Developers of racing games received a new injection of life and purpose in the last two years. The growing popularity of street racing and modding has flourished in the popular culture, while Criterion's Burnout series has blazed a path all its own, bringing arcade racing back to its pre-Gran Turismo glory days. The Need for Speed series has never clung to a particular aspect of pop culture like Rockstar's Midnight Club or a particular car like Sega's Ferrari 360, but the long-time series struck gold with its light implementation of modding with Need for Speed Underground, selling more units worldwide than any game in 2003 with 7.5 million. Need for Speed Most Wanted continues the street culture thing, but EA's Canadian development team has mined one of the better iterations of the series, Need for Speed Hot Pursuit, fusing both rudiments into a newly refined, yet strangely familiar racer.
NFS Most Wanted is a well-balanced, challenging, and substantial racing game that's worth your while on any system. It returns the series to its cop chasing days while incorporating street cars, culture, and an impressive display of stylized FMV without forgetting the fundamentals: People like to drive sweet-looking, fast cars, they want more than a little freedom, and hey, if there are a bunch of hot chicks too? All the better.
Though this is obviously a racing game, the first, most noticeable aspect of Most Wanted is the story and presentation. The game is draped in a crazily chromed out, sepia-tone landscape of industrial structures, and populated with heavily bloom-lit FMV characters. The first time you see the story being told, like me, you will probably gasp in horror, "Wha??? The return of crappy FMV?!?!?!!! OOOHHH NOOOOO!" But this mixture of animated, highly colored FMV characters and stylized backgrounds is both imaginative and refreshing. And it's risky. I mean damn risky. I wouldn't touch FMV with a 50 foot pole if I was a developer these days, but this presentation is creative and striking. The actors aren't phenomenally awful either, which helps.
The story is a typical Saturday morning special narrative. It spins an unimaginative tale of revenge and restoration of order, and the bad guys, Razor, and the local cop who meanly keys your car in the beginning of the game, are just annoying and evil enough to get your goat. From a creative standpoint, the story is worthless, but EA liked its trial run with Brooke Burke last year in NFSU2 and retained a less cold, angular female figure to narrate this game with Josie Maran (who, in my opinion, is svelte, curvy, and far better at her job than the icy Burke). So, you'll keep wanting hook up with her as often as possible.
But that's not all. The tutorials and blacklist characters are introduced with flair and a friendly 'tude. Whole chunks of the background dramatically drop into place to form a landscape before you start a race, and the whole presentation is laced with slick, stylish graffiti and flickering Fight Club imagery. I like it all. EA may be a corporate, market-driven mega-company with monopolistic tendencies, and this may be just another attempt to tap into the "underground street" market, but it's done with appealing artistry and smart style.
Depending on which version you buy, you'll also receive a different technical set of visuals. The PC, GameCube, and Xbox versions display minimal to no flickering or aliasing, while the PS2 version instantly gives away its limitations. Each one holds at a smooth 30 FPS, and there are several instances where breakaway cinematic scenes show off inspiring jump sections. The car models are especially sleek looking too, and EA has added to its car modding menu professional pre-made designs specifically made for each car, so no two are alike. Also, for whatever dumb reason, on the PS2 the camera change option is located under the game option menu, as opposed to on-the-fly camera changing for the other systems. That feels like a mistake.
Race Or Die
If you've played NFSU2, you'll recognize a lot in NFS Most Wanted, which re-purposes much of the previous game. A handful of racing types returned - circuit, drag, and sprint - while drift races and racer x events get the axe in favor of a straight-out speed events. In the Career mode, you must work up the Black List of 15 racers who stand between you and Razor, who's not only snagged your hot rod, he's taken the number one spot.
A bunch of races require beating before a racer on the Black List is willing to face you, and these races can be picked in any order. There are two kinds: Races and Milestones. The Black List racers require a minimum of each to race, so you might compete in four milestones and five races to gain enough notoriety to challenge him or her, while the next competitor might require you to achieve three milestones and four races. The choices are all variations on