After Need for Speed: Undercover crashed and burned last year, EA decided that, instead of trying to take the Need for Speed name in a new direction, it'd try several directions. Need for Speed Nitro, which is being brought to the Wii and DS, is opting for a simpler, more accessible style of street racing than its predecessors. What I saw of the game at a recent EA press event definitely represented a change of pace for Need for Speed, one that doesn't necessarily seem intended for fans.
It's been a while since Need for Speed has even flirted with something resembling a technical racing simulation, but Nitro feels simple even when compared to the last few open-world street racers bearing the Need for Speed name. The tracks will be inspired by real-world locations, with the track being shown taking its inspiration from Madrid. Make no mistake, it was definitely a track, albeit one with the occasional shortcut and alternate path.
It was reiterated to me several times during the demo that they weren't trying to make Need for Speed into Mario Kart, so don't expect to see any blue shells, though there will be some pick-ups on the track. There's a boost system that you can charge up by drifting around corners and otherwise driving with clean aggression. There's a little car damage, which can impede your ability to trigger boost, though there were plentiful repair pick-ups to counteract that.
The control schemes being shown included a remote-and-nunchuk setup and a one-handed remote configuration that had you pointing the remote forward and twisting with your wrist to turn. The slight, measured twisting action of the one-handed configuration struck me as a fast-track to carpal tunnel, though Nitro promises pretty much every other Wii control scheme you might consider.
The sum total of what I saw appeared to be the makings of a competent, but incredibly straightforward arcade-style racer. This is part of the problem with the constantly shifting Need for Speed identitiy--if you didn't tell me that this was a Need for Speed game, I probably wouldn't have known.
That's not to say Nitro will be devoid of the Need for Speed hallmarks. You can expect some police pursuits, between 30 and 35 licensed vehicles, including the Audi R8 I drove during the demo, and a car customization system. But it sounds like the real defining characteristics of Need for Speed Nitro are yet to come. I was told that the graphics for the game were being overhauled completely, and that the game would feature a much more pronounced, graffiti-inspired visual style. There were hints of this in the game already--the car models were slightly exaggerated, and you could catch glimpses of the graffiti look on the track itself.
While the core action didn't strike me as anything too special, sometimes a little flair is all it takes to help make things interesting. We won't have to wait too long to find out if that's the case for Need for Speed Nitro, as EA is planning to show off the game's new look at E3 2009.