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Platforms: PC, PS3, Xbox 360, Wii, DS, PSP, PS2 - PC version reviewed.
What happened? Were influential road-safety campaigners putting pressure on the world's second biggest publisher? Did concerned politicians have a word in some EA bigwig's ear? Maybe the ghost of Christmas future came to some EA executive scrooge with visions of impressionable young hoodies doing dangerous stunts and capturing their efforts on their camera phones. Whatever the reason, EA's traditional Christmas contender is no longer the Need for Speed we know and love. It's gone straight. It's gone legit. The illegal street racing is out of the window, taking the melodramatic video clips, the police chases and any hint of criminal activities with it. ProStreet is arguably a bigger franchise reboot than even Need for Speed: Most Wanted. All involved with THQ's copycat Juiced series must be very, very happy indeed.
To imagine Need for Speed's new direction, just think Forza 2 with a touch of Project Gotham and an injection of aggressive street attitude. In the main career mode, your hotshot ex-street racer is out to prove himself in the legitimate ProStreet world, entering ‘Race Day' competitions until he develops enough points to win a place in a special racing showdown. Beat the reigning racing kings in three showdowns and you can take on the arrogant ‘showdown king' Ryo Watanabe. Be strong, fans of ropey racing revenge stories featuring Z-list talent and nubile young models - that's as far as this Need for Speed goes in terms of plot.
So, no more cities to explore, no more cops to outrun, no more enormous doughnut signs to demolish - what can ProStreet offer us instead? Well, this year's team has concentrated heavily on the racing itself. We get four different modes: straight drag races, ‘grip' circuit races, point-to-point ‘speed' races and ‘drift' challenges where your only aim is to get points by drifting stylishly through a small section of a track. To add a little more spice, the grip races themselves take different forms. Some are just your basic first to finish race, but others divide the cars into classes, put the emphasis on lap records or slice the track up into sections and give you points for scoring low times in each. In other words, ProStreet might resemble your average circuit racer, but there's a little more variety built than you might expect.
The surprise - particularly if you've seen some of the more hostile comments floating around - is how competently ProStreet handles everything. EA has rebuilt the Need for Speed physics engine, and the result is much improved, more realistic handling provided you're sensible enough to play it on the highest ‘King' realism setting (on the lowest setting your average five-year-old could make it around the track, but the driver aids are too intrusive to make the experience even slightly satisfying). EA has done similar work with the AI, and while it's not quite as aggressive as we'd expect from a TOCA, we're certainly not in the ‘line up in an orderly fashion then process around the track' realms of Gran Turismo. I've been cut-up on corners. I've watched them take a turn too fast and go careering off into a barrier. I've even caught them drafting behind me then speeding past for the final stretch. In short, there's more than just the handling to give you a decent gritty challenge.