EA's free-to-play street racing MMO, Need For Speed: World, is available to download now. NFSW it's known as. But don't misread that - there's nothing below that's not safe for work. The free version lets you play to level 10, while paying for a Starter kit gives you 50 levels and a lot more vehicles. Is it worth it? I've driven my way past level 10 to find out, so read on to learn Wot I Think.
To get an idea of things, imagine the result of this sum:
Burnout Paradise – smashing stuff - game modes + Test Drive Unlimited – impromptu races.
There’s a lot of complaining below. Because the game does an awful lot wrong. But I want to stress one thing before we get started: the driving is great fun. The cars handle in a really friendly way, letting you take corners at ridiculous speeds, gripping tightly to the roads in a way that may not be realistic, but certainly allows room for entertaining hurtling. If anything, the frustration of the failure of NFSW is that it’s clearly a really solid racing game, woefully short of much to do.
You buy a car, take that car to the streets, where there is little to do other than enter one of three races. Win those, and you’ll likely level up, choosing bonuses – Driver Skills - for your driving each time. Then a few more races open up. Win those, and, well, it doesn’t repeat. This time only a couple of races open up. Get to level 4 and one new one appears. By the time you’re at level 7, barely anything new to do turns up, but the XP required to continue involves winning multiple races. So you’re forced to compete in the same few races over and over again.
And to repeat myself already, the first time you play the race it's a good deal of fun. Ridiculously fast, screeching around corners, bashing opponents out of the way, it clearly demonstrates itself as a potentially entertaining online racer. Finding races is also sometimes extremely easy. There's no need to drive to the start of an event (something Burnout Paradise could have considered) - instead you're instantly teleported there. The game, when it works, finds seven other opponents also wanting to try that event, and then drops you in at the start. It's rare to have to wait around too long, and you can see before you choose which races are heavily populated.
You gain money along with XP (or "Rep", although I won't remember to call it that again), as well with bonus ‘cards’, Race Rewards, that let you pull off special moves during races. Perhaps a nitrous boost, or a Traffic Magnet, something that causes the NPC traffic to veer into the leading car in a race. There's a bonus that lets your rubber-band your way toward the front, and another that creates a temporary shield around your car. The effects of these bonuses can be improved when you choose your new skills for levelling up. The money is spent in your home base, where you can purchase new cars, or tweak cars you currently own.
There’s literally two race modes open. A straight 8 car race, or an 8 car race with laps. The Race Rewards add a peculiar dynamic, almost a Mario Kart tone to things. Issuing a Traffic Magnet means the person in the lead is at an instant disadvantage – something that makes splendid sense in Mario Kart, but very little here. Do well and the traffic will crash into you, and if it catches you badly you’ll definitely not win. Why isn’t there an option to race without Rewards? Why can’t the private races with friends let you pick which rules apply?
Tweaking cars you currently own? That sounds good, right? Well, no. You can add one of three unexplained packages for features for a car, which aesthetically changes the skirt of the vehicle, and increases the stats for the three meters - Top Speed, Acceleration, Handling. Want to improve your tyres? Tweak the engine? Crank up your nitrous? Sorry, not in any tangible way. You pick a pack, and wonder how it’s different from the other two available.
More specific tweaking comes from the similarly ambiguous options chosen during levelling up, where you’re given no visible feedback about how these change your car or your skills. Choosing Ram makes your car heavier when driving into others. How much heavier? How much better than it was before? No information.
Visible feedback is pretty much absent throughout. Buying a new car requires taking a screenshot of your current car, then switching back and forth between it and the game so you can compare its stats with those available. The game doesn’t appear at all interested in helping you with this. So instead you keep grinding for new levels, in the hope it will open up something interesting.
The other alternative for gathering XP is spotting a police car and driving into it. This triggers Pursuit mode, where you must attempt to escape the constantly increasing police response.
This, as it happens, is the most fun part of the game. While it may sound like the most irritating aspect of a GTA game (I want to trigger this mission, but I can’t until I’ve shaken my police tail…), it is instead quite a potentially fun escalating chase through the big city.
Potentially. Because it fails to live up to its possibilities. How the chase goes appears to be completely random, and has little to do with your driving skills. If you’re lucky the game steps up and throws loads of police after you, making for a fun time. If you’re not you inexplicably lose them, and it’s over.
There’s techniques for shaking your tails. Various objects in the world are highlighted by attracting red arrows, indicating that if you plough through them they’ll collapse, squishing anyone immediately behind you. While this is an odd design – you’ll only see your success if you look behind you, something you don’t really want to do in a high-speed chase – it is reasonably effective at taking out cops… sometimes.
But the biggest failing is getting “busted”. If the police successfully stop you, then you’ve failed to escape and while you’ll still get XP, you lose a bit of cash. However, the criteria for being “busted” are ludicrous. Because the cars don’t take much meaningful damage, beyond losing tyres if spiked, there’s no way for them to grind you down until you can’t drive any further. So instead the game deems you arrested if you’re moving slowly with police cars near you, despite the fact that you’re reversing away from them at the time. This became even more ludicrous the time my car landed on top of two cop cars, and apparently this was enough to do me in.
