911. All drive noticeably differently, from the tail-happy Porsche to the heavy but extremely fast 4WD Lamborghini and excellent all-round Ferrari, to the.. uh, slow and boring everything else.

All cars may be driven with automatic or manual gears (they are much faster when driven with manual gears, as the transmission settings are also linked to game difficulty) and depending on the model, have driving aids which may be exploited or eschewed such as ABS or Traction Control. As in real life, many such systems are helpful for beginners but if you want to have a bit of fun and full control it's best to switch them off.

The CPU opponent may also drive any of these cars, although the performance in that respect seems rather disproportionate compared to when the player is driving that same car (can you say 'catchup'?). You can take on an Acura in a Lamborghini and if you crash, your 20-second lead will disappear faster than you can say "where the hell did my 20-second lead go?"

The only other car in the game is a generic black & white Police car, several of which are parked along each stage and make feeble attempts to chase players that exceed the speed limit. Their proximity to the player car is endearingly indicated by a radar detector which beeps faster as they close and their siren gets louder. If the police car overtakes, the player is pulled over and given a speeding fine; a maximum of three per stage may be issued before the game ends.

Tracks

TNFS offers tracks set in Alpine, Coastal and City environments. Each track has three stages which can only be played consecutively: you cannot drive stage three without driving stages one and two first. All offer wide driving challenges, from long undulating sections to protracted twists and chicanes.

Using (introducing?) a feature not often repeated (until the Carmageddon and Burnout series appeared), 'civilian' traffic also features in the game. It drives the same routes as the player but in both directions and with obstructive slowness. While sometimes infuriating, this addition always keeps the player on their toes and adds a welcome touch of the arbitrary to personal best times: they can almost always be bettered if the traffic conditions are favourable.

The hardest of the tracks is probably Alpine; difficult to negotiate at best, more taxing still with the complication of oncoming traffic and the extremely twisty and unforgiving frozen final stage. That said, driving the opening City stage (a motorway) at maximum speed while avoiding crawling civilian traffic can be tremendously difficult, particularly in the Diablo, the heaviest and fastest car in the game. Subsequent stages of this course see the player driving towards the centre of a city with corresponding tighter and more numerous turns, many at the end of long straights that require much practice to time the braking for.

Without a doubt the most attractive track is Coastal, for which two of the three stages are beachside (duh), passing hotels, beaches with clustered sunshade umbrellas, fields (and skies) filled with hot-air balloons and picturesque cliffside hillclimbs. The course finishes at sunset with, bizarrely, the Statue of Liberty sticking out of the beach by the finishing line. All of the environments look reasonable though, despite the wall of texture that often appears within sight of the roadside.

Graphics & Sound

Like all games from this era, TNFS is showing its age. At the time it was breathtakingly realistic and in my opinion still does not look too shabby; more believable than some Playstation-based racers I have seen.

Unusually the track scenery is loaded from the CD as the track is being driven (but it isn't prerendered like Megarace), which presumably is the reason for the limited flexibility of the game camera. It can only look forwards along the track, so follows the player's manoeuvres by sliding left, right, up or down. If you decide to drive the wrong way the camera backs away from the car, leaving you driving into the screen. No rotation of the camera. Not that this really harms the game, it's just a tickling quirk.

There is little pop-up except in areas where particularly long stretches of upcoming track are revealed, sometimes showing up the flawed nature of the static backgrounds combined with 3D foregrounds. When it is visible it is highly noticeable, as distant sections of scenery are initially drawn as scaled sprites, changing to 3D objects when closer to the camera. The same is true of traffic; this means the distant view can be quite jumpy, but at the time one would be thankful just to be able to see that far. Still it has no negative effect on gameplay as the track renders in 3D in plenty of time for the player to see.

The cars themselves look good: textured 3D objects. Again they don't look too hot by today's standards but were very realistic for the time and are still instantly recognisable. The graphics for the civilian traffic are very low resolution with low-poly models; like the trackside scenery they appear in the distance as scaled sprites, only becoming 3D when close to the camera. Still, the game as a whole looks excellent and places the player in a believable setting.

