I don't usually play racing games on the PC. Either they're pale imitations of the arcade and console racers, or they're boring 50-lap simulations. I mean, why play Need for Speed II and Test Drive 4 on the PC when I can play Super GT in the arcade and Gran Turismo on the PlayStation? For ages, I told friends that the PC had nothing on the arcade, even venerable classics like Daytona and Sega Rally. Well, I think I'm going to be eating crow for the next few weeks... and loving it. Not only is the latest Need for Speed miles ahead of the last NFS game, but it approaches (and dare I say surpasses?), the best of the consoles in terms of sheer fun and speed.
Need for Speed III is a great game. It has an exhilarating sense of speed, clean and beautiful graphics, polished production values, and trackloads of unadulterated fun. In many ways, Need for Speed III has that same addictive quality I found in Quake II, Starcraft, and Heroes of Might and Magic. That's pretty celebrated company, but I don't think it's an unfounded categorization. Need for Speed III has that same "just one more turn or just one more deathmatch" quality that the other games have. And just like in those games, the action in Need for Speed III is so engrossing and rewarding that the next time you come up for air, you'll find that two hours have whizzed by.
While Need for Speed III shares an addictive quality with those games, it has something of its own: pure speed. This game is fast and fun. The frame rate is fast and incredibly clean. I've played my fair share of PC and console racers where the pop-up was horrible, as cliffs and buildings would suddenly appear out of thin air, many seconds after you should have seen them on the horizon. Whether it's the smart track design or the beautiful engine, the bottom line is that I only saw one or two instances of minor pop-up. And multiplayer is as fast and fun as the single-player experience. The sound of your revving engine and the fast frame rate both combined to create the illusion of breakneck speeds, although the replays didn't look quite as fast I would have liked.
Aside from the speed and addictive quality, Need for Speed III has the requisite list of features that marketers like to put on boxes, journalists like to list, and consumers always look for. There are many cars, with subtle differences, and the ability to tweak more than a few car qualities, such as steering speed, aerodynamics, and suspension. And, surprisingly, the tweaks will affect your car noticeably.
In classic Need for Speed fashion, there are more than a dozen supercars to race, including several bonus cars that open up with sustained excellent race results or cheat codes. The range of cars is a fascinating gallery of every car enthusiast's dream vehicles: Corvettes, Ferraris, Lamborghinis, Porsches, Jaguars, Mercedes, and an Italdesign prototype car. There are also roughly ten tracks, including the bonus track, encompassing several different environments and difficulty levels. You'll race through a canyon, snowy mountain caps, urban utopia, and forests. You can race during nighttime and in rain to add further to the track variety. Visibility takes a huge hit in either condition, making races on the harder courses incredibly treacherous. Unfortunately, I didn't experience any noticeable difference in driving under rain; the road didn't appear any slicker and handling was pretty much consistent with perfect weapon. If there was a difference, it was too subtle for me to notice.
The single-player game modes include a single race, knockoff (where you eliminate the last place of each race), tournament (where you race through the entire circuit for points), and hot pursuit. Hot pursuit is EA's answer to all the critics who lamented the loss of the cops in Need for Speed II. You aren't only trying to outrace an opponent, but also escape the pursuing cops. Three tickets, and you're out. Or alternatively, you can play the cop in pursuit. The radio chatter alerting you to the cops' presence and their strategies (pursuit or roadblock) are nice touches.
The graphics in the game are pretty amazing. The reflection on the cars is outstanding, as is the rain, and the leaves and dust that follow in your wake. The lighting is especially impressive during the night and rain races. Best of all, everything, including the up to seven competitors, animating background objects, and your rearview mirror, can be packed on screen with barely a hint of a performance hit (OK, sometimes, it will slow down slightly, but not by much). The production values on the track briefings and the car gallery are also first-rate.
There are a few problems. For one, the dashboard doesn't light up at night, and there are no windshield wipers at your disposal during rain. It's disappointing that there's no damage to your cars. I understand that none of the car companies want to see their poor little vehicles hurt in this game, but what's the excuse for not being able to dent the nonsupercars you crash into? And unlike in the latest Sega arcade racers, the cars in Need for Speed III, while maintaining an effective illusion of high-speed driving, sometimes appear too much like they are gliding on the road rather than actually driving and hugging the road. And why not just open all the regular cars (not the bonus cars) in hot pursuit, knockoff, and tournament mode? Still, it's a testament to the game's addictive fun factor that when I was racing, none of these shortcomings ever bothered me. While the arcades still have the edge in racing games, Need for Speed III goes a long way toward giving PC gamers a real taste of exhilarating arcade speed and action.