Need For Speed: Nitro-X has a lot going for it. It's a racing game on a download service that's saturated with puzzlers, for one thing, but it's also part of one of the most long-running and successful racing franchises around. Is it a stripped down version of a retail game? Well yes, but it's a stripped down version of a good retail game, and despite some pacing issues and a few uninspired track designs, Need For Speed: Nitro-X is a fast-paced and unique racer with a surprising amount of content for a downloadable title.
Let's get this out of the way: this is not a pretty game, nor is it a consistent one. But when the game is good, it's really good; and this goodness comes from the fact that realism completely takes the back seat to unbridled, purely ridiculous fun. You'll be doing triple-backflips over cop cars, racing across roller coasters, and blasting through cars so quickly that they explode — sometimes all in a single race. It doesn't quite reach Excitebots levels of craziness (you won't be throwing pies at floating clown heads, unfortunately), but it's a still a welcome change of pace for a series that some not too long ago feared was getting closer and closer to being a total racing sim and nothing more.
The sense of arcade-iness is apparent right from the starting line. Much like Mario Kart, a well timed button press can send you flying from the starting line to an early lead, but Nitro takes it a step further: as the clock ticks down before the start of the race a little meter pops up above your car — if you time it so the bar on the meter is right in the middle, you'll literally fly through the air for a few hundred yards and land with a healthy lead. This HMS meter, as the game calls it, pops up in other parts as well, and it actually ends up being one of the title's best features. If you start tailgating an opponent, the meter will pop up, except this time it'll allow you to jump right over the car in front of you, with varying degrees of stylishness depending on how well you time it.
The physics are also wildly unrealistic, which makes the controls initially a bit off-putting, but once you get the hang of them, the game is a joy to play. The air-tight handling is also quite necessary given the break-neck pace of the races. The amazing sense of speed found here comes at a compromise, though: the developers obviously had to lower the polygon count to keep the frame-rate consistent.
That, however, is about the only thing that's consistent about the game. While the actual races are addictive, Nitro-X is also littered with several other mini-challenges that simply aren't much fun to play. One frequent offender is the Smash-'em-all challenges, which force you to drive through a large arena and smash through a certain number of objects scattered throughout the stage. Another has you “tagging” the environment around the race track — like the Wii and DS versions of the game, you can collect items on the course that allow you to tag the surrounding environment with spray paint. This is actually a pretty fun, if inconsequential, addition to the traditional races, but the specialised challenges based around the mechanic are dull and repetitive. Variety is typically a rather welcome thing in video games, but here we can't help but wish they would have simply focused more on everything that makes the game fun. There's a ton of these side-challenges, and since they're actually necessary to unlock circuits and higher difficulty levels and generally progress through the game, their presence really throws off the overall pace.
Oh, and the sound — turn it down. Your ears will thank you. The two songs that make up the soundtrack are horribly compressed, meaning your listening experience consists of endlessly repetitious, garbled noise.
The customisation options somewhat make up for the slack, though. They're not staggeringly deep, but the amount found here is still pretty impressive for a downloadable game. Not only do you have just about every colour known to man available to paint your car with, but there are quite a few decals, logos and other stylistic touches to mess with as well. You can even create your own custom spray paint logo to plaster on the environment during races. There's some multiplayer thrown in for good measure as well, though it's unfortunately limited to local, multi-card play.
A focus on so-so side-challenges and low-quality visuals keep Need for Speed: Nitro-X from being as consistently good as it could have been, but it hits enough high points with its fast-paced and wonderfully over-the-top races to warrant a purchase.