A fantastic open-world street racer with tonnes of content and options that offers an enjoyable experience despite a slightly wonky handling model.
|Developer||EA Canada; Team Fusion|
|Franchise||Need for Speed|
World-building & Story
In Coast City, illegal street racing is commonplace and rival crews each own different turf, often challenging each other for control of the city. In one particular race the leader of the Lucky 7’s, named Mick, is fatally taken out by an unknown driver that also leaves his brother (the player) in a coma – the Lucky 7’s subsequently disband and his girlfriend Sara mourns for her loss.
Own the City starts with the player character waking up surrounded by Sara and Mick’s wingman Carter and he vows to find out who the mysterious driver was that killed his brother and nearly took his own life. To do this, he forms his own crew and goes between the newly-divided territories to force the leaders to reveal what they saw that night the only way he knows how – by beating them in street races.
Need for Speed games have long been characterized by their serious-yet-campy stories and things are no different here – there’s certainly a nice setup and it’s interesting enough unravelling the mystery of what happened that night and certainly the final reveal wasn’t what I was expecting, but it’s bogged down by unlikable characters and a slow pace that means it’s difficult to stay too engaged. Still, I have to commend Team Fusion for at least trying – it’s quite rare to see a racing game that attempts plot and it’s even rarer on handhelds. What’s here isn’t a disaster, just a little dull at times (although there’s plenty of male-oriented fanservice to keep you entertained).
Coast City itself is a fairly standard open-world location but that doesn’t mean it’s not interesting to drive around – its mix of highways, docklands, old industrial areas and urban skyscrapers feels well thought out and realistic, engrossing me in its world.
Presentation & Sound
Despite the rather harsh yellow filter that tints every aspect of Own the City’s presentation, this is a PSP game that otherwise looks highly impressive – especially considering it offers open-world environments.
The whole underground street-racing culture permeates nearly every aspect of the graphics here, whether it be the stylish tuner-inspired menus or the way the race countdown begins with graffiti-drawn letters, everything in Own the City feels inspired (I particularly enjoyed the moving comic book-style cutscenes which felt a lot better than some of the others I’ve seen on PSP). Indeed, the car modelling is quite impressive and you can customise large amounts of their appearance from the colour of their rims to the decal on their doors – it’s a shame there’s no damage modelling, but this is only a minor complaint.
The streets of Coast City are pretty too – you’ll drive down massive five-lane highways and equally you’ll weave down winding roads up in the mountains. My favourite parts were some of the more urban zones – industrial estates provide plenty of factories to take shortcuts through while the city sections feature a tonne of overpowering skyscrapers as far as the eye can see. It’s an impressive environment (especially for the PSP) but as previously mentioned, there’s this yellow filter used over everything that I could have done with being a bit less aggressive (it also seems to be late evening all the time, although this does allow for some gorgeous orange skyboxes).
Engine noises tend to be a bit tinny and your crew members will also shout out a lot during races which can get a bit irritating. Still, the voice actors here embrace the rather silly script and the soundtrack is a sublime selection of licensed tracks (playing through the ‘EA Trax’ system, something that’s appeared in other PSP titles I’ve played) including Gary Numan and Goldfrapp which are a pleasure to drive to.
Gameplay & Content
Compared to some of the other racing games on PSP, Need for Speed may be seen as a little bland – it doesn’t have the carnage of Burnout, the drifting of Ridge Racer or the precise lines of WipEout. By combining a little all of these elements though, Own the City acts as an enjoyable compromise and throws them all into a fantastically realised open-world.
You can play simply for single races if you want and there is a multiplayer mode that I sadly didn’t get to try out, but the main draw here is the titular ‘own the city’. In this, you’re dropped in the free-roaming environment of Coast City and your goal is to slowly work your way through each of the territories, challenging rivals to races and slowly gaining control of the city in order to figure out the mystery of your brothers death.
Driving in Need for Speed lands somewhere between arcade and realism (but much more on the arcade side) – you can expect to deal with things like oversteering and understeering, but equally it is possible to glide around corners in a drift before boosting out of them. Everything was just a little bit too finnicky for me – I felt like I was fighting the car a lot of the time and although this improves as you get better vehicles and upgrade them, I’d have preferred a slightly lighter and more forgiving model.
You can go pretty much anywhere you want in Coast City from the off and that’s a liberating freedom to be given, even if there isn’t a great amount to do. You can explore around finding shortcuts and the like and police cars will pursue you if you drive too quickly around them, providing some nice improvised getaway events as you attempt to outrun them. Still, you’re mostly going to be wanting to make your way to the event markers scattered around to progress things.
The city is divided into territories and each one will contain 7-8 events for you to compete in and after you’ve beaten a certain number of them you’ll unlock a boss race with the leader of that area’s crew – victory will mean they’ll join your team. Sadly, you have to go through the areas one-by-one and there isn’t the freedom to do them in whatever order you please – although picking between the ones you’re given usually gives plenty of choice.
The types of events you’ll be able to compete in include simple circuit races and sprints from one location to another (all improvised from chunks of the open world), but more interesting are things like lap knockout (last place gets eliminated each lap) and the delivery/escape races, while you have to reach a certain location while avoiding AI cars trying to ram you off the road. You can get your revenge in crew takedown which is Burnout-lite, giving you foes with health bars that you need to repeatedly slam into to defeat (it’s slower paced than its inspiration, but still a lot of fun).
To make the races more interesting, Carbon’s main draw – across both the console and handheld versions – is the idea of having allied racers you can call on at nearly any time. In your crew you’ll have people with different skills and you can choose who to bring with you for pretty much any race – assassins drop spike strips on command, brawlers can take down rival vehicles while drafters will drive in front of you providing a nice boost to speed. Making smart use of these abilities can mean the difference between victory and loss and provides a nice extra layer of strategy to the otherwise straightforward racing.
Of course there is a progression system here – you’ll get money for winning races and this can be used to purchase a variety of new cars or upgrade things like the engine or suspension in the one you have (or add a nitrous tank – there is some aesthetic customisation as well). These will be needed too – the AI is fairly relentless and will regularly use team tactics against you, t-boning you with one of the members to allow the others to gain a decisive lead, which can get a little frustrating at times but at least provided a solid challenge.
There’s plenty of other little features to help you out too – a constant rear view mirror (and the ability to look backwards) allows you to scope out your rivals positions and you’re given skill points after races to level up your crew. Own the City is an extremely competent racer – there’s just a feeling that it’s a little less exciting than some of its contemporaries but honestly, that could be a summary of the whole Need for Speed franchise and not just this title (it doesn’t stop the game from being perfectly enjoyable in its own right though).
There’s 14 different zones to take control of here and even though the events are broadly the same in each, the fact they’re taking place in different parts of the city helps keep the variety there and as such this was one I wanted to see through to the end.
Team Fusion have managed to cram practically the whole Need for Speed: Carbon experience down onto a handheld in tact – the illegal street racing, car customisation and team tactics are all here and work just as well as ever (save for some slightly skiddy driving). The muted colour palette could have used a little work and excitement levels could have been pumped up a bit more but don’t let that put you off – this is an enjoyable open-world racer that works extremely well on Vita.