By jingo, there are a lot of Need For Speed games! Two came out last year, and in the near future we have three more on the way at the end of this year and into the next. Between those five releases we have Need For Speed: World, an MMO that purportedly came out of beta on July 27th - though I'm not so sure.
I'd better qualify that. NFSW is a functional racing game, but after 14 previous releases in the franchise I imagine they're tripping over ready-made game engines at EA Black Box. The game works but there are still clear signs that this isn't a finished product. The most glaring of these we'll-get-around-to-it-laters is the lack of support for game pads or racing wheels despite the presence of a "Controls" option in the menu; greyed out along with the "Interface" option, 11 days after release. It's 2010 and we're driving Mazdas with the W, A, S, and D keys. Hell, it works, but it just doesn't feel like you're playing a driving game.
In the game's defence it is free to play, to a point. As you compete in races and engage in high speed chases with the rozzers you will gain Rep (experience points in old money). As you gain Rep you will level up and be given the chance to acquire skills, just like an MMO, and that's all gravy until you get to level 10 and the game asks you to cough up. The "Starter Pack" costs £15.00 and permits you to play to the game's current level cap of 50. That strikes me as a very reasonable price for a game that doesn't charge a monthly subscription but you may find that you've had your fill of NFSW before it starts asking for payment.
Another similarity between Need For Speed: World and typical MMOs is the grind. NFSW drip feeds its courses over the 50 level span and at low levels there are very few to choose from. You'll replay the same handful of races in a little corner of the game's world again and again before it deigns to give you something new to try.
The races themselves can be played against other players or bots, so if it weren't for the necessity to log in over the internet you could play right through NFSW as a single player game. The bots are competent and you'll need to learn the shortcuts and alternate routes to have a chance of beating them consistently. Even then you have to contend with the game's idiosyncratic approach to rubber banding.
NFSW is nearer Mario Kart than Forza and power-ups play a significant role. There are the obvious buffs of nitro boosts and shields but the game's "blue shell" comes in the form of the Traffic Magnet attack, which causes all civilian vehicles on the road to veer into the leader's path. For this reason it's often more sensible to sit in second place and wait for inevitable multiple Traffic Magnet uses from the chasing pack to take care of the feller in front of you. The races are often so short that if you're the one in the lead and you fall foul of Traffic Magnet you can lose several places that you won't have time to retake.
The other rubber banding system comes as a driver skill. The skills you can pick up range from cash multipliers to the ability to employ a kart-like boost start, but one that you can pick up very early on increases the performance of your car if you're ever below third place. You'd be a fool not to take it really. It's hard to say if the bots have it in their locker but your human opponents certainly will.
Speaking of the human opponents; they're not the nicest people I've met in my years of online gaming. I've only received one tell in my time with NFSW and it was from someone who wanted me to know just how dissatisfied he was to beaten by a noob. The forums are full of that stuff, with new players branded hackers if they have the gall to beat a higher level player to the finish line. One thread that especially made me laugh was a plea to the developers that the game was being ruined by "arogant noob drivers" who were committing the heinous sin of ramming other cars in this arcade kart racer with power-ups, set in a fictional street racing haven.
The game runs nicely and the visuals give it a nice sense of speed, even if the motion blur may be a little over the top. Occasionally you'll see other players' cars flicker in and out of existence in the open world but in the instanced races I haven't seen any lag-related problems and, overall, I had a very smooth experience. The game offers plenty of opportunities to customise the look of your own car, with an extensive set of tools for decorating it with layered decals and tinkering with its general shininess. If anyone knows where I can get hold of some of their iridescent paint for my Focus, please get in touch.
In ten years' time, after the release of 40 to 50 more Need For Speed titles, I suspect that NFS scholars may overlook Need For Speed: World when they reflect on the series' chronology. There's just not enough there to distinguish it from the franchise's other games on the market, or those to come in the very near future. The racing isn't bad but, as an MMO, Need For Speed: World offers little - if anything - more than the multiplayer modes that come as standard in modern driving games. If you are still intrigued, make full use of the option to try before you buy.