Need for Speed: Nitro is an arcade style racing game that emphasizes speed and excitement over realism or vehicle tuning. The Wii version allows up to four players to race, with a maximum of eight racers at once. The Wii version lets up to four racers compete in drag races, too.
Events feature different modes, namely circuits, team circuits, elimination races, drift challenges, speed trap challenges, drag challenges and time attacks. Career mode allows players to compete in several cups and build up a roster of vehicles, while Arcade Mode lets players immediately jump into a race with customized difficulty and race conditions. During races, police will attempt to block and ram racers, causing damage that will reduce the players' top speed and amount of nitro available. Police are not in drag races. The game features power-up icons in the race that immediately repair vehicle damage or increase your opponents' police heat level. During a race, players are awarded "style points" based on performing powerslides and drafting, and nitro is recharged over time. There is small nitro and powerful nitro similar to the Wii version of Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit.
The game has an aesthetic feature called "Own It"; while a player is in the lead, the surrounding landscape and buildings are textured with their car's colors, graffiti, and tags, all of which can be created with the game's new car customization system. Lines on the road will also have the color of the car colors. The "Own it" feature is a convenient way to indicate the race leader, and players get additional style points for staying in first.
The five cities that in which are in the game are Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Cairo, Egypt Madrid, Spain, Singapore, and Dubai, UAE (and San Diego in the DS version). Each city has two full race circuits, one track for drag racing, and the game takes certain parts of a circuit for time trial, speed trap, and drift events. The two circuits in Dubai are the Palm Jumeirah (artificial islands) and the Dubai Marina. The tracks for drag racing are almost in straight lines. In Dubai, the Burj Khalifa, the Burj Al Arab, and the Jumeirah Beach Hotel are seen in the video game while racing. In Singapore, races take place during sunset. In all the other cities, races take place during the day. In Rio de Janeiro, Christ the Redeemer can be seen.
There are 35 opponents with names in the Wii version of the game, although five of them are "leaders", one for each city, and receive cinematic treatment in the form of a quick intro video clip when the player first accesses a city in each cup. Jawad, the leader of street racing in Dubai, is the most competitive and the hardest to beat. He drives a black Tesla Roadster, Porsche 718 Cayman S and the Lamborghini Reventón . The street racing leader of Cairo, Egypt is Omar. He drives a 1965 Volkswagen Beetle, Porsche Cayenne Turbo S and a Lamborghini Gallardo. The street racing leader of Rio de Janeiro is Thiago. He drives a Volkswagen Type 2, 1969 Dodge Charger R/T, and a 2006 Challenger SRT8. The street racing leader of Madrid is Luis. He drives a Hummer H2 SUT, 1967 Ford Shelby GT500 and an Audi R8. The street racing leader of Singapore is Zarinah. She drives a Toyota Corolla GT-S, Nissan 370z and a Ford GT.
In Rio de Janeiro, racers use muscle cars such as the Dodge Challenger and Chevrolet Camaro. In Singapore and Dubai, exotics such as the Audi R8 and Lamborghini Gallardo are used by racers. In Dubai, there is even Lamborghini Gallardo traffic.
All the "Leader's" cars have unique livery and can be unlocked, Except for Thiago's Challenger SRT8 and Omar's Lamborghini Gallardo. Instead of the Challenger and the Gallardo, Alternative versions of them having different unique livery are unlocked by the player.
Both versions of the game support multiple control schemes. The Wii version supports five control schemes across four Wii peripheral configurations - the Wii Remote, the Wii Remote and Nunchuk, the Classic Controller and the Nintendo GameCube controller. Two of the five control schemes involve using just the Wii Remote, in which one uses it as a steering wheel and the other holds it in one hand and twists it to steer, similar to Mini Desktop Racing. The Nintendo DS version has two control schemes, one that assigns pedals to the shoulder buttons, and another that assigns pedals to face buttons.