I'm sandwiched between two cop cars on a pavement. The pursuit is over. I've been caught and a pop up display is telling me how much the fine is going to cost. The game takes my money one chunk at a time, reading my list of crimes back to me like an incredulous judge. Thousands of dollars of property damage. Nine cop cars destroyed. Four roadblocks evaded. The list goes on. I'm grinning like an idiot.
Next month EA are taking Need for Speed online with the free-to-play Need For Speed World, in which a whole city, itself a mash-up of Carbon and Most Wanted's districts, will play host to anyone willing to download the free game client. The game promises multiplayer racing, cop chases, persistent player levelling and mad power ups to dispatch your competitors. I've been getting to grips with the recent open beta, and it's bringing out my inner criminal.
It all started ten minutes ago when I rammed an almost stationary cop at a hundred miles an hour. The player controlled vehicles around me blink out of existence, orchestral action music strikes up from nowhere and I'm thrown into an instanced version of the city. As the chase begins a new set of power ups blossom onto the action bar on the left of my screen.
The single-use power ups are awarded randomly at the end of each event, and different varieties of these skills become available depending on the activity you're participating in. Whether you're in a cop chase, racing, or simply exploring the city, there's a branch of abilities tailored to each task. Explorers have access to skills that improve their radar and let them map the city better. Racers get more active power ups such as nitrous boosts and Traffic Magnet, an assassination move that causes traffic to veer suicidally into the path of the race leader. Pursuit skills increase your ability to evade the police and can turn your car into a supersonic cannon ball.
Which is just what I need right now, with four cop cars behind me and a roadblock in front. I have one power up left, a Ram, an ability that increase the weight of my car in collisions. I punch the power-up key and aim for the back of one of the cop cars. Hitting the bonnet and the heavy engine within could stop me in my tracks and bring my crime spree to an early end.
I crash straight through the road block. A cop car somersaults through the air, lands upside down and skids onto the pavement with the slow grace of a beaching whale. A voice comes murmuring over the car radio.
“Uh. That's a negative on the stop. He's through the road block.”
Anyone whose watched a police chase show on TV will recognise that tone of voice. It's the strangely calm sound of a man who gets into car chases as a day job. Given the number of jerks like me roaming the streets, he's probably Need For Speed World's busiest man.
Pursuits are easily the most fun I've had with the beta so far, but there's competitive racing, for anyone looking to show off their skills. You start an event by pulling up to one of the glowing blue race markers scattered about the city. You then choose to enter a single player competition against the computer, or to jump into a lobby with seven of the many other player-controlled cars crowding around the marker. It all impressively smooth. So far I haven't experienced any lag or instability, though there have been a few rare but alarming occasions when NPC traffic has flickered into life directly in front of me mid-race.
Need for Speed has always been an arcade animal, so it's best not to go in expecting especially realistic handling or accurate damage modelling. Blind speed and creative use of power ups is more important than nailing the perfect racing line. Even so I found the racing to be pretty floaty at times. Unconvincing collisions and a lack of believable car damage means the rough and tumble of competitive racing rarely feels as visceral as it should. There is, however, an exhilarating and addictive sense of speed, even when driving the most basic vehicles. Some fine tuning and the addition of controller or joypad support would go a long way towards addressing these niggles.
The game is set to be free-to-play until level ten, at which point you'll have to purchase the Starter Pack for about £15 ($20) to continue progressing. Most of the car customisation options and the most exciting machines lie beyond the level cap but there's a fair amount of racing to be done before that happens. In the final release you'll be able to use real money to buy power ups and rent cars, but at the moment it's unclear exactly how much these items will cost. Everything I've seen so far can also be bought with a considerable amount of in game currency, or acquired through random drops.
The question that plays on my mind as I cruise the suburbs, looking for another cop car to ram, is whether there's enough here to keep players coming back. With only two types of activity, and no large scale guild mechanics yet in place players might struggle to occupy themselves week after week. Still, I think, spying my next victim in the distance, if there's one thing Need For Speed World has in abundance, it's potential. The developers have talked of team races, co-op mechanics, even territorial competition between city districts. If they find a way to put players in control of squad cars and turn the pursuits into full scale multiplayer chases, this could be something special.
The squad car slows and gets ready to hang a left. I hit the accelerator. Here we go again.