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Need for Speed: Most Wanted Review

By Jeff Buckland, 12/29/2005

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Played on:

X360

EA is finally moving away from the import-street-racing genre with Need for Speed: Most Wanted, and I'm very glad to hear it. Both of the NFS: Underground games were fun for a short while, but the huge amount of wacky product placement, overall tuner culture, and ugly cars with neon lights on them really turned me off. With Most Wanted, EA's gone back to the police theme that they started way back in NFS: Hot Pursuit years ago, and it makes for one of the best Need for Speed games we've seen in years.

This isn't to say that Most Wanted doesn't have an excessive selection of hilariously huge spoilers and other goofy things to add to your cars, but at least there are no neon lights and we do get a good mix of both Asian and European import cars (as well as quite a few domestic models). You can take a merely decent car and with enough unlocked parts (and cash you've won from racing), you can upgrade it all the way to the top level. This way, if you really like a "lesser" model of car, you can still make it work like the top-end cars. This is something that few racing games do, but I really enjoy seeing this.

The career mode in NFS:MW has an actual story. You play a hotshot racer that goes against the game's villain, nicknamed Razor, in a street race. He had managed to sabotage your tuned-out BMW M3, though, and you lose the pink slip when the thing breaks down in mid-race. Then the cops swoop in and since you have no getaway car, they nab you. All of this is done by way of actual live-acted cutscenes which are mixed with rendered cars, and with an interesting filter over everything, it actually looks pretty decent. Of course, the acting is very cheesy, and it seems to have been done this way on purpose. Overall, I found that it actually works, and the trash talk from Razor and his crew was goofy but fun anyway.

Once you get out of jail (it's tough to convict someone for street racing when they have no car with which to race), your mission will be to get revenge on Razor with thirty grand worth of startup cash. For some reason, you can amass several exotic cars, each worth well over a hundred grand, but that's not good enough until you've got your BMW M3 back. To get a chance at Razor a second time, you'll need to race up through the ranks of the Blacklist, a set of 15 racers that will require you to gain enough respect before you can challenge them.

Your goal is to get to the top of the Blacklist, but you'll need to go through plenty of other races to get a chance at them. But there's also another wrinkle in this: they want you to get into some big trouble with the cops and get out unscathed as well. This means you'll need to get a big fat police bounty on your head, and you'll need to finish certain milestones as well. Examples of this would be blasting through a number of roadblocks or spike strips in one run, causing a certain amount of property damage, or ramming into enough police cruisers in a single pursuit to meet each Blacklist members' requirements.

t turns out that for most of the game, racing the actual members of the Blacklist 15 is the easy part and even the least exciting in some cases. What's the most fun is getting away from the cops when they've got two dozen police cars, SUVs, a helicopter, and more after you, and there are roadblocks and spike strips in front of you almost every mile. The developers give you more tools for evading the cops than just a fast car, though, even if it's still not much. Early in the game, you'll get access to nitrous boosts which will help you punch through the police, and you can even hit a button and enter a slow motion mode. The upside to the slow motion is that you'll get a much better chance at finding weak spots in roadblocks, but the downside is that you'll slow down significantly in the process.

To actually evade a police chase, you'll need to figure out a way to get them all off of you temporarily and then find a quiet spot where they can't find you. A few tricky handbrake-induced turns can shake them, but there are also various landmarks across the fictional city of Rockport where you can smash into something, causing an accident, and trash the police cruisers (or at least slow them down long enough to get away). Once you get the cops off of you, a timer will start and if none of them manage to find you, then you have ended the pursuit and are free to go until next time. If you need help, there are special nooks littered throughout Rockport where you can speed up the timer and make evasion take a fraction of the time - but getting to those spots is sometimes a big risk, too.

While we've seen plenty of player-versus-police action in the Grand Theft Auto games, Most Wanted makes it more fun in many ways - even if you have much less to work with. You've got no weapons and can't get out of your car, so the threat of a dozen police cruisers surrounding you means that once you get stopped for more than a few seconds, it's over and you're arrested. But you can also use your Nitrous to boost right through a roadblock, sending cop cars flying off in a rather hilarious way. Just watch out for the cops' SUVs which will attempt to ram you head on while the rest of the cars chasing you try and box you in for the bust.

The races aren't always just a straight shot from start to finish. While we've seen knockout, lap, timed checkpoint, and long-single-run races in many titles over the years (and these make up most of the race events in the game), there is also a unique new event where police cameras are placed along the track and you've got to fly through them to get clocked at the highest possible speeds. Whoever has racked up the most miles per hour wins, although there's still a finish line and the further back you are the more of a penalty you'll rack up. Some events will have a higher chance of being intercepted by the cops as well, so you might have to start dealing with them in mid-race. And once your race is finished, the cops are still after you until you either evade them or get busted.

Traffic plays an important part in Most Wanted - much like the Burnout games, you can hit traffic and it'll bounce somewhat unrealistically out of your way. Unlike Burnout though, it's much, much harder to use traffic to make your opponents crash, and usually the best you can do is just slow them down for a second or two. But at the very least, you can smash head-on into traffic with only a modest loss in speed.

Actually, affecting other racers in Most Wanted is pretty difficult no matter what, and I've found that other than blocking them when you see them in the rear view mirror, touching their car almost never helps you out. You can smash into cops all you want, though, and they react a little more like you might expect. The weird thing is that the opponents' cars act very differently when you hit them than the cops' cars do, and traffic reacts entirely differently on top of that. For example, you can nudge the rear side of a police cruiser over to do a "pit" maneuver, but traffic just smashes itself way out of the way while opponent racers do nothing other than get a little further ahead of you. It really feels rather manufactured, but it's one of those things that's done on purpose for the sake of fun over realism.

