The concept of a massively multiplayer online driving sim is not entirely new, but EA’s upcoming Need for Speed: World is certainly the most interesting foray into the genre I’ve ever seen. Taking the already successful Need for Speed franchise online obviously presents a lot of issues, but the developers have done a fantastic job of tackling them so far. There are flaws, yes, but I’d be hard-pressed to find a single beta which didn’t have a few problems now and then; the question is whether or not EA will be able to work out the kinks before its worldwide release in less than two months from now.

Getting the beta up and running was easy enough, as the download servers seemed to easily cope with the large volume of beta testers; it took little over half an hour to download the one-and-a-half gigabyte file at the immediate beginning of the test. Once the game launched, I was prompted to create a driver profile and then to purchase a starter car. Players can create up to three driver profiles, each of which have different names, levels, cars and friends list, as the driver pretty much takes on the role of your character, regardless of the fact he is never seen. In fact, there are no “people” in the world of Need for Speed at all, only cars which you’ll subconsciously assume are being driven by somebody.

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There aren’t a lot of vehicles available in the beta right now, and unless you get customising quickly, it won’t be long before you’re driving past a car that looks exactly like your own. Only ten or so vehicles available right now and thousands of players are already involved in the beta, most of whom don’t know how to use the customisation features, and so the sheer number of duplicates are astounding. Fortunately, some cars have level caps; the Dodge Charger isn’t available until level 4 and the Volkswagen Scirocco is reserved for level 9s and over, so these are a little bit rarer. Additionally, some certain “styles” of car, which alter the colour and performance of the vehicle, aren’t available until higher levels.

You might be wondering now about the size of the game world if there really are so many players and cars. Well, fret not, because while the game world is actually not so expansive, you won’t be colliding quite as often as you might think, because other players’ cars will glide right through yours. You’re not physically able to collide with other players unless you’re in a race. Unfortunately, you can still crash into buildings, signs, taxis and cop cars, which eventually will get an all points bulletin on your vehicle. Once you’re busted, you’ll get fined, but if you lose them, you’ll gain reputation. The more havoc you cause while the police are in pursuit, the more reputation you’ll get for it. It’s insane fun to run from the cops for ages, and it’s the best way to discover new shortcuts and motorways for getting around.

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To race, you simply find a race in the city either by luck or by using the map, and then enroll. Once enough players are waiting for a race, you’ll go into the race mode, where you can only drive in the allocated track, and the only cars are the other participating players and the occasional truck or taxi which serves as an obstacle to quickly swerve around. As you complete races, you’ll earn reputation, cash and experience points which eventually help you gain levels. With each level gained, as well as unlocking new cars and car styles, you’ll be able to unlock skills and pick reward cards. Skills will alter gameplay in your favour, such as reducing the amount of time police will pursue you or letting your car turn quicker.

All driving outside of races constitutes as “free roam” gameplay, and its the only time you’ll be able to be chased by cops. There’s a text chat system both inside and outside of races, and you can add other drivers as friends, which will let you “whisper” to (private message) them or invite them to join races. Don’t expect to see much messaging going on in races though; since there’s no voice chat and your car will cease accelerating if you open up a text chat, there’s no time to talk. Interestingly, there’s a strict swear censor on the chat, which as well as censoring strong swears also blocks out words like “sucks”. While this does protect the eyes of younger players’ from profanity in the chat, there is no swear censor in the driver naming, meaning you can see censored messages submitted to the chat by a driver called “Fucktastic”.

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Visually, everything looks awesome. The city environments are detailed and the cars look shiny and sexy, with some intense detail on any damage from crashes. There are a few graphical glitches here and there, especially with the odd way in which other player cars can drive through each other in the free roam mode, and some white cars appearing to flicker to quite a few testers, but overall the game looks fantastic. I played in full 1080p high definition and the detail was gorgeous. Frustratingly, the graphics settings are reset to their default every time the game is launched, but you can expect that to be fixed before launch.

The lack of many races or a wide selection of cars makes the beta feel more of a private demo than an actual testing ground, but everything we’ve seen is extremely promising and we’re sure the final product is going to be fantastic. The game won’t require any subscription, but there is a micro-transaction system at work here; you can use real cash to buy Boost which can be used for a number of things, including limited time car rentals. Of course, this isn’t a necessity; you can do just fine with only the default cars and a fair amount of levelling, but if you’re dedicated enough, the ability to upgrade with cash is there.

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While there’s no car tuning in the game so far – and alas, we’re not sure if there ever will be – there’s full customisation tools in the safehouse, where you can create a paint job and place vinyls on your car. Pimping your ride is literally as simple as dragging shapes onto the vehicle, scaling them, rotating them, colouring them and so on. You have total freedom over what your car looks like; there are letter and number vinyls available if you want to write your name on the side, but there’ll likely be moderation in case of profanity in the future.

Ultimately, this is a game to keep an eye on; not only a solid online experience with no subscription fee, but an addictive and exhilarating driving game breathing new life into the near-dead Need For Speed franchise. It has everything you’d expect from an online game: competitive gameplay; easy ways to grind levels; social tools; and, of course, customisation. Even if racers typically aren’t your thing, you might just find some enjoyment here. This is a game you’re going to want to play, so make sure to put July 20th firmly in your calendar and remember to stay home from work that week.