With lagging interest (read: sales) in their Need For Speed series, EA decided to try something new: instead of half-sim, half-arcade street racing games that lost direction with each new entry, the franchise would be split in two and refocused. Back in September, the Xbox 360/PS3's sim-oriented Need For Speed: Shift was met with all-around high-fives, and now Wii owners have the more arcade-y Nitro to blaze through. As far as high-fives go, is Nitro up in space or in your face?
Nitro's biggest new addition is Own It, which turns out to be a pretty neat little feature. What it does is paint the track and scenery with the color and emblem of the racer in first while awarding Style Points. What's nice about it is that, in addition to multiplayer bragging rights of racing dominance, it gives players additional incentive to remain in first throughout the race. Police cars make a return via a Mario Kart-style power-up; drive over a badge and you'll be able to turn up the heat on another racer, sicking police cruisers on them. If nobody is around to target, the badges can also be used to cool your own heat. Unfortunately, the officers don't pose much of a threat; they can be outrun and often just clog up the road if you're behind them, making them more of a nuisance than an effective takedown.
The slow police are doubly annoying because Nitro has a really great sense of speed. You've got boost power, two tanks worth actually, that will set the road ablaze and, coupled with Own It, really makes you feel like you're dominating the crap out of everyone when you're up. Boost is earned by drifting, drafting, Owning It and basically being awesome on the track, and if you're good enough, you'll never be hard up for the game's namesake.
Career mode is standard-fare: conquering races and events earns you stars and money that unlock more events and let you purchase better cars. Each of the five cities you race in has a designated Top Racer, but their presence is oddly never really felt outside of an intro video and a name in end-of-race rankings. In each city you're given free choice over which events you want to tackle and in what order, and each event can net you a different max amount of stars. Straight-up races can get you five stars if you nail the criteria (three stars for placement, one for besting the target lap time and one for earning a certain amount of Style Points, earned by drifting, boosting and Owning It) where time trials will reward a maximum of three. The actual racing is good old-fashioned fun and occasionally thrilling, but tends to end too soon as the finish line always seems to approach once things get good. Those up for a challenge will be pleasantly surprised; it may look casual and easy, but Nitro can get hard down the line. Time trials especially will drive you mad if you want that coveted third star.
What brings the Career mode down is the overbearing sense of grinding. While Excitebots follows a similar linear progression, Nitro doesn't have the luxury of absolute insanity to distract you from the grind. Half the events aren't even races, instead filling in with drift challenges or time trials. Your biggest competition is yourself in these modes, which is like playing competitive solitaire — slightly annoying when all you want to do is race. Considering there are three cups (one for each different class of car) to be conquered in this fashion, progression can turn into a chore. And the half-baked Top Racers idea feels completely unnecessary, too. Apart from their intro movie, there's no interaction with them outside of races you may or may not realize they were in. They're there to lend character to the game, but their implementation is underwhelming. In small doses, Nitro's Career mode doesn't wear on you and can in fact be a nice palette cleanser if you've been digging deep into something else; however, longer sessions start to hemorrhage fun after a while.
Online options total a mighty goose egg; a glaring omission considering its two biggest contenders on the platform (Excitebots and Mario Kart) have significant online options. Locally, up to four players can race in any of the game's modes. Luckily, you don't need to unlock cars or cities in Career mode in order to race them in Quickplay, so four players are able to jump right in and go crazy; while this is good for those who just want to race with friends, you can't help but feel that the time invested in Career mode is all for nothing. Career mode can be played with four players and is the only way to access anything other than typical races, like Elimination or Drag. Having another player or three, however, can help numb the grinding feel.
With 30 licensed vehicles, there's enough variety here to satisfy nearly anyone but the most fervent GT aficionado. Customization is nice too, allowing you to pick a color, emblem and spray design to splatter the course with; if you don't like any of the dozens of designs included, you can paint your own. Car customization is a blast and thoroughly well implemented. It's just a shame that you can't take your killer designs online.
Track variety does leave something to be desired. The five cities each have a handful of circuits (including those for all of the different types of challenges) so it would seem like there's a whole lot of content here. Unfortunately, the circuits are all very similar, which makes them blend together after a certain point. There aren't a lot of stand-out moments, and if it weren't for the slight change in architecture, you'd never know you're racing somewhere new.
Control options do a good job of covering all bases; Wii Wheel, Wii Remote + Nunchuck, GameCube controller and a new one-hand remote option are enough to cover anyone's needs. Motion control is solid, if not as tight as Excitebots, and the one-handed option is a novel addition; twisting the remote like a key to turn is nice for when you need one hand free to hold your milk glass, but it's not nearly as precise as it needs to be to compete on higher levels.
Since the game was developed specifically with the Wii in mind, EA opted to go down the visual stylized route with a good degree of success. Everything has a sort of caricature look to it that fits well with the game's less-than-serious nature. It's colorful and fluid too, so your need for speed is never compromised. Nitro is also a solid aural effort, with enough oomph in the right places to keep things exciting.
EA's lighter Need For Speed outing is a good first step in the right direction for Wii despite falling short in some key areas. The racing is fast and fun with some nice additions to the arcade formula, but the bizarre complete lack of online play, relatively small amount of tracks and an aimless Career mode can be tough pills to swallow. With more content this would be a no-brainer for someone looking for a racer without pie-faced clowns or banana peels. While not a knockout in all regards, Nitro is still worth spending some time with, especially if you've got a few buddies to thwomp. High five for now, Nitro, but we know you can do a lot better.