DS dream team talks

With the advent of a full-scale handheld war brewing nicely on the horizon, the already lucrative portable sector should tempt in more gaming/multi-media-on-the-go customers than ever before.

And while some third-party publishers are content to treat the handheld market as somewhere to dump lazy ports, the industry's publishing super-heavyweight, Electronic Arts, has taken a much more committed approach.

By assembling several development teams, collectively called Team Fusion, and giving them the sole task of creating games for the portable platforms, EA aim to carry their high production values over to handheld systems.

To see how the development of their first wave of DS games has gone, we put some questions to two of Team Fusion's big players.

First up, Joel Manners, producer of NFS Underground 2, discusses what the DS version of the popular black top burner has under its bonnet...

Is this the first handheld title that you've developed at EA Canada?
No, we've been developing handheld titles at EA Canada for some time. However, it is only recently that we formed a dedicated handheld group - Team Fusion -focusing exclusively on PSP, DS and other handheld platforms. On DS, Fusion was also behind Tiger Woods PGA Tour and, of course, we have just finished a number of launch titles for the PSP - very exciting!

In terms of time and labour, how does developing for the DS compare to developing for the home consoles?
Although the DS has some things in common with the GBA, it's definitely a big step up - especially if you're doing a full 3D game. If you still count the N64, PSone and Dreamcast as 'home consoles', DS development is similar in terms of time and labour.

Because of the new possibilities that the unique features of the DS offers, was the development process more challenging creatively and consequently more enjoyable?
I think everyone who gets into this business likes playing with cool stuff and the Nintendo DS definitely falls into that category. Because the device is so unique, you need to take a fairly back-to-basics approach when bringing a game to the system.

"What can I do with this second screen?" isn't really something developers have had to think about up till now and you can't look to existing titles for inspiration - there's nowhere to hide, if you like. So in that sense it's definitely challenging creatively - which can be difficult at times but is certainly enjoyable.

How have you utilised the unique features of the DS?
For starters, the entire game interface has been redesigned to make use of the dual screens and touch sensitivity. The menu system is optimised for stylus input (although you can still use the D-pad if you prefer) and, in-game, we have a GPS display on the lower screen which gives you an at-a-glance overview of the current event, among other things.

We have created a brand new game mode exclusively for DS called Own The Zone that makes use of the GPS map: you and the other racers are fighting for territory and the lower display lets you know when you've gained and lost turf, shows you the objectives to beat, etc.

The nitrous system has been blown out so that players now have more control of their tanks using the touch screen. There's a deeper tactical element to NOS usage now, which really adds to the core racing experience.

We've also added the ability to create your own custom decals and apply them to your car. The touch screen makes it a breeze to whip up a design and apply it to the hood or sides of your car. We've made it so you can store up to three designs at a time and swapping between them is as easy as tapping the display. In fact, installing all kinds of car upgrades is made a lot easier using the touch screen.

Wireless multiplayer allows you to race three of your buddies in all the tracks and game modes available in the single player game. Of course, you can bring your customised, tricked-out vehicle into the game and show the opposition who's in charge. We also track your multiplayer wins, so there's no doubt who rules the road between you and your buddies.

Did you experiment with anything as radical as using the stylus to control the car itself?
Many ideas were considered - but they ultimately didn't work out. That's not to say any of those ideas couldn't be made to work brilliantly elsewhere but they weren't working for Need for Speed Underground 2. One of the dangers in DS development is that you have to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater just for the sake of trying something new.

Is Underground 2 DS so different that you'd call it a completely new game from the GBA version?
There's every reason to pick up the DS version if you're coming from GBA. Although we had that as our base, we ripped it up and effectively started again. The tracks are completely different from the GBA version, the 3D engine and physics are brand new and 100% optimised for DS so we run at 60 frames.

Our cars have been remodelled and all the visual upgrades are massively improved. Our mini-games were the only element to survive the transition vaguely intact but even they've been redesigned and retuned to take advantage of the dual screen layout and touch-screen input. If you enjoyed the GBA version, you'll go nuts over what we've managed to cram into the DS.

Which rocks the hardest - NFS Underground 2 DS or NFS Underground Rivals on the PSP?
How's that for a loaded question? I think Team Fusion have done a great job playing to the strengths of both platforms with our Need for Speed titles. Whether you're a DS owner or a PSP owner, you'll be very happy with the features EA have packed into each title. The differences between the two platforms are widely discussed and widely known - rest assured that we've focused our attention on delivering a great racing and tuning experience on both systems.