Let's face it, a racing game is nothing new. I've been spinning around the hairpin turns of video race courses since my friend Joe got his first Atari set in 1979; racing is a natural for the old video game format. So what would prompt Pioneer Productions and Electronic Arts to give us yet another racing game in Road and Track Presents The Need for Speed? Simple: the need to meet the challenge of producing the best video racing game yet. So, how'd they do?
The Need for Speed offers plenty of options for controlling the car, the camera views and the other elements of the game. Steer with a joystick, with the keyboard or simply by moving the mouse left or right; it's up to you. Use the keyboard to shift gears (or let the computer shift, if you like), to brake, to blow your horn. There's plenty you can do while you're racing. There's so much you can do, in fact, that I found it all a little overwhelming to keep track of and finally just concentrated on driving. In its control options, The Need for Speed goes beyond a mere racing game and becomes almost a driving simulation. Some people like that kind of thing. Me, I just wanted to race. I give Electronic Arts (EA) credit for creating a product that can appeal to both the simulation fan and the hey-I-just-want-to-drive-dammit player.
The Need for Speed is richly endowed with graphics — I enjoyed looking at it even when I was completely inept at playing it. The impressive look of the game should be no surprise, considering that it is presented by the people at Road and Track. Road and Track knows cars, knows racing, works hard to fuel the American lust for the automobile. And without a doubt Road and Track had in mind people who share their feelings when they endorsed The Need for Speed.
The look of the racing is detailed and impressively complete. You can choose from several different cars before each race — Lamborghini Diablo, Dodge Viper, Mazda RX-7 and more — each one accurately rendered both inside and out. Beyond the cars, the racecourses are nicely varied and many attempts have been made to create a realistic environment through which to drive. On the alpine course, for example you can drive from a bare roadway to one with snow and ice lying at the shoulder, all the while passing through dense groves of evergreen forest. At one point I even passed an alpine meadow where I caught a glimpse of an elk or a moose. I was going too fast to be sure which it was. As with many of the courses, the alpine course offers drivers the option of facing oncoming traffic. While the cars coming at you are more of the family station wagon/pick-up variety, they too are painstakingly detailed. The result is a truly engaging driving environment; an environment that draws your eye outside the car and above the road. A lot like real life, really.
To their credit, Pioneer Productions and Electronic Arts Canada do seem to have made an attempt to add to the racing formula even if they haven't changed it. The Need for Speed includes short action videos, still photos, performance reports, mechanical information and histories for each of the cars included. That does do a lot to build the illusion that you are truly operating a distinct automobile and not simple clones in different colors.
In addition to the splashy videos, as you race you can switch between three different camera views. You can easily recreate the experience of watching ESPN NASCAR races here by choosing Heli-Cam, which shows your car from above, or Tail-Cam view — your car from behind. The most interesting, though, is the In-car view. Here you are given a steering wheel that responds to even your slightest flinch on the joystick or keyboard. Also, there's a fully detailed dash — different for each car — complete with air vents and other little details EA could easily have left out but, to their credit, didn't. There's a read-out across the top of the screen as well, telling you your speed, your position in the race and other vital statistics. And there's plenty of rich audio: roaring engines, blasting horns, crunching metal during crashes, even voices if you want them.
Completing the realism sweep is the fact that each car you choose not only differs in appearance, but in handling as well. As EA puts it: "The sophisticated physics model recreates the feel of the cars themselves; you'll notice the difference in handling, braking and just plain power." Yeah, I guess that's true, more or less. I don't know what a physics model is (and don't anybody tell me; I want to maintain a little mystery in my life) but I did notice as I drove that different cars performed better on different tracks. I did poorly on the alpine course in the Ferrari, for example, then switched to the Toyota Supra Turbo and stuck to the road much more effectively. Pretty good. So the cars stay on the road or don't, they are blazingly fast or they aren't, according to which one you choose. To create a game that allows for subtle differences like that is commendable. But I disagree that the game recreates the "feel of the cars." I still felt a distance between me and the car on the screen. I remember swiping my mom's Ford Escort when I was sixteen, rushing off to rendezvous with friends at Hardee's. That thing lumbered down the road; it was heavy, it drove like a pickle barrel — as opposed to my brother-in-law's Porsche that corners like a whip. Those two cars feel different. The Need for Speed offers cars that look different and perform differently on the courses, but there's not much to feel here.
Setup and Installation
Setup is easy and user friendly. The box includes a PC CD-ROM reference card to walk users through installation on DOS-based machines as well as those running Windows 95. Chances are if you've ever installed a game or any other CD-ROM product before, you'll have no trouble setting up The Need for Speed. But if you do, the reference card includes no less than 10 pages of troubleshooting information plainly categorized to address separate elements of your system.
The Need for Speed really comes alive in head-to-head play. This game is enjoyable when racing against the computer, but computers never make mistakes; their thinking is limited and so there seems a finiteness to the possibilities in a human-computer race. But go against another human being and anything can happen. You drive not only against another car, but against another personality. The remoteness afforded by the modem connection took a little getting used to — gone is the intimacy of two friends sitting side-by-side on the couch, racing each other on the TV screen. But there is a Chat Mode option which allows you to discuss the race when you're done. And to a certain extent, the modem remoteness contributes to the sense you're really driving a car: after all, if you race a friend in a real car (which you shouldn't do) you can't talk to them, laugh with them, deck them until it's all over anyway.
IBM or 100% compatible, 486DX2-66 Mhz or higher for VGA (320×200) gameplay, Pentium CPU with VLB/PCI video card for SVGA (640×480) old gameplay, 8 MB RAM (400 K Conventional and 7,274,496 extended memory free required for 16-bit audio gameplay), MS-DOS 5.0 or higher, 2X CD-ROM drive, keyboard, 4 MB minimum hard drive space free (plus additional space for saved games), 256-color VESA-compatible SVGA (640×480) video card with 512K video RAM (VESA driver included)
Recommended: Pentium 90 Mhz CPU or faster, 256 color VESA-compatible VLB/PCI SVGA (640×480) video card with 512 K video RAM, Microsoft mouse with 7.04 and above or 100% compatible analog joystick or Thrustmaster Steering Wheel, 30 MB hard drive space free (plus additional space for saved games)
Reviewed on: 486DX2-80, 12 MB RAM, Diamond Stealth 64 1 MB Video Card
Is this the best racing game ever made? Maybe. It's certainly one of the best I've played in my childhood. There's nothing new in the basic idea behind it; the idea of car racing is about as simple as it gets. For that reason I'm not convinced that The Need for Speed will be able to fight off the boredom of players who've mastered it any better than other racing games that have come and gone before it. But what The Need for Speed has going for it is a great look and a level of realism that at this point is unmatched. It's conceivable that users might continue to return to The Need for Speed for the experience of driving as much as they will just to burn rubber and blow off steam. The Need for Speed scores a 92 out of 100 with me — primarily for the great graphics and realism.