(Oh, and all this is only possible if the police car you hit isn’t one the game has decided isn’t active any more. Sometimes you can roll them on their back and nothing happens.)
But it’s free, right? Well, in the most part, yes. But if you want to have advantages over other players, you can buy your way to them. And if you want to get at more than 11 races total, past level 10, and access anything other than the most basic cars (without renting them), you'll need to fork out the $20. But things get even more confusing when it comes to SpeedBoost.
SpeedBoost can be bought for real-world money. And the game is determined for you to spend it at all available moments. And it’s also determined to make it completely unclear what you’re spending, how much you have, and if you need it.
So finish a race and the XP, money, and Race Rewards all appear in various windows. Also, you’re told you can get, say, a 10% bonus in nitrous if you click the yellow button. It doesn’t explain what Boost is, tell you why you have it, nor at this point how much you have. So assuming it’s another in-game thing I receive, I click. And the offer appears again. And again.
The game’s help guide never once mentions Boost. It’s conspicuous in its absence from all the specific game guide information. However, click the icon top right and the Boost window explains all:
“SpeedBoost is the virtual currency of Need For Speed World. You can use this currency to buy digital content such as car rentals, powerups, and amplifiers. Boost can be used in the game and at world.needforspeed.com.”
Well, no. The in-game currency is dollars. I currently have $15,787 of them, having bought myself a new Volkswagen and a Dodge. You’re given this money when you compete. It’s what you use to buy cars and kit. SpeedBoost is a real-world currency, with a pretend name. However, that section entitled “What Is Boost?” doesn’t feel the need to mention that it’s real money at any point.
The next tab is the SpeedBoost Store, where I can buy Race Rewards without earning them. 5 Traffic Magnet cards will cost me 330 Boost. Is that a lot? I don’t yet know, because even when it’s letting me spend it (and the same is true at all other opportunities to spend it in the game, and they are legion), it won’t tell me how much I have.
It’s only when you click on the Add Boost tab that we’re suddenly told what we’ve got. I have 5,900 apparently. To add more I must leave the game and go to the web page it will open. Still even at this point it’s not telling me that this will be real money.
And at the website, at last, it is clear. 1,500 Boost costs £4. 17,500 Boost costs £30.
If you buy the game’s Starter Pack for $20, it comes with $20 worth of SpeedBoost, a unique car, and 40 more levels to climb through than the unpaying masses, who are limited to the first 10.
And so on I grind, driving toward level 10, trying to find out what lies beyond the unpaying customer. At level 8 there are now 11 races available, each offering only around 400XP for a win, and middling 200s for a middling finish, with 4,800 required to get to level 9. And of course 8 of those 11 races were the ones trudged through multiple times during level 7, and so on and so on for ever and ever and ever. Pursuit mode can gain you lots of XP at once, but only if you manage to navigate its nonsense, ideally by finding exploits.
Play against NPCs rather than real humans and the XP for a win is below the amount you’ll get for coming last in a multiplayer race. Why? It's definitely slightly easier, but when the MP is laggy or broken, it should be a way to rack up some sensible points.
Reach level 9. 5,850XP required to reach level 10. No new races appear. Then eventually one new one pops up at a seemingly random moment. The game now starts flickering as I race, the picture vanishing whenever another car in the race gets close. Switch out of Windowed mode and this seems to disappear, but the lag is increasing, opponents vanishing and reappearing all over the track, strobing in front of me.
The issues keep on piling in. It crashes frequently, load times for multiplayer races can be enormous (as much as two minutes, and then when they finally finish they can be badly bugged), random NPC cars will madly veer into you for absolutely no reason (and I stress when you don’t have a traffic magnet on you), flipping your car and putting you too far back in the race to ever catch up. The forums are alive with complaints that people are using “speedhacks” and the like to win at races. But most of all, despite the litany of issues, the problem is they’ve released an empty game.
These few races before level 10, by the way, are all in one area of the city. And as such most of them have huge stretches of road in common, letting even this scant few blur together. The short-cuts become familiar, the corners well known.
And I make it. Level 10 is reached. I’ve broken into the pay-for content. I’ve got… access to a couple more cars, imperceptibly better than my current ones, and one more race. ONE. And I carry on, and nothing changes. Race, Pursuit, Race, Pursuit, Race, Pursuit...
The process of grinding this far was mostly tedious. Which is immensely frustrating, as there’s clearly a solid online race here. The first couple of times with a course are often great. After that, familiarity breeds contempt, and the AI and lag issues become the focal point. If they’d only bothered to put more features into it, this would be worth celebrating. Instead it’s sparse to the point of barren, with a horrible lack of ideas.
It is claimed that more shall be added as time goes on, with larger updates every two to three months. So perhaps in six to nine months time, when the game’s been given the content it should obviously have had at launch, perhaps it will make use of its engine.
For now this is echoingly empty, madly repetitive, and often infuriating. Back up the content lorry, empty its load, and then we’ll come back.