Need for Speed: Porsche Unleashed strays from several conventions previously established by the popular arcade-style exotic-car racing series. For one thing, like its name suggests, Porsche Unleashed features automobiles exclusively from one manufacturer. What's more, the game has a more detailed, more realistic driving and physics model than its predecessors, though the game's realism is scalable. And while Porsche Unleashed has a few minor shortcomings, it nevertheless stands as the most ambitious game in the series since the original. As such, it'll more than likely make you love the Porsche on the off chance you don't already.
Porsche Unleashed looks good enough to do justice to its prestigious German sponsor. The game includes many dozens of different Porsche models from the manufacturer's 50-year product line, and each one bears the unmistakable curvature of a Porsche. The 3D car models are highly detailed: The cars all have working turn signals, brake lights, and headlights, and when you look at them in the garage, you can even check the engine under the hood, pop the trunk, or view the car's interior. The cars shine in the sunlight and reflect street lamps at nighttime, and they can also get noticeably damaged. You can clearly see their independent suspension at work as they corner, thanks to the game's realistic four-point physics model, and you can even see their drivers turning the wheel and shifting gears. You can drive the cars from a 3D cockpit view, from which you get a great sense of speed, but the cockpit view's limited visibility and slower frame rate - as well as the muffled engine noise - make the cutaway first-person view preferable, though you can also select from two external perspectives. The cars in Porsche Unleashed don't look totally perfect, as some of the minor details such as the door handles are part of the texture maps, rather than part of the polygonal geometry. But such details are only evident if you spend a lot of time gawking at your cars in the garage, rather than racing them out on the streets of Europe.
The various courses in Porsche Unleashed look even better than the cars do. Porsche Unleashed is the first Need for Speed since the original to feature extended open-road courses in addition to closed-circuit tracks. The lush natural scenery and subtle lighting effects give you a good sense of where you're driving, whether high up in the mountains at morning or down low by the docks at night. Some tracks offer alternate routes to take, and all of them have plenty of peripheral detail that you'll only start to notice after you've already raced along that stretch of road a half-dozen times. Put it all together, and Porsche Unleashed looks fabulous. The car detail and the great sense of speed you get from behind the wheel, in addition to the quaint backwater European courses and even the game's stylish front-end menus make Porsche Unleashed very classy, much like its namesake. Of further note, you can easily adjust graphics detail and resolution to best suit your system, such that you'll find a good compromise of visual quality and fast performance even on a low-end machine. However, slower computers with less RAM will experience noticeably long loading times before races and even between menu screens.
Porsche Unleashed sounds as good as it looks. You'll hear authentic engine noises and screeching tires throughout each race, along with realistic Doppler effects as you blast by your competition. You can actually hear how powerful the engine is in each of the various cars you'll drive, and you can gauge your RPMs just by listening, rather than by glancing at the tachometer. Porsche Unleashed has more than a dozen fast, funky techno music tracks that help set the pace, although the music might seem anachronistic when you're driving a 1950s-model Porsche.
You'll get to drive the very first Porsches all the way up through its fastest contemporary designs in Porsche Unleashed's evolution mode. The evolution mode begins in 1950 and lets you compete in a series of tournaments to earn cash. Each tournament takes place some years after the previous one, so you can use your earnings to buy new Porsche models as they became available. The evolution mode can be played as a serious simulation: You can tweak your cars' shocks for ride height, stiffness, and travel, just as you can adjust downforce, brake balance, and tire pressure, all to suit the road conditions. Porsche Unleashed is easy to play with automatic transmission in beginner mode, but expert mode can be a real challenge, as even the best Porsche is liable to slide out of control off a sharp corner unless you're ready to brake and downshift around each bend.But even the expert mode is highly forgiving with regard to damage modeling; you'll typically be able to recover even after a head-on collision with some unassuming motorist, though damaging your car can directly affect its steering and its other driving characteristics. You'll have the option to pay for repairs in between races, or you can opt to put your car on the used-car market and hope to make some money off it. Similarly, you can buy used cars as they become available between races, and thus save yourself some money that you can use to purchase lots of different custom parts for the vehicle. The evolution mode is also a clever means of offsetting the game's learning curve, as the older-model Porsches are a lot slower than the modern-day ones. The only problem with the game mode's design is that it'll take you awhile to work your way up to the Porsche models you're used to seeing on the streets, which can get frustrating if you want to cut to the chase right away in the latest 911 Turbo.
If you just want to get behind the wheel of the fastest car Porsche has ever made, then you'll prefer the innovative factory-driver mode, in which you assume the role of a test-driver for the manufacturer. You'll get assignments from various Porsche personalities, including an executive, the chief tester, and even a rival test-driver, and you'll need to complete each of these to advance to the next. There are around three-dozen missions in all, and they range from standard test-driver challenges that test your cornering and acceleration, to more unusual scenarios in which you need to deliver your vehicle for shipment quickly and without damaging it, to rally races, and more. Porsche Unleashed has no hot-pursuit mode like its predecessor, but you'll sometimes encounter Porsche cop cars in the factory-driver mode, who'll try to run you off the road one way or another. Some of the missions are very challenging, but they're short enough and diverse enough that you'll want to persevere through them all, if only to see what sort of exotic car you'll get to commandeer for the next one. Fortunately, no matter what car you're in, the game controls responsively regardless of what peripheral you're using. There's even an option to set your joystick dead-zone to help make your steering more precise.
In addition to the other modes, Porsche Unleashed lets you run a quick race against up to seven opponents, and it also includes a knockout mode that's an endurance match in which the last car around the track is eliminated each lap, until one car wins. The quick-race mode lets you choose from the cars that you've made available in the evolution mode in addition to a few select stock models, which means that you'll need to spend a lot of time racing through the ages before you'll have a wide selection of cars. Porsche Unleashed also includes a history of Porsche that has photographs and even some video advertisements of many of its famous cars. As of this writing, the game's online multiplayer racing mode is still in an open beta-test phase, though Electronic Arts is already starting to provide additional cars for download.
Porsche Unleashed is a beautiful, comprehensive, and highly enjoyable racing sim that's suitable for just about any driving enthusiast. It makes no false claims about the limits of its extensive features, so although it'll give you a chance to experience what it's like to drive all the different types of Porsches from over the years, it won't let you race those cars against their competition from other exotic-automobile manufacturers. Nevertheless, once you get behind the wheel of one of the high-performance machines featured in Porsche Unleashed, chances are you'll feel no need to drive anything else for a long time.