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Need For Speed 4

Written by Mike Gazda

It doesn't?! Are you sure about that? Need For Speed IV: High Stakes is just NFSIII SE? Well, I beg to differ. The rest of the world isn't so sure, however. That's why I'm going to review NFSIV: HS, EA's latest addition in the Need For Speed series, on its own. Not compared to Need For Speed III: Hot Pursuit. Most people tend to agree, the 4th is just a gussied-up version of the third. They say it doesn't have enough change, enough new cars, enough options. Pretend NFSIII doesn't exist, and then look at NFSIV. Wow! Isn't it neat: the game is actually worth taking a spin now! So forget the past, and concentrate on the latest and greatest racing game from Electronic Arts.

When Electronic Arts came out with The Need For Speed, the original road racing simulation, they knew it was something special- and they were right. What once was a small attempt at a new niche in the gaming market has now become the biggest, and dare-I-say, the best series in the genre. Test Drive? Doesn't come close. Electronic Arts knows what it's doing, and fully backs up their product. So how does this terrific game play? Read on.

As soon as I loaded the game for the first time, I sat back and watched in awe at the incredible opening video. A multitude of racers, scream around the track, passing traffic lights, and racing under railroad barriers. All done in fantastic FMV style, taking place at night. Then a brief pause as the menu screen loads, followed by heavy techno music beating at a fast pace. First thing I do: turn off that damn music. I don't listen to music while driving, it distracts me, and I like listening to my own brand of music when in the menus. But if you like dance, then surely you'll want to leave all sounds at their maximum volume. The menu set-up is one of the best I've ever seen, done in a nice variety of black, and nice shades of blue. The menus are fluid, good-looking, and easy to navigate. They have the classic EA touch. Form follows function and you can set up and get racing in a matter of seconds. Of course, for the seasoned racers there are a host of options; graphics, sounds, controllers etc. which can all be tailored to one's personal needs. That said and done, let's buckle-up and get behind the wheel.

Need For Speed IV gives you the option of selecting 13 (count-em) different cars, in four different classes. The cars vary in performance (and price) from the slow but beautiful Mercedes SLK 230, to the sleek and super-fast McLaren F1 GTR. When you select a car, you see it prominently displayed on a virtual turntable, with its own showcase and voiceover. There are also videos and images of the chosen vehicle. Such immersion is what makes this game so great. And we haven't even started playing yet! In addition to selecting the model, you can choose the factory colors, or better-yet: create a custom color. You can pick any color from the 16bit palette with an easy color-picker. With cars that have convertible soft-tops, you have the option of keeping the top up, or lowering it for that true open-air motoring experience.

When you finally stop staring at the great interface you can proceed to start racing. You'll notice stunning graphics, and incredible ambient objects. Objects like balloons soaring, or a blimp hovering overhead. At 1024x768 in 32bit color depth the game flies, and looks unbelievable. The detail is astonishing, with chromed reflections on the cars, and superb textures all around. The road looks so clear and real. To complement the awesome visuals, EA adds realism that has yet to be beaten by any other PC driving game. The skid marks are amply laid down, and even they are textured and not just plan flat lines. And unlike a very annoying occurrence in other games, they stay down lap after lap. All this, of course with maximum detail set. Make sure you have a quick machine to handle the fog, smoke and lighting effects. You always have the option of tuning everything down, and eventually turning it all off for a faster, but less visually-pleasing racing experience.

When you climb in and start, you have the option to select four different views on the fly. Replay mode offers additional views, but we'll concentrate on the ones we have when racing. You have the classic heli and chase views (i.e. behind the cars, further and closer respectively), as well as the necessary bumper cam. But what really blows the mind away is the interior view. You are presented with a detailed, fully 3D-modelled working dashboard that fools you into thinking, wow, I'm actually racing this car. What's changed from last year's model is the fact that the dashboards are not just 2D images superimposed on the screen. They are actually a part of the model, and it shows. The instrument panel lights up when you turn on the lights. You now have the ability to look in both directions, as well as behind you through the car. You actually see pieces of the interior, and when looking back, a fragment of the trunk. It all equates to a surreal experience that truly makes you believe you are behind the wheel of a $200,000 exotic.

