Racing to 31 – 31 racing game greats: #19 Need for Speed: High Stakes (1999)

It’s that time of year again and I find myself racing toward another birthday and to the ripe-old age of 31. In celebration I thought why the hell not have a racing themed countdown – so here we are, counting down 31 racing games that have defined my enjoyment of the genre over the last 31 years. Enjoy!

High Stakes AUS coverBy the late 90’s gamers were catching a whiff of what was to come, with the Dreamcast blowing our minds with its impressive graphics, and the Playstation 2 just around the corner.  But while we were all dreaming of those high polygon counts of the future, developers were continuing to push the ageing Playstation 1 hardware to its limits, with impressive results.  Racing games led the charge, with games like Gran Turismo and Colin McRae Rally making the wait for new hardware a relatively easy one.  Unsurprisingly, EA’s almost annual series sat right at the front of the pack, with 1999’s Need For Speed: High Stakes pushing the boundaries

The internet has a bit of a knack for taking the piss out of the Need for Speed series, but while it may have become a little long in the tooth, there’s no denying its track record as one of the best and most consistent racing series of all time.  And it is games like High Stakes that keep the fire of hope burning that the series will, one day, return to its innovative roots.  It may be hard to believe now, but there was a time where Need For Speed was looked upon as a truly progressive force of the genre, pioneering much of the game play we now consider conventions of the genre.  Need For Speed: High Stakes may have refined more than revolutionised what its predecessors had done, but it was the most fastest and most complete Need for Speed package of its time.  Need for Speed: High Stakes is quite simply the best Need For Speed game not named Hot Pursuit, and certainly the best game in the series.

There is a simplicity to the most of the games in the series that pushes it very close to pure unadulterated arcade racing, but High Stakes plotted an entirely new path for the series, adding a lengthy and ‘deep’ career mode (at least by genre standards at the time) that was a good foundation for structure of future games.  Thankfully, although making big improvements in how you progress through the game, High Stakes didn’t catch the Gran Turismo virus, and stayed true to its speed-driven roots.  The addition of vehicle damage results in a slightly more deliberate (and challenging) arcade racing game, and incredibly intelligent opponents- seemingly modeled on the aggressive police AI – make High Stakes’ single player a pretty exhilarating ride as you work your way up the tournaments earning medals and paying your way to the most exotic of cars, like the McLaren F1 GTR.

And speaking of cars, one of the biggest changes to the series and one most likely only relevant to Australian racing fans, was the inclusion of our own homegrown muscle cars, which EA cleverly decided to include on the game’s cover art in Australia.  It was the first time i’d seen the V8 beasts, the VT HSV GTR and the Ford Falcon XR8, appear in a game, and even if novel it was nice to see some of our own sitting alongside their European and American counterparts.  It was particular cool to what were most of our police forces’ Aussie pursuit cars on show for the world to see.

But if anything playing High Stakes today is a reminder of just how wonderful and sorely missed split screen multiplayer is.   If there is one type of racing game that BEGS for couch multiplayer action, it’s the ‘pursuit games’.  And this is where the game’s subtitle, High Stakes, comes into play.  Being able to wage cars was an awesome idea, and losing races to friends would have the car irreversibly taken wiped from the save on your memory card, and saved onto the winner’s.  It is the sort of thing that although incredibly gimmicky, is still a fascinating mechanic at a system level, and one that adds extra weight to real life multiplayer rivalries – which are really the bread and butter of any good multiplayer game.

Need for Speed hasn’t always broken new ground, but it has been nothing if not consistent, punctuated by moments of brilliance that set the series up for future years.  Need For Speed: High Stakes was one of those games, and while there were perhaps better games since, I don’t think there was a more important entry in the series for what it brought to the table until more than a decade later.

 We want to hear from you, so be sure to leave your Need For Speed memories in the comments!  And if you haven’t be sure to check back at previous games in the countdown below.

#31: Stunt Car Racer   #30: Badlands   #29: RVF Honda  #28: Lotus Esprit Turbo Challenge  #27: Nitro  #26: Super Grand Prix  #25 Super Cars II  #24 Super RC Pro-Am #23 Sega Rally  #22 Wipeout 2097  #21 Micro Machines V3  #20 Gran Turismo #19 Need For Speed: High Stakes  #18 Colin McRae Rally 2.0  #17 Wave Race: Blue Storm #16 Grand Prix Challenge  #15 Project Gotham Racing 2  #14 F-Zero GX  #13 Mashed #12 Burnout 3: Takedown  #11 Ridge Racer  #10 Outrun 2006: Coast 2 Coast #9 Forza Motorsport 2  #8 Motorstorm: Pacific Rift  #7 Midnight Club: Los Angeles  #6 Dirt 2  #5 Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit  #4 Shift 2: Unleashed  #3 Sonic All-Star Racing: Transformed  #2 Forza Horizon  #1 F1 2013: Classic Edition

HSV Cop Car