Need for Speed II: Special Edition was almost the first racing game I’d played in my life. I say almost because I’d been distracted by the sudden appearance of another icon on my dad’s Windows 98 desktop: Test Drive Offroad. I had sat down with the full intention of playing NFS II (even cracked my knuckles out of excitement), but as it so happened my curiosity got the better of me and Offroad became the first ever racing game I played.
I started off with this little trivia mainly for want of an interesting opening, but also because it both irritates and amuses me. Until a few years ago when someone mentioned Offroad in a YouTube video, I’d absolutely forgotten about the game; whereas as far as NFS was concerned I’d played nearly all instalments in the series up to that point. Don’t get me wrong, Offroad is a fun game and indeed the Test Drive series has had major highlights over the years, with several being my favorites overall – It’s just that Need for Speed left the most impact on me.
When I finally did play NFS II, I was blown away by its then impressive graphics and sound design. As I’ve said before, Test Drive Offroad is a decently fun game and I had a good time with it – but that game soon became a literal forgotten memory when I was zooming through North Country in my trusty Ford Mach III. I realize a track from a racing game may seem an unconventional choice for this series and that they usually don’t provide much analytical points to discuss and dissect, but because I’m so hopelessly in love with this track I could not help but include it.
It’s is rather interesting because, even objectively, North Country isn’t even among the well-known tracks from the game. It doesn’t contain the exotic flair of Last Resort with what its skull cave that leads through a volcano nor does it test the skills of the player like Mystic Peak with its snow-capped setting. What it does provide however, is a scenic and picturesque route filled with memorable segments. I’ve always been fond of the countryside (despite growing up and currently living in a city) and as such tracks like North Country and the equally attractive Normandie from Need for Speed: Porsche Unleashed are always a joy to go back to.
Distinctly European, North Country borrows inspiration from the environments and aesthetics of Germany and Netherlands. Right off the bat you’re greeted with a vast mountain backdrop and a sprawling road with trees surrounding either side of it, punctuated by the occasional cabins and windmills (curiously structurally small). The first segment comes in the form of “Kinder Welt” – ostensibly an amusement park seemingly aesthetically inspired by Lego and Legoland. It even has a Lego-esque medieval knight animatronic on the left side (or right, if you’re going the wrong way). The knight is one of my three favorite props from the game (the other two being the dinosaur statue situated in the middle of the road from the bonus Monolithic Studios track and a seemingly indestructible, gravity-defying crate that appears throughout the game). Anyway, kinderwelt (meaning “kids world” in English) ends surprisingly quickly and gives way to a series of smooth turns that lead into the next segment.
The brief area between kinderwelt and kleinstadt (meaning “town” in English) – what with its smooth curvy roads and surrounding mountains – always reminds me of my time growing up in Oman driving along the Qurum Heights highway. There is little resemblance apart from the feeling I get, so don’t get confused if you search for pictures online and scratch your head as to what I’m talking about. Coming up to the kleinstadt, a brief waterfall section splits the town into two. The buildings are standard visual shorthand to represent a town and they carry the same blocky aesthetic seen in other tracks. However, here they give off a quaint, calm vibe that is so prevalent throughout the track. Honestly, this segment is my favorite from North Country and I would love to see it recreated in high definition using modern technology. In fact, the entire game could benefit from an HD remaster, don’t you think?
Driving further down the road reveals a tunnel with overhead flourescent tube lights. As far as tunnels go – even in this game – this one is visually cool (though the tunnel with seizure inducing lights in Proving Grounds is equally awesome). Once again, the same quality of calm and quiet imbues the tunnel as well and I would love to walk through it. The segment that follows next is the longest and arguably this track’s well-known. It is also, surprisingly, a hot topic of contention amongst those discuss the difficulty curve of North Country.
Opening up to a vast hilly rural area that contains the most winding and curving of the roads seen thus far. The visual attractiveness of this area still holds up to me and the reason why I’m writing this article in the first place. Whether you’re playing split-screen multiplayer or singleplayer campaign, this is often the point where you either overtake the other cars or get relegated further down the ranks. I can understand why some players may have had a hard time around here but I personally did not have much problem with it; though my very first playthrough was indeed awkward. There’s even an elusive shortcut right at the beginning of the segment that I never knew about until a friend pointed it out to me. In order to take the shortcut, you must slow down considerably and make a hard right, which can prove to be detrimental if you’re already lagging behind or are facing serious competition. In my opinion it’s best to avoid it as it roughly takes the same amount of time as the normal route does. Anyway, this segment is scattered with log houses which add a nice finishing touch to the overall appeal of this segment.
The following series of segments are as follow: a short bridge takes you to an extended gatehouse of a castle that gives way to a dark canopy of trees that leads to a long echoey tunnel and finally to the pole position. There’s not much to speak about the final segments except they offer some nice diversity and allow for the player to reach top speeds; giving them a chance to regain any speed lost in the previous segment. There’s even an upright log in the canopy section that, yes, you can knock over.
Revisiting the game in order to refresh my memories for this article, I never realized just how balanced this particular track is. Unlike most other tracks that clearly fall under beginner or skilled categories, North Country seems to me the perfect for any skillset. For those not familiar with the language of racing games will find this to be a very accessible track; whereas a veteran can perfect their driving skills via the numerous curves and diversity it provides.