Speaking of cars reacting, you'll find that the only vehicles that show any significant damage are the police cruisers. The racers' cars, including your own, can show some heavy scratches or a cracked windshield or two, but there's no change to the actual car model. This is surely a side-effect of EA's licensing of real cars (from manufacturers like Subaru, Ford, Lamborghini, Porsche, Audi, Toyota, Lexus, and many more), but I'm sick of having to make this trade-off in racing games. Realistic damage = fake cars, fake damage = real car manufacturers. It's annoying, but it's not like the guys behind Most Wanted really had much of a choice in this matter.

Another race type is the Drag race, which simplifies steering into the choice of lanes and makes you shift, even if you've chosen an automatic transmission - the better timing for your shifting, the better your racing. This is a bit like the drag races in the Underground games, but the addition of traffic makes this mode quite a bit harder. Not only will you need to navigate around the other racers, but if you hit any of the traffic, the race is over (unlike hitting traffic in the rest of the career modes). This turns the Drag events into exercises in memorization and trial & error. I honestly found these to be the least enjoyable of all the race types, and had to restart most of the later drag events many times to get them right.

The player can freely roam throughout Rockport if they feel like, although your own home gives you shortcuts to get to almost everything you need - races, speed trap milestones, and the chance to induce a police pursuit whenever you want. The free roam is little more than just a fun feature that lets you explore Rockport at your own pace, and while you can drive around to the starting points for various races, you won't have to.

The opponent racer AI is a little odd in Most Wanted. Not only is there a very significant rubber-band factor (where your opponents will purposely slow down when they get ahead of you, and start driving like geniuses if you get way ahead), but the AI will also ramp up in difficulty quite a bit after you get to #5 on the Blacklist. Also, the AI at almost all levels will do some erratic things, like slow down when there's no need or screw up the most simple of curves - then they might follow it up with the navigation of a tight corner way faster than you could hope to do. Overall, the races are still pretty easy in my opinion, but you can't ever predict what that guy right in front of you is going to do.

One of the best parts of Most Wanted is that you'll have a police radio in your car and can hear the chatter. It sounds very convincing, even if I've no idea what actual police chatter in real life sounds like. You'll even get a few advance hints as to what the cops are doing, so it does help to listen carefully. Overall, the police chatter sounds great and mixes in with the game well.

For those that like to customize their cars, Most Wanted does a nice job of giving you plenty of parts from dozens of real-world aftermarket manufacturers without shoving their names down your throat. You can get new body kits for all of the cars, plus a selection of vinyl decals, rims, roof scoops, spoilers, hoods, paint jobs, and racing stripes. You'll also have various performance-related parts that allow you to increase the three major stats for your car: Top Speed, Acceleration, and Handling. I like how they set it up so that you don't have to add any foot-high spoilers or blingin' rims to your car to get its overall stats up; I guess I'm just not much for anything but the stock equipment when it comes to looks.

The city of Rockport has been laid out quite realistically, is large enough for stuff like 15-mile races, and has plenty of nooks, landmarks, back roads, and sections of highway for you to discover your top speed. There's something for everyone here, and it all looks sharp in HD on the Xbox 360. The only complaint I have is that while all times of day are included, it seems that EA wanted to do something so far away from the NFS Underground games that there are absolutely no night races at all. In fact, the whole world has a drab, yellow, tinge of evening/autumn that admittedly looks good, but I wish there was a little more variety. It's to the point where there is no such thing as a blue sky in Most Wanted - doesn't that seem odd to anyone else?

Rockport still looks great, though, even if the city is covered in some sort of yellow tint. Where you will get a nice set of colors, though, is in the cars; they reflect light realistically and you can paint your car with one of dozens of tones. If you want metallic, you got it, and gloss is in there as well. The cars are probably the best-looking part of the whole game, and the developers were able to use both the 360's massive power as well as the overall HD detail to make these things look better than any previous-generation racing game we've seen yet.

The multiplayer modes in this game have a good number of options for both serious and casual racers, with an online version of the Blacklist serving as a ranking system. The biggest problem I have with it is that the whole police element's pretty much gone out of the multiplayer modes overall. There are no police pursuits, no cops controlled by players, or cops mucking up your races online at all. There are a few nice options to stop jerks from ruining your races, like the option to allow cars to pass right through each other so that people can't just ram you and screw you up, or the slider that disallows people with a given percentage of disconnects (who will purposely disconnect rather than take a loss, that is) to race with you.

The soundtrack in NFS:MW is a mix of rap and rock that has been a hallmark of the Need for Speed games for a while. Curiously, the game splits the music up into three sections: Rock music plays while you're driving, rap plays while you're in the menus, and some custom-made, suspenseful "interactive music" plays when you're in a police chase (and not racing at the same time). It's an odd combination, really, but I found that it works well. The engine noises for your cars are great, and you'll even hear the engine's noise change subtly when you throw a couple of performance upgrades in. Combine all this with the authentic-sounding police chatter, and this is one of the best-sounding racing games I've heard in a while. The only thing I really think is missing is a larger soundtrack, or at least some sort of homogeneous mixture of the rap and rock during the menus and races.

While Need for Speed: Most Wanted lacks a few key features that take it over the top, it's still a solid game and winds up being the best installment in the NFS series in years. Project Gotham Racing 3 is aimed more at the sim fans and Ridge Racer 6 is all about crazy arcade racing, but Most Wanted strikes a great balance with fun police chases and an interesting story mode. I just wish that the cops had made it into the multiplayer modes; then this would have been an even better game.

Overall: 90%

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