EA really know how to make a videogame that has mass appeal. The Need For Speed series has become a huge favourite amongst the teenage audience and the switch to Underground gave the series a much needed boost in popularity. Despite huge sales the Underground games never really felt like they were all they could be, and games like Midnight Club 3: DUB edition out undergrounded Underground. Thankfully Need For Speed: Most Wanted returns to daylight and delivers one of the most entertaining street racing experiences to be found on any platform.
The premise of Need For Speed: Most Wanted is simple. You're a cool guy, with a cool ride, but you get involved with some uncool cool guys (headed by Razor) who give you a hard time and cheat you out of your wheels. As expected, you must start from scratch and work your way through the most respected street racers that are part of the Blacklist - a list that governs who can race who in the city of Rockport. These fifteen racers are the best of the best and you've got to prove yourself before you can even think about taking them on. Mia, a beautiful woman played by Josie 'Maybe it's Maybelline' Moran, decides to befriend you and help you out during your battle to get to the top.
Even before you start racing you'll notice the amazing cutscenes. They really must be seen to be believed. Using a mix of rendered footage and real life actors, they're full of over-the-top characters, cheesy dialogue and genuine - although probably unintentional - laugh out loud moments. Sergeant Cross is particularly amusing, and his female partner does her best to seem like she's in the totally wrong profession. Who knows if EA intended the whole thing to be a joke or not, but if they did, it's inspired.
When you've recovered from the cutscene hilarity, the game itself doesn't disappoint either. Even though you'll be racing in an un-tuned car at the beginning of the game, the sense of speed is still superb, with the better cars offering some truly staggering performance. The city you race in is open to be explored, but you're also set challenges to participate in. These are split between Race Events (such as circuit and sprint races) to Milestone Events (such as evading the cops for a set time or being clocked while travelling at a certain speed). You can roam the city and take challenges that way, but it's far easier to enter the game's menu and select them from a list.
Once you've proved yourself by completing these challenges you can attempt to beat the next racer on the Blacklist. By doing so you'll be able to take two of your opponent's markers. A number of these markers give obvious rewards, such as cash and upgrades, but the others aren't detailed, and could be anything from your opponent's car to more cash. Cars can be bought and tuned up manually too, with plenty of performance and visual upgrades on offer. Visual upgrades look cool, but also lower your heat level, meaning you'll get less hassle from cops. There aren't as many licensed vehicles as I'd have liked, but you do get some from BMW, Porsche, Lotus and others, taking the number to around 30. The 'story' does a good job at moving you through your career (even though the hilarious cutscenes are replaced by voice and text messages pretty early on in the game) but it plays second fiddle to the thrilling gameplay - cop chases in particular.
The cops in this game are downright brutal, often calling for backup, setting up road blocks, ramming you, and generally doing all they can to end the chase. When you're being pursued you must attempt to lose the coppers and then stay out of sight for a set period of time, until the heat on you has cooled off. Eventually you'll need to own multiple, allowing you to rest those cars with heat. The upside to this is that more heat on one car means less on another, so you can hop into another at your safe house and continue on your way. The chases themselves can go on for a long time, escalating to twenty or so cop cars and even choppers. There are certain things you can do to give them the slip though, such as knocking roadside objects into their path, ramming them into other vehicles, faking them out, taking sneaky shortcuts, and more.
As with almost every street racing game available, you can use speed boosts, but Most Wanted also features a bullet time-like feature. You can send the game into slow motion and then gain increased control over your car, allowing you to get out of tight spots or take sharp turns without slowing down. It's an ability that I didn't find myself using all that much and you can certainly get by without touching it, but it's fun to use now and again, if only to slide underneath a lorry's trailer.
Outside of the Career mode you can take part in set challenges where you're given a car and told to achieve a certain goal. These are split between races and milestones, just like the Career mode, and provide you with something extra to do once you've made it to the top of the Blacklist. Online play is also available for Xbox and PC owners, but game modes are limited to racing, with pursuit gameplay modes unavailable. If you're into modding your own cars then your creations can be traded online in specially set up lobbies, but on the whole online play isn't Most Wanted's strongest feature. Strangely, online play isn't included in the PlayStation 2 version, but if you don't own an Xbox or PC you're not missing out on much.
Need For Speed: Most Wanted is also available for the Xbox 360, and while the current-gen versions don't look as good, they look damn good in their own right. The Xbox version is especially good looking, with plenty of detail in the environment, some beautiful lighting, excellent car models and a great sense of speed. The PlayStation 2 version suffers from more frequent slowdown than the Xbox version and looks rougher overall, but it's still a solid looking game. If you own a nice high-spec PC you'll be able to get the game looking remarkably similar to the Xbox 360 version, but the lack of widescreen support is disappointing, especially when both of the current-gen console versions have this option.
The audio work in Most Wanted is one of the best aspects of the game. When you're being pursued the soundtrack will change to a Michael Bay movie-esque dramatic tune that really heightens the sense of danger. The police can also be heard talking to each other over the radio, and after a while you can even work out what they're going to do, whether it be setting up a road block or laying down spikes. It really is implemented well, sounding great and enhancing gameplay. Engine sounds are also fantastic, with the only real blemish coming from the tunes that EA has included as part of its EA Trax, although if rock and hip-hop is your thing they'll probably be right up your street.
Everything isn't perfect though, with a few little niggles getting in the way now and again. The most obvious is the rubber-band AI, which means that almost every race is down to the last few corners, no matter what has gone on before it. During the game you're told that things are about to get tougher and at this point the AI opponents suddenly drive brilliantly. It's quite jarring and puts a temporary hold on your progression. The racing in general isn't as much fun as running from the cops, and this sudden spike in difficulty doesn't help.
Need For Speed: Most Wanted is a great return to form for the series. While the actual head-to-head races are a little disappointing, cop chases provide more entertainment than most racing titles released this year combined. Combine these thrills with some great presentation and some incredible early cutscenes and you have not only the best Need For Speed title in some time, but also one of the best racers period.