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Need for Speed 4: High Stakes

In the long-running Need for Speed series from Electronic Arts, 1998 was a banner year. Need for Speed III: Hot Pursuit received wonderful reviews from the gaming press and sold very well. The police chase mode was so well implemented that, when combined with the excellent graphics and production values, pretty much everyone loved the product. Even with the unprecedented number of racing releases last year, Hot Pursuit was firmly at the top of the heap.

The dilemma of what to do next when a game in a series achieves this level of success is not an easy one to resolve. Many racing fans have been waiting with baited breath to see whether Need for Speed: High Stakes, this year's installment, would top its hit predecessor. Now that it's out, I can say EA decided to do more of what they did in the days of "Special Edition" releases a few years back: they went for a release with small improvements in every area, but no revolutionary features. To this, some customers will respond with a positive "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" feeling, while others will have a "Been there, done that" negative response. I myself am far closer to the second of these two attitudes.

The career mode is new in High Stakes and is the key to understanding the second half of the title. You begin with $20,000 in your pocket and try to win races to earn cash prizes; you then use your earnings to customize your car, buy new vehicles or pay for damage. The high stakes component here is, if you lose the race, you lose your car. For this reason, you may only enter the intense competition if you own two cars. The option of earning money through winning races to upgrade your vehicle may be new to this series, but it has been done just as well many times before in other offerings. Furthermore, the manner in which this mode is implemented makes it very likely that you will have to replay tournaments over and over again to earn enough to repair and upgrade or replace your vehicle.

It is great that the cars now show polygonal damage after collisions with other competitors or environmental objects, affecting their appearance and performance in body, engine, steering and suspension. But the physical portrayal of major damage is not particularly realistic. (Having just been in a major car accident myself, believe me, I know). What is nicely implemented is the ancillary cosmetic damage, such as broken headlights and smashed bumpers. That said, I still feel Sierra's Viper Racing has the best damage model, in terms of both its visual appearance and its impact on vehicle performance, of any racing title I have played.

Countless little improvements are embedded in this version. You now have the choice to insert and play an audio CD of your choice or listen to the existing in-game soundtrack. It is also appealing that you may now look into the cars and see their interiors and an animated driver. Additionally, the dashboard lights up when it gets dark, another nice effect. The car showcase library, which had been scaled back in recent years, now provides an encyclopedic wealth of information and features a neat "virtual cockpit" look. Also, if you drive a convertible, you can even put the top up and down. But undoubtedly the most significant of these changes is that you get to see your own name on your car's license plate rather than the generic "Need for Speed" present in earlier installments.

In fact, there are more choices here than ever before. For starters, you may choose from 13 licensed performance cars, five police cruisers and 19 tracks. The number of vehicles available is the same as in the last release, and include Porsche, Ferrari, Lamborghini, BMW and Mercedes. Night racing, real weather conditions and traffic add spice to the arcade action. Four different camera views and an automatic replay option are available to view the driving during and after races. Furthermore, you have access to braking and traction assists and collision recovery options. In truth, lots of customization possibilities exist here for style and performance, though nowhere near the level of serious racing simulations. Finally, extras can be downloaded off the Web, and already there is a new sleek Ferrari 360 Modena available.

There are four racing modes, including career, single-player arcade, split-screen arcade and multiplayer. (I am thrilled the series has permanently dispensed with the silly arcade/simulation/wild choices, which some of you veterans may remember with a chuckle). In career mode, you may play tournament, Knockout and High Stakes racing circuits, while in the other three modes you have single race, Hot Pursuit, Knockout and tournament available. For multiplayer action, you may undertake two-player split screen racing on one computer, link two computers for modem and serial racing, or connect up to eight machines across a LAN. In the future, you should be able to race up to seven other players via the EA Racing Online Beta Program, a unique service that offers matchmaking and game servers to optimize racing over the Internet. The highly successful Hot Pursuit mode is continued and expanded in this latest release, with three options to play from either side of the law, includingh the original plus Getaway and Time Trap. Additionally, you may now command the entire police force or use a helicopter as a tracking aid.

In the end, part of what concerns me about this title is that most of the new features appear to be attempts to draw in two new types of buyers -- the simulation crowd and the strategy crowd -- neither of whom constitute this offering's bread-and-butter support. Even with damage effects, more realistic physics and increased control over car tuning, no self respecting simulation fan would go anywhere near this title. Moreover, just because money management is now a key component of success does not mean the strategy folk are going to begin looking this way. The NFS series has always been for the pure arcade racing fan, and there is precious little in the way of major innovations aimed at members of this group.


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