The physics are also quite realistic with a good feeling of the car's weight and speed. The very stiff d-pad of the official 3DO joypad probably helps convey this too. TNFS also brought realistic crashes to driving games, which were unprecedented for the time (someone correct me if I'm wrong, but I can't think of any driving game before this which had crashes anything like it, though crashes on Power Drift were quite memorable). Although there is no car damage as such - the player is given three cars with which to complete a track, losing one with every accident - impacts could see the car flip, roll and pirouette, emitting smoke as it came to rest. That and cars which jump when cresting a hill at speed make the predilection in current driving games for cars either glued to the road or held down by elastic curious indeed. Ever tried to roll a car in any version of Gran Turismo?

The replay mode is excellent and more flexible than the equivalents in many modern driving games. It can be accessed during a stage and at the end, searched forwards AND backwards (are you listening, every videogame developer on the planet?), played at speeds from one eighth speed to full speed and can view the player from one of six angles. The sky cameras give an excellent feel of speed to replays, swinging to either side to follow the player car weaving across the road (as if hanging from a skyhook-mounted trapeze). A camera may also focus on the CPU opponent or Police car if it is close enough to the player car, allowing for amusing police POV angles of the player car rocketing past.

As for the sound, this is one of the few games available at the time that had realtime Dolby Pro-Logic. One of the things that first impressed me about the game (my 3DO-owning friend also had a home theatre system that was very exciting to my teenage ears) was other cars sweeping from the front to the back of the soundstage as you passed them, and the impressive weight of the car engine sounds. You can tell how powerful the Diablo is just by listening to the bassy growl of its engine idle.

Gameplay

TNFS capitalises on the image of the cars that it incorporates, portraying itself as hi-tech, fast and desirable, with a filmic sheen. It opens with FMV footage showing tantalisingly short clips of supercars on test tracks whipping by the camera, showing more blur than form. This continues in the FMV showcase that is available of each car (basically, them driving through autumn leaves, around cones and flaming beacons and looking cool).

There are no words on the main menu screen besides the publisher logos, images representing each of the options available to the player. An image of a car that can be changed with the joypad to choose the car to race, an image of a stopwatch that can be changed to that of a Ray-Ban-adorned (and presumably also cool) computer opponent, and an establishing photograph of the current choice of track. Car keys are the icon for beginning a drive. Loading screens show more 'cool' photos of your car or 'dynamic' and 'exciting' shots of motion-blurred rev counters or some such.

There is little structure in TNFS, as I said it's more of a toy than a game; perhaps the thinking was that presenting the cars, tracks and realism was enough. There are only two gaming modes: driving against the clock or against a CPU opponent: the ridiculously-named 'X-MAN' (I will not speak of this name again). No multiplayer mode. After playing for some time the challenge offered by the computer opponent fades drastically, as does the humour content of the video segments that follow each driving section, in which the computer opponent usually ridicules you in some non-offensive way. Mind you he does this whether you race him or not, until you thankfully find the option to turn his video segments off in the options menu.

The main competition, then, comes from the player's own best times or those of others. I had a long-running rivalry with the person who introduced me to this game where we would compete for the best time on a particular course, with only tenths of seconds separating our best efforts (unfortunately the game timer is only accurate to tenths of a second). Against current driving games the content appears rather lacking but driving to beat one's best time can be hugely intense as it also means overcoming the arbitrary facets of the game; success is never completely under the player's control.

The handling system adopts an interesting pseudo-analogue control method that I am unsure has ever been duplicated by other driving games. Obviously with joypads at that time being mostly digital, true analogue control was impossible. TNFS sidesteps this by using a form of progressive digital steering, so more steering is applied the longer you hold the d-pad in one direction. This is certainly more realistic than "full lock or straight" digital control and arguably more realistic than true analogue control (which generally still allows the application of full lock in a split second). Either way the car responds convincingly: the front end dives when steering and braking, the back end swings out if the brakes lock while turning and donuts under strong acceleration are quite possible.

