The Need for Speed franchise has branched off in two directions this year. While Shift aspired to a more authentic approach, Nitro is an all-out arcade racer with splattered graffiti, flaming boosts, and extended drifts. Should fans pining for street racing and cop chases turn to the Wii or just drive on by?
Nitro's career mode spans three tiers of competition as you work your way from driving lowly machines like the Volkswagen bus to mastering high-performance supercars. Starting in Rio de Janeiro, you'll prove yourself in a variety of events in order to move onto new cities and ultimately the grand prix, starting the process over again in the next tier of faster cars. In each event, you earn stars for podium placement, lap times, and stylish maneuvers, and racking up enough stars unlocks access to more vehicles, events, and locations.
Nitro's choice of locales is a bit unorthodox. In lieu of traditional street racing locales like LA, Tokyo, and London, you'll rip through the streets of places like Cairo and Dubai. Each area features two circuit tracks and one drag course, making for 15 courses in all. Events include standard circuit and elimination races as well as speed traps that require you to go as fast as you can through police checkpoints, and drag races which focus on timing shifts and avoiding traffic.
The car selection includes 30 vehicles, ranging from the Corvette Stingray to the Nissan 370Z, but aside from speed, they all handle about the same. You can customize cars by adding new parts, paint jobs, and decals, and select the graffiti appears all over town whenever you're in the lead. However, there's no real benefit to tagging, and none of the race modes really take advantage of the graffiti mechanic.
There's no online play, but Nitro does allow for local four-player competition, and you can even have friends play with you during career events. In elimination rounds, players who fall out first can stay active by taking over as the police, and you can set up red versus blue team races in arcade mode.
As the first Need for Speed title developed specifically for Wii, Nitro includes five different control schemes, letting you play with the Wii wheel, nunchuk, classic controller, or even a GameCube pad. The default setup with the remote pointed toward the screen actually plays quite well, and while analog sticks offer more precision for winning races, mastering the motion controls will get you the best results in drift competitions.
Handling in Nitro is fast and loose, with an exaggerated sense of speed and a simple drift mechanic that can look quite ridiculous when your back end swings wildly from side to side. It can be pretty fun once you turn off your brain, but it does get frustrating at times. You generally shuttle forward through the wide tracks, but when you come to forks in the road, it's all too common to slam into a median dead-on, stopping you in your tracks and often costing you the race. This is exacerbated by the fixed camera angle that sometimes causes your own vehicle to block your view. Team icons in multiplayer compromise visibility even more.
As its name implies, boosting is integral to Nitro's gameplay. You fill boost tanks by launching perfectly off the starting line, driving fast, catching air, or drifting. Taking too much damage prevents you from gaining more nitro, so it's important to avoid major collisions and to keep an eye out for the wrench power-ups that repair your car.
Police chases return as well. The cops don't have the spike strips and helicopters of past titles, but they will run you off the road quite aggressively. However, you can use badge icons to lower your heat meter or raise the heat on an opponent.
Nitro has a cartoony look with caricatured opponents and chubby car models. The damage modeling is unimpressive, with simple texture swaps for broken glass and paint scrapes. Furthermore, the blurry textures make it hard to choose between graffiti and decal designs, and there's no sense of weight on the tires as you rev your engine at the starting line. Garage load times are also an issue, making it hard to browse for new vehicles as you have to wait for each car to load. On the up side, the game does run at a steady 60 frames per second, which makes it easy to keep up with the high-speed action. The raucous engine sounds are as exaggerated as the visuals, and screeching, smoking tires punctuate lengthy drifts.
Need for Speed Nitro's cartoony nature and zoned-off tracks take some of the edge out of street racing, but the fiery boosts and hectic police encounters make for a fast, simple arcade racer.
Reviewed on Nintendo Wii.