I sat down Wednesday with Adam King, EA product manager, and a copy of NFSW, which opens July 20 with a pre-order head start before going fully live July 27. King gave me a chance to look under the engine, punch the tires and take the game for a twirl -- car metaphors, agh! -- so follow me past the jump for my impressions of the game, plus some hints about what to expect in the first major content update.
One of EA's prime goals with NFSW is accessibility, so hopping into the game world quickly is pretty important. As with previous Need for Speed titles, you have no human character. Players choose a name, an avatar picture -- players will be able to upload pictures -- and, of course, a car. New players have access to about six cars initially, with a few more, including a pizza-delivery car, available to rent.
Once you've chosen a car, a short tutorial explains the basics of racing. The tutorial walks you through two single-player races, explaining how to use various power-ups to your advantage, and then sets you loose in the world. That's it!
Really, the initial learning curve for most racing games is not particularly steep, and NFSW is no exception. I'm not a racing-game expert, beyond the pre-requisite Mario Kart experience and some casual encounters with Need For Speed Undercover, but I was nitro-blasting down the race course within five minutes of sitting down with the game. The controls, which work nicely on the keyboard and really sing on a USB controller, are about as intuitive as they come.
NFSW features five game modes at present.
- Free Roam -- Players can tool around the streets with other drivers between races, shooting the breeze in general chat or looking for trouble in the form of Pursuits.
- Pursuits -- My favorite part of Need For Speed. This mode activates whenever you hit a police car during Free Roam mode. The game seamlessly phases you into a personal instance, in which you gain reputation (the equivalent of experience) and cash for causing property damage and evading the fuzz for as long as you can. If you get caught, you lose cash but still earn reputation.
- Single-player races -- Players race against NPCs. You earn less reputation and cash than you do in multiplayer races, because AI-controlled cars are generally easier than other players, but single-player races are a good way to farm some early reputation and to learn the ropes. I know my noob self was much more successful in single-player mode than in multiplayer.
- Random multiplayer races -- These are the bread and butter of NFSW. Players can join races from anywhere on the world map, and the matchmaking system groups drivers of similar skill based on a whole series of factors, including win-loss records, level and vehicle stats. King said the goal is for matchmaking to take 10 to 15 seconds from joining to starting the race. On Wednesday, the multiplayer races I joined required no longer than 17 seconds to get started.
- Pre-made multiplayer races -- You can set up a multiplayer race with just friends, but this mode is mostly for fun. You still earn a small amount of cash, but other rewards are removed to prevent unfair farming.
NFSW will launch with a level cap of 50. The first 10 levels are open to everyone, but advancing beyond that requires players to buy the Starter Pack for $19.95.
Leveling is a straightforward affair of earning reputation from races and Pursuits. As you level, you unlock new race locations and advance through three tiers of increasingly powerful cars.
Each time you level, you also receive a skill point, which you can allocate in the game's Driver Skills talent trees.
- Race -- This tree improves racing-specific abilities. The Rapid Fire skill, for example, reduces the cooldown for using nitrous, while Perfect Start gives you a chance to burst off the starting line if you rev your engine at the right time.
- Pursuit -- This tree enhances your abilities in Pursuit mode. Ram, for instance, affords a passive increase to your car's weight, which is useful for -- you guessed it -- ramming into cop cars and smashing through barricades.
- Explore -- This tree seems more of a catch-all or utility tree. It includes skills that boost reputation rewards and cash payouts for races and Pursuits.