For the past few years, the Need For Speed Underground franchise has redefined the urban racing genre, letting players jump deep into the underground racing scene. With a game presentation similar to that of The Fast and The Furious, the Hollywood-like focus on agile cars tearing through a large city at night has been very appealing. However, there’s been one realistic problem that keeps plaguing the series – How can you tear through a city like this without the cops cracking down on the racing? You’d expect one cruiser or a chopper following drags that took over city streets. Well speed racers, prepare for an added boost of adrenaline as the police have returned in the latest installment of the Need For Speed series, Need for Speed Most Wanted.
The storyline in previous Need For Speed games have been relatively minor, if not non-existent parts of the game. While Most Wanted’s is just as light, the plot is communicated much better and plays a much larger role than its counterparts. You play as a new arrival to the city of Rockport in your tricked out BMW, which is apparently a racing mecca for high stakes driving. Shortly after your appearance to the city, you run into Sergeant Cross, an overzealous cop assigned to shut down the underground circuit with a souped up ride of his own. After he almost busts you for speeding and keys your car, he lets you off with “a warning,” one that will ominously come back to haunt you.
After making contact with another racer and following him to another location, you meet Razor, a punk that’s just cracked The Blacklist, a list of the most infamous drivers in town. Envious of your car, he sabotages it in a race the two of you are in and takes the pink slip, leaving you rideless just as the cops arrive at the finish line. Arrested by Sergeant Cross, you are finally bailed out by Mia, a mysterious woman that sets you up with a safe house as well as an anonymous technician named Rog and gives you the heads up on what’s happened since your incarceration. Apparently, thanks to your car, Razor’s climbed to the top of The Blacklist. It’s up to you to get your revenge by clawing your way up the list to challenge Razor again and get your car back.
Carving out your own space isn’t a simple matter of taking on some guy at a red light; you’ll need to do much more to gain the respect or the attention of the 15 most notorious drivers in Rockport. Each one of the drivers listed has a minimum stat listed before they’ll consider your challenge, meaning you’ll need to win more than one race to succeed. There are a wide number of race types that you can engage in, including racing game standards such as sprints, circuit (or lap) races, lap knock out races and drag races. Added to these are Tollbooth races, which are similar to checkpoints on a course. You’re given a definite amount of time to get through all of them, and any extra time left from one stage to the next is added as a bonus for the next section of track. There are also the Speed Trap races, where you and three other cars take off down a course lined with speed cameras. The objective of the race isn’t to come in first place, but to have the fastest speed between yourself and your competitors through every speed trap once you cross the finish line.
Apart from the races, you’ll need to break the law by completing pursuit milestones. Every single one of The Blacklist drivers has some measure of notoriety with the Rockport PD, based on the level of bounty, or legal infractions they’ve committed in their cars. Some of these involve trading paint with cruisers, evading roadblocks or getting clocked at an excessive speed through a speed trap. Fortunately, you won’t be forced to try to track down these objectives, as you can leap into any attempt from your safe house. However, once you’ve attracted the ire of the police officers, you’ll need to do your best to remain out of handcuffs. Initially, you’ll wind up with one or two squad cars on your tail. As your bounty level goes up and the pursuit continue, you’ll find unmarked cars, SUVs, tricked out cruisers and even helicopters deployed to chase you, with the possibility of reinforcements rolled out based on how the current officers are doing. The police will also start using roadblocks and spike strips, as well as ramming techniques and surrounding or “boxing in” your vehicle to arrest you.
Fortunately, players will have a number of ways to avoid heading back to jail. The first and most obvious one is using nitrous to boost your way around these tactics and through police cars, taking them out of the chase. You’re also given the Most Wanted equivalent of bullet time with the Speedbreaker, a triggered feature that slows everything down and lets you maneuver your car much easier at high speeds. This is useful for avoiding spike strips, aiming towards sawhorses to break through in roadblocks, and steering around other cars.
You’ll also be able to throw off your pursuers thanks to some of the environmental Pursuit Breakers scattered around the map. By driving through certain destructible items, such as building supports or gas pumps, or running into moving objects like big rigs hauling tree trunks, you can destroy one or more police cars and throw them off your trail. Once you’ve evaded the cops, you need to stay away from the police presence searching for you by hiding, staying out of the view of other cars. This then allows the game to calculate how much damage you caused, the number of citations you broke, and other destructive stats that adds to your bounty stat. It also marks your car as a threat for cops to be aware of on sight, which increases your chances for getting in trouble and potentially arrested. Enough arrests, and your car will be impounded. You’d better believe that you’d get a charge by leading a pack of police cars.
