Need for Speed: Nitro is EA's attempt to transform their popular racing franchise into something more immediate and accessible for less experienced driving fans. Built exclusively for the Wii and DS, the game has a heavy arcade focus mixed with plenty of customisation options and a quirky design concept. The DS version packs in plenty of races, a relaxed control system and character-filled tracks, but the lack of variety in the game modes stops this from being a winner.
You begin Career mode by racing in six cities: San Diego, Dubai, Rio de Janeiro, Cairo, Singapore, and Madrid. As is common in racing games, you'll have to keep playing to unlock cars, starting out with street racers like Dodges, Fords, Nissans, and Renaults and moving on to slicker wheels like Porsches and Lamborghinis. There are four events in each city, which you unlock gradually by earning points in a number of different ways while you race. For example, you get points for coming first in a race, but you also get points if you race a little more creatively, such as drifting wherever possible and picking up tagging items along the track. There's also the Heroic Driving System--a quick-time event that lets you earn more points for pulling off spectacular moves in order to avoid cops, push past other opponents, or drift in style. You're given an onscreen prompt to press X three or four times in a race, but you have to keep your eyes on a small meter on the bottom left-hand corner of the screen that slides quickly between a green zone and a yellow zone. If you press X while the bar is in the green zone, you'll earn the maximum number of points for pulling off a particular move. This adds a little spice to the races and gives you an incentive to go back to a particular racing event more than once, trying to earn points for different things.
Earning points quickly is easy to do thanks to the game's controls, which are responsive and straightforward. Like in some previous Need for Speed games on the DS, the steering control is assigned to the D pad. It will take a little while to get the hang of turning correctly, since the D pad is pretty sensitive and some corners require only a slight tap. Once you master this, the rest is a breeze. The remaining controls are intuitive enough: A to accelerate, B to brake, L to drift, and R to activate nitro boost. There's a great sense of speed when the nitro kicks in, and sometimes you'll find yourself zooming happily around the tracks without paying attention to earning points or coming first simply because it's a lot of fun.
There's no shortage of races in which to do this: after you've completed the four events in each of the six cities, you'll start all over again in the Silver Cup, Gold Cup, and Nitro Cup. This is great if you play the game in short bursts, but it can get monotonous if you keep at it in long sessions. There are only a handful of race modes in the game, which get repeated over and over: standard circuit races, which get a few different makeovers in the style of knockout races, sprint races, and race-against-the-clock races; race events that have you destroying certain obstacles in a set amount of time; and tagging races, where the aim is to pick up as many tagging items along the track as possible.
The latter two race modes are not particularly exciting, because they lack opponents, which can take some of the challenge out of the whole experience. For example, the race events where you have to knock down obstacles are set in an enclosed area like a field or a park, not on a proper track, so you drive around in circles trying to run into garden gnomes or boxes, which can get a bit tiring. If you play the game for more than an hour the repetition can really get on your nerves, particularly because there's no way out if you want to keep unlocking new cars and customization tools.
Arcade mode is a welcome counterpoint to the monotony of Career mode. There are 22 tracks (all circuit events) that you can race in with up to four players wirelessly, in both single-card play modes and multicard play modes. The customization options also help to keep things interesting. As in the Wii version of the game, you can use an in-game editor to change the way your car looks, including colours, stickers, and tags. The tagging is the most fun to play with--you can pick from the many tags available (from sports themes all the way to fairies) or you can customize your favourite. You can then slap the tag onto the roof, side, or bonnet of the car and be on your way. When you take the lead in a race, you'll notice the track and surrounding city change to reflect the colours and tag you've picked, which is a quirky and fun way to give you more incentive to stay ahead. You'll gradually unlock more tags and customization upgrades for your cars as you play, which keeps you coming back to the in-game editor.
Visually, Need for Speed: Nitro gets some things right and some things wrong. The overall look of the tracks is rough--there's not much definition and there's a lot of pop-up with the surrounding cities. If you can ignore that, the locations themselves have a lot of character: in Cairo you drive through sand past the Sphinx and Pyramids, in Dubai you drive in an underground tunnel through a giant fish tank, and in Spain you drive through the paved and colourful streets of Madrid. There are also a number of what the game calls "legendary moments" on some of the tracks--hidden spots that when stumbled upon turn the track into something quite spectacular, like a roller coaster. The sound in the game, however, leaves a lot to be desired. The problem is not the soundtrack itself (with artists like Placebo, Armand Van Helden, and Lady Gaga), but rather the fact that you're hearing MIDI-style versions of the songs, which ruins the effect and doesn't gel with what's happening in the game.
Fortunately, there's enough good action in Need for Speed: Nitro that you can overlook the game's shortcomings, at least for a while. Sure, there's not much variety, the music leaves something to be desired and the graphics can get a bit rough, but the gameplay itself offers a good sense of speed, plenty of character, and, more importantly, it's fun.