I reviewed Need for Speed III more than a few months ago and loved the game. It had a few shortcomings, but they were minor and insignificant compared with the outstanding gameplay and graphics. When I first played Need for Speed III, I thought it was vastly superior to Need for Speed II. Now that I've played the next Need for Speed game, High Stakes, I have to ask myself: Does it surpass the third installment as easily as the third surpassed the second? Not exactly. That doesn't mean the game is bad or even worse than Need for Speed III. It just isn't a huge leap in terms of graphics and gameplay.
Those who buy this game should realize that it plays very much like Need for Speed III, but with some extra play modes and one big added feature.
The biggest feature added to the game is car damage, which we've all been crying for since the inception of this fine arcade racing series. I'm happy to say that on this count, the game benefits greatly from damage modeling. All cars have ratings for body, engine, suspension, and handling. Too many bumps, scrapes, and crashes will bring those ratings down. At first, the damage is subtle, but once you start racking up the collisions, you'll see the car's body start to warp, the windshield and windows break, and the engine start to smoke. Tires will be off kilter, and you'll notice the performance of your car suffering commensurately. There is no way to fix your car during a race, so you are in a bind should the damage be extensive. There is a status window on the top right corner of your screen, though, so you can monitor your damage and respond accordingly. You might want to be less reckless if you see the red damage-indicator bar overtaking the blue status bar. For Need for Speed purists who don't want to play with damage, this option can be toggled off.
Although damage cannot be repaired within a race, it can be repaired between races if you are playing in the new career mode. Unlike the tournaments in Need for Speed III, this career mode has higher stakes attached to it, if you'll pardon the pun. You start you off with a wad of cash and asked to purchase a lowly BMW Z3 or a Mercedes SLK 230. Then you enter a series of circuits organized into tiers. As you advance through the tiers, you earn more money, which you can use to repair your car between races, upgrade your existing cars, or buy new vehicles. There are three different types of circuits in the career play mode. There are regular races, where you try to amass the most points over three or more tracks. There is a knockout mode, where the last-place finisher in each race is eliminated from the circuit. And there is a high stakes mode, where it's you against one other driver with your cars on the line. Each circuit has an entry fee and offers the finishers varying amounts of cash depending on how they placed. In the high stakes mode, your entry fee is your car, and the prize is the loser's vehicle. It's a quick way to earn a car but also a very quick way to lose one.
With ten tiers to race, and multiple circuits within each tier, there is a lot of gameplay in the career mode. The career mode also cleverly forces you into making hard choices on how to manage your car and money. Do you pay the $8000 to upgrade your car's suspension and engine, or do you save the money and hope you can win enough in the next race to buy an all-new ride? The additional car damage and repair costs also force you to race a little smarter. In addition, persistence is rewarded, as successive victories unveil more expensive levels of cars, bonus cars, and bonus tracks.
It would be too much to ask of a gamer to play through the entire career mode in one sitting, so the game does save your progress, although you don't have the option of saving between races in a circuit.
Aside from the career mode, there are other modes of play that make their return, as well as some new ones we haven't seen before. There is the normal arcade mode, where you only commit to one race at a time, as well as Need for Speed III-style tournament play. Then there is the police-chase hot pursuit mode, which is more robust in this version. There is the previous mode of hot pursuit but also two new versions, both of which add a twist to the gameplay and even more value to the overall package. Once again, though, not all cars are available in hot pursuit.
Of course, then there are all the options that the Need for Speed series is known for. You can tweak all your cars, adjust graphic details, and toggle off various gameplay elements like weather, night driving, and the existence of traffic. There is a spectacular car showcase that has a slide show, inside view, and detailed specs on all the cars. And lastly, there is the full suite of multiplayer options, although EA's Internet racing network still isn't final at this stage.
There is really very little to criticize about this game. Some of the graphics aren't great, such as the dust-cloud sprites. And some of the tracks are boring, with little ambient detail. I thought the soundtrack was a weak imitation of Wipeout's, with some annoying animal noises thrown in for bad measure. There is also the matter of the feel of the gameplay being similar to Need for Speed III. High Stakes doesn't feel like a sequel, even though it is a very good game on its own.
In essence, Need for Speed: High Stakes is Need for Speed III with car damage, a new career mode, new cars, and new tracks. It plays like its predecessor but just has so many more extras. If you already own Need for Speed III, you have to decide whether those new features are worth the asking price. But if you don't have Need for Speed III, then this will be a rare treat among PC racing games. You'll enjoy the graphics, the fast gameplay, and the plethora of cars and tracks at your disposal.