The cars, as nice as they are, wouldn't make a great game alone. To accompany them, the boys and girls at EA have included fantastic-looking tracks as well. There is a wide variety, as well as the option of winning as a bonus all of the previous tracks from NFSIII. Also added, reminiscent of the original Need for Speed, are three race tracks, with no traffic, and no scenery to distract you; what you get is clean, fast racing. What you end up with is a choice of over fifteen different tracks, set in a massive variety of environments and locales. All this is wonderful, but at times can be slow if you aren't equipped with the latest computing technology. You'd best have at least a Pentium II to enjoy this show.

Enjoy it you will with six unique racing modes, split up into three categories: Classic, Hot Pursuit, and Career. With classic, you have the original modes introduced in NFSII: Single Race, Tournament and Knockout. The latter involving races on every track, eliminating the contestant who finishes last. What you end up with is, hopefully, a race against the best driver, and a chance to win bonus tracks. You can receive bonus cars much in the same fashion, albeit via a different route entering the Tournament mode.

In classic Electronic Arts style, NFSIV offers hopped up multiplayer capability. You can have up to eight players via TCP/IP, as well as IPX and a direct serial connection. I've played a few online games, and with two cable modems, the lag is not excessive. However, with a 56K modem or worse, the lag story is much worse, I'm afraid. It's difficult to find a game that will support the slower speeds, and seeing how multiplayer was not a main focus in NFSIV, one can't really have discriminate against EA for not doing an A+ job with the multiplayer.

Finally, we have arrived to the best, and my favorite part, of NFSIV: High Stakes: Hot Pursuit. The thrill of the chase, running away, dodging the cops. What could be more fun? Maybe actually being the cops! That's right. Setting up road blocks, laying spike strips, coordinating a whole division. The commands lie at your fingertips, all you have to do is press the right buttons at the right time. It gives tremendous satisfaction once you've caught up to and arrested your man. In order to win, you must give the two racers a set amount of tickets before one of them finishes the race. There is also a new option, not present in NFSIII. It's called Getaway, and it involves only one computer opponent if you are on the side of the law. It's the same as before, except you are only constrained by a time limit, and it's more of a free-for-all. The opponent will do anything to escape, including turning around! Since he's in no hurry to finish any race, it becomes a much more difficult task to catch him. This is my favorite mode, and 80% of the time you'll find me playing NFSIV in such a fashion.

Need For Speed IV: High Stakes offers so many options, so much choice, that it would be impossible to describe it all. I have tried, and am still not able to cover them all completely. In order to keep you alive, by preventing you from reading any more praise, and description of the game, I can only say that this is one you absolutely must buy if you're into racing, cars, or just love the excitement of a good police chase. It's true, that the tracks are a little bit linear, and that you are limited choice as to where you can go. It has been shown, however, by various titles that achieving a decent AI (I'm talking about the computer cops) in a city environment with go-anywhere capability is extremely difficult, and has yet to be done effectively. So NFSIV gives you a great play, at the cost of a large playing surface. If you ask me, this solution is the winner- at least for now. In a few short years, games will emerge that blend NFSIV's unique style of play, with massive city environments that can be found in titles such as Midtown Madness or Driver. It will be an exciting time and a lot of people, myself included, just can't wait.

Pros:

* Stunning graphics
* Exquisite, fluid gameplay
* Downloadable cars!
* Incredible cars
* Fast, good-looking tracks
* Cops can finally kick your ass

Cons:

* Game slows down, even on a Pentium III, during heavy smoke and effects
* Multiplayer not as fluid as the rest of the game
* Tracks can get linear and boring sometimes

Tallies:

* Graphics: 9/10
* Sound: 8/10
* Gameplay: 8.5/10
* Multiplayer: 7/10
* Replayability: 8/10
* Score: 91/100 (Not an Average)