For more than a decade Need for Speed games have offered players vehicular escapism from speed limits, one-ways and police pursuits. As one of the longest running racing franchises, the series has seen a fair number of changes, and not only graphically either. Over the years, tweaks in physics, damage modeling, the cars themselves, and racing structure have distinguished one iteration from the next; in 2009, however, a new business model for the franchise has separated some of the game's disparate elements into focused gameplay for targeted audiences.
With bold, bright colors and simplified arcade-style play, Need for Speed NITRO is aimed at the large number of casual players on the Wii. EA Montreal has an eclectic list of titles to their name, and are no strangers to accessible gaming. Nitro is both a departure from and embracing of some of the series' biggest strengths. Gone are the open-world streets and campy storylines of the most recent games. Instead, with any Wii-friendly control setup, players take part in a Grand Prix of illegal street racing from a set of menus.
In NITRO's career mode there are no difficulty settings to select or advance car modifications to get bogged down with. The game's broken down into three series of competitions: Bronze, Silver and Gold Cups. Forcing you start in the Bronze series, you take part in various kinds of races across five worldly locales, dominated by a Number One racer. The goal here is to do well enough in each race from each setting to earn enough stars to not only win money, car parts, cars and other races, but to qualify for the Cups' final race.
As each Cup gets progressively harder, you have to not only master steering cars with a nice feeling of speed, but starts, drifting, nitrous boosts, escaping pursuing police cars, and, in some cases, shifting. While the game may be focused on the casual player, even the hardcore will find some light challenge in different events and using three classes of 30 licensed cars to beat out not only computer-controlled competition, but up to three other players locally as well. Those acquainted with racing games will appreciate some fun drifting mechanics with different kinds of cars exhibiting distinct weight and drivetrain properties.
The events themselves are broken down into entertaining variations from the simple circuit and time attack races, to points competitions and drag racing. Depending on the event, light street traffic, relentless police, and come-back AI keep things from being too easy: Taking too much damage from any of them will cripple your ability to build your nitrous gauge and may even result in DNFs. In-race pick-ups offer deployable repairs or additional police attention to be paid to your competitors, which makes for some strategic racing.
Should you race well enough and earn money, you can buy faster cars and customize them with ease from your garage, using the Wii's pointer controls. Customizations amount to little more than cosmetic work, but they allow you to change your car's detail easier than in past games. Also, you can pick what color and decals to adorn city streets with as a continuous rippling effect changes the color scheme of buildings when you're racing in first place.
For those looking for an arcade racer with some depth, NITRO gets the job done. There's enough challenge surprisingly hidden beneath its graphically lean, cartoony visuals to entertain even the hardcore for a short while. Unfortunately, a lack of extension might bore not only Need for Speed fans, but dedicated racers as well.
In both cases, the game almost feels antagonistic as it forces you to play its easiest (Bronze) difficulty to completion before opening up the medium (Silver) difficulty, with the same criteria for accessing the hardest setting. This wouldn't be that bad if it weren't for the fact that each Cup is comprised of the same locales, races and characters—they just get faster and harder. Further repetition is forced as you'll have to repeat past races with better cars accessed from later stages of progression to unlock additional stars. Similarly, the final Grand Prix of each Cup is only a set of circuit races played back to back. Realistically, much of the play time and replay value is a result of recycling. Whether you consider this a tiresome quality or not depends on how much effort and time you want to put into the game.
By separating the Need for Speed brand into distinct products, EA has developed concentrated efforts for specific audiences. With the option to play with friends cooperatively or competitively, for the casual crowd, Need for Speed NITRO is undoubtedly a fun alternative with just enough production value to keep it from seeming overly stale. NITRO's point-based structure and pick-up-and-play gameplay caters well to those looking for quick spurts of action, but it's unlikely to see an intense cross-pollination from those in need of in-depth racing sessions on the Wii.