Title :Need for Speed 4: High Stakes
Platforms :Sony PlayStation, Windows
Publisher :Electronic Arts
Game Rating :7.8
Review by :Ken Gagne

"Real cars, real fast." That's the slogan for Electronic Arts' Need for Speed 4, a modern-day cops & robbers racing game for the Sony PlayStation and PC. [PSX version reviewed here] 

Speed's showroom is stocked with a handful of realistic models, from Chevrolet to Aston Martin to BMW, with more cars available with victories. All cars are available for trial runs, but for tournaments, they must be bought and upgraded. Unlike Gran Turismo's custom piecemeal approach to upgrading, Speed has three progressive levels of general upgrades available to all vehicles. 

But Speed's strong point is its two non-standard race modes: Hot Pursuit and High Stakes. In Hot Pursuit, players are Sunday drive speedsters who must evade the police for two laps (if not racing solo, you're also trying to beat a second player, who can be human or computer). Or, switch roles and be the enforcers trying to arrest violators. In either, cops can employ backup, roadblocks, and spike strips to catch their target. Two players can race together on either side of the law: two speedsters, cops & robbers, or two cops working together. 

In High Stakes, two human players pit their custom tournament vehicles against each other. The catch? The winner keeps both cars! Though this is indeed high stakes, it also makes it difficult for the loser to resume competition. 

The cars are identifiable as their real-world counterparts, but do not have the detail seen in Gran Turismo; fortunately, the latter's tendency toward pixelated graphics is also absent. A realistic sense of speed is present, but suffers a disappointing drop in frame rate from four or more sprites being on-screen simultaneously. And to maintain the split-screen two player mode, various course extras (trees, fences, etc) disappear from play. 

The essential controls are simple enough, but have some cumbersome and useless extras tacked on, like headlights, hazard lights, turn signals, horn, etc. Most of these require combination button presses, and cannot be reconfigured to the shoulder buttons, which do not earn their keep if you're racing automatic. The analog steering is a touch too sensitive, making a straight line hard to maintain. 

Speed's an easy game to get into and stay with, with three difficulty levels and several arduous tracks. Whether the clock is ticking up to count your lap time, or down until the speedster gets away, Speed keeps a constant level of excitement. 

With several modes of play for one and two-players, and at least a dozen unique cars and ten tracks, Speed meets the required minimum to be a fun and challenging racer. It boasts two-player modes that can't be beat, and one-player modes and graphics that can. If you're looking to take your custom car out for a beautiful day at the tracks, try Gran Turismo; but for a day in the real world, with real-world consequences, set your stakes high with Need For Speed.

This article is copyright (c) 1999, 2007 by Ken Gagne. All rights reserved. Not to be distributed without permission.

Original publication: Sentinel & Enterprise, 05-Apr-99