After a couple years of racing "Underground" at night, the Need for Speed series returns to its roots in NFS: Most Wanted. The street racing theme is back in full force, but this time around, there's a decent storyline, and oh yeah, there are cops; lots and lots of cops.
Need for Speed: Most Wanted focuses on running from the law in your quest to top the infamous "Blacklist", a list of 15 notorious street racers wanted by the cops. You were once the king of street racing, but after a punk named Razor tinkered with your ride, you went to jail, and he used your wheels to ascend to the top of the list. Now fresh out of prison, you'll need to earn the respect of these drivers by winning races and milestone events, eventually earning enough heat to take them on in a head-to-head match up. The story is told through FMV cut-scenes that combine real actors with rendered backgrounds. Josie Maran, who is probably best known as David Blaine's ex-girlfriend, plays the role of Mia, a hottie who wants to see you take Razor down. It may sound a little cheesy, but the story is actually pretty entertaining, and because each win reveals some of the story, it makes it feel like you're doing much more than accomplishing menial task after menial task.
Like the last couple of Need for Speed games, you start off with a low-level car, earning money for upgrades with every race won. Some of the manufacturers that can be unlocked include: Mercedes, Ford, Toyota, Mitsubishi, Lamborghini, Chrysler, Lotus, Porsche, BMW, and several others. You can upgrade several performance-related aspects of your car, and it's thankfully a more simplified process than the last game. You can also customize the look of your vehicle by changing the spoiler, vinyls, hood, and rims. Since these changes are purely cosmetic and money is hard to come by, you'll likely find yourself not exploring this area much. In addition to purchasing new vehicles and upgrades, you can win them by defeating someone on the blacklist. After beating them, you can choose from random upgrades, or you can take a chance and try to draw the pink slip to the car you just beat. If you get lucky, you win the ride and have a leg up on the competition in the next round.
The big change to the racing this year is the inclusion of the police, who aren't happy that you're driving like a maniac around their town, and will do their best to get you off the road. As you race, you'll increase the amount of "heat" you've got on you, which basically just means you're drawing more and more police attention. Eventually you'll end up with a cop on your tail, and he'll do his best to run you off the road and bust you. After a few minutes, the officer will call for backup, and you'll quickly find yourself with a police escort. If you continue to evade capture, the cops will set up roadblocks and drop spikes to slow you down – they're relentless. You can shake them by swerving towards traffic and roadblocks, taking shortcuts, or crashing into certain destructible structures that are marked on your map. If you hit one of these structures, such as a water tower, giant donut sign, or gas station, the pursuing officers will likely be taken out by the destruction. When you've successfully given the fuzz the slip, you'll have to stay out of sight, or the chase is back on if you're spotted.
The rest of the game is pretty standard racing; there are circuit races, drag races, sprints, knockout rounds, and of course events where you've got to run from the cops. Sometimes you'll need to pass a photo checkpoint at a certain speed, while other times you'll need to race from tollbooth to tollbooth in the fastest amount of time. You've got nitrous that slowly replenishes, to give you some extra speed, there are shortcuts to take, and you'll race on very similar looking tracks both forwards and backwards. Oh yeah, you can slow down time in short bursts by pressing the circle button. This allows you to navigate turns much easier, but it doesn't seem to gain you much time, since your rivals can navigate hairpin turns with precision. The entire race always seems to come down to staying close to the front and then slamming down the nitro as you approach the finish line. Thanks to the rubber-ban A.I., there's not much strategy involved.
Most Wanted's online play is robust in some ways, and lacking in others. For an EA game, there are a fair amount of ways you can customize your race – limiting people with high disconnects, and even turning off collision detection to keep morons from hitting each other. Unfortunately, all you can do online is race. There aren't any cool pursuit modes, which is a shame.
Other than taking place during the day in a bright sun, rather than in the dark with tons of neon, not a lot has changed with regards to the game's visuals from Underground 2 to Most Wanted. It's easier to see during the day, the framerate feels smoother and gives you a better sense of speed. For some reason there's only one camera angle to view the race, and that's from a slightly elevated view behind your vehicle. There's no in-car view, which is disappointing. The car models are nicely detailed, and look a little more impressive this time around – especially when they're all pimped out. They do show some damage, like scratched paint and broken windows, but little else. HDTV owners will have to settle with only widescreen support and no progressive scan, which is a shame, because the game would have looked great in 480p.
Level design is pretty uninteresting, and it feels like you've raced these same courses dozens of times before. The cut-scenes' production values are high, but the actual video quality is quite low. It's odd that so much time went into making the cut-scenes, but such little care was taken in their compression.
Juvenile, Jamiroquai, Static-X, The Prodigy, Celldweller, and Disturbed are just a few of the artists that compose the EA Trax. As is usually the case, they're hit or miss depending on your tastes. The sound effects don't sound terribly different from the last Need for Speed game. Since your car is tuned, you'll here it whine loudly as you tear down the street. The only other noticeable change is the addition of police chatter, which goes a long way in immersing you in the game. You'll hear the dispatcher call in your car, a cop report a sighting, and then you can listen in on their chatter as they call for backup while trying to bring you in. It's great. The voice acting during the cut-scenes won't win any awards, but it fits right in with game's Fast and the Furious vibe.
Need for Speed: Most Wanted is an entertaining racer that will please fans of the "Undergound" series, as well as those looking for something more akin to the original Need for Speed games. While the actual races aren't that interesting, the cop chases are fantastic, and they'll keep you entertained for hours on end.