Although realistic, the control does take some getting used to and has turned several people I know off the game. It does seem to help the feeling of realism (Edge magazine still ranks TNFS as one of the few games to successfully convey a car's weight) but I would be interested in a device that could erase my short-term memory so I could try playing this again for the first time; I might hate it without the (probably hundreds of) hours I have spent playing it already, which began when there was nothing better. The comparison with modern driving games would be particularly interesting, assuming the device didn't erase my memory of those as well.

Another thing that appeals about TNFS is the simplicity of the interface, particularly in light of the interface foisted upon subsequent releases of the game for other platforms. When using the standard chase view in the 3DO version (the in-car view feels too restrictive and, unusually, doesn't help you drive any better) the only display is a small, unobtrusive grey tachometer in the bottom left-hand corner of the screen that also shows your current speed, gear and elapsed time. Nothing else. This helps foster the simulation feel and to not remind you you're playing a game. Which brings us neatly to:

Versions

I'm unsure how the releases were staggered across formats for this game, though I think it went 3DO, PC, Playstation, Saturn. All of the subsequent platform releases of TNFS retained the tracks of the original version but added several closed-circuit tracks. I believe the Saturn version added a few more on top of this. I have never played any of these other tracks but reviews I have read indicate they are reasonable, though purism dictates I will probably never race them despite also owning the Playstation version (which has them).

The ports for other platforms also add the option to race against multiple computer opponents (up to eight, I think) and/or a human opponent. Disturbingly, the civilian traffic is completely removed from the PC and Playstation versions; I don't know about the Saturn version but presume the same is true. The controls are configurable on the PC but the Playstation version has an horrific selection of joypad presets; none of the offerings are ideal, and most use a bizarre gear-changing of both shoulder buttons on one side of the joypad instead of one on either side.

My biggest complaint with the various ports is their comparatively garish presentation; heaven knows why the developers felt it needed tarting up. Quite apart from the brightly-coloured front end, all manner of readouts and gauges are pasted onto the game screen itself, all of which are hugely unwelcome after the minimalist 3DO version (let's leave aside for the moment that none of the other versions I have played actually play as well either). The Playstation version, which I have booted up while writing this, has a game screen inundated with stats (distance to end of stage, current time, gear, split time etc). A bright red and yellow digital tachometer covers most of the top of the screen with the speed underneath in thick bright numbers. A local map of the course is in the bottom right of the screen.

The only version of TNFS that isn't graphically inferior to the 3DO version is the PC version, which has a welcome SVGA mode. The Playstation renders at lower resolution than the 3DO (I think the Saturn does too) so the game looks rather pixelly in comparison to its older brother, although the screen update is much, much faster. Artificially so.

I remember reading an article in some magazine about this game in which, incomprehensibly, it commented (or reported on a developer's comment) that the game was so realistic some people complained it was too slow. Anyway, the upshot is the speed of the cars in the ports of the game have been dramatically and artificially scaled up. This, together with the the rock music that plays over any driving session (which, to be fair, can be turned off), pretty comprehensively dissipates any feeling of simulation.

Let me give you an example of the playing-a-33-at-78 speed of the Playstation version: I booted it up just now and played through the entire Alpine segment cold (I have never played it before, having bought the game for a fiver from a bargain bin one day and thrown it into a cupboard in disgust two minutes after booting it up): I beat my absolute, absolute, will-probably-never-beat-it best time on the 3DO version of that track by over two and a half minutes. This was with me messing up at every turn because the car was too fast and the brakes didn't work.

Pedantry? Undoubtedly, but I think this all detracts from the simulation feel that made the original version so compelling, and is part of the reason it has not yet been bettered.

So if you fancy buying this game, do posterity a favour and buy the 3DO version, mmkay?

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