The “vehicular heat level” of your ride can be reduced by making a cosmetic change to your car that makes it harder to recognize. A paint job, an additional spoiler or some other tweak can throw police officers off the trail. You can also purchase additional cars and race them for a while, spreading out the risk evenly amongst the vehicles in your garage. You’ll have access to a number of licensed cars, including Mustangs, a number of Porsches and even Lamborghinis. While you’ll be able to win some of these as prizes from your Blacklist competitors, you’ll probably have an easier time purchasing and then tuning the car with a number of additional parts, which are available at Rockport racing shops. All of these have been licensed from genuine aftermarket parts makers, so you’ll be able to put in existing items into your machines, further boosting their stats. Plus, you’ll be able to tune the car to perform better in certain racing situations, so you can tweak the gear timing or the handling lightly.
There are other minor modes, such as quick races or taking on specific challenges, which are engaging to a point, but not the primary thrust of the game. Similarly, the online gameplay, which only supports up to four players and is available on the Xbox, 360 and PC, is ok, but only allows you the option to race in circuit, sprint or drag races. This is not where you’re going to spend your time; in fact, that honor goes to the career mode. However, it isn’t without it’s own hiccups. First of all, the AI that you’ll race against has to be one of the tightest rubber bands that EA could find. This isn’t necessarily the case in the earliest sections of the game, where you’ll be able to essentially spot the computer a mile or two and still make a comeback at the end or where opening a lead will be uncontested. About 5 to 7 steps up on the Blacklist though, and for some reason the computer driven racers are incredible drivers all of a sudden to the point where any mistake will cost you.
I also had to question the use of things like changing cars and even the cosmetic changes. I personally never needed to use them; in fact, it seemed like if I was trying to get a larger bounty, I’d want to use the same one so that I could attract more attention to increase my bounty score before I peeled out and lost the cops. At least the cosmetic changes have more of a reason for existing in this game – they’re just not terribly practical for the chase aspect. Speaking of cosmetics, I do wonder why only your car glass gets smashed, but other parts of the car are unaffected regardless of the number of crashes you get into (unless you run over spike strips). It just doesn’t make sense, particularly when you can detect the damage of cop cars.
Easily the best looking title in the series to date, Most Wanted almost makes you wish that the other Underground titles were set in the daytime. Light blooming, sunlight reflecting off the glossy sheen of the cars and other clean visuals combine to make the game look phenomenal on any system. The tracking of the game’s physics is also quite nice, as you’ll see roadblocks, boxes and other objects go flying as you drive through them. I did wind up running into odd stuttering instances of popup and loading of sections of courses here and there, as if the game couldn’t load the level fast enough. While a reset or two fixed this, it was troubling and frequent enough to stand out. Surprisingly, the most impressive visual feature are the FMV sequences, which are sepia washed and touched up to seem somewhat outside of the game world. It’s hard to explain, but it actually looks great when combined with the game (which is even harder to admit considering how cheesy some FMV can be). The largest problem is that the game winds up abandoning the FMVs after a short while for text and voice messaging. I really wish there were more of these sequences!
Fortunately, the voice acting in these sequences helps make these movies stand out as great additions to the story. Along with the voice acting, the varied sounds of each car’s engine are easily determined based on the make and model of the car, and you can easily tell when you’re opening up the throttle. You’re stuck with the standard amount of rock and rap that you’d expect with a racer, although it does seem to repeat the same songs a lot more frequently than other Need For Speed titles. However, the best part of the sound is with the police band, which not only sounds authentic, but also adds an air of realism to the gameplay. When you hear an all points bulletin put out on your car, or an officer calling for back up because you rammed his cruiser, you really get that sense of sprinting away from and evading the law.
It’s been missing for a while, but the simple inclusion of the police catapults Most Wanted into one of the best racers in recent history. Dodging roadblocks, evading cruisers and trying to make a name for yourself by getting on The Blacklist is a lot of fun, and it’s simply a couple of technical hiccups or other game issues that hamper this from becoming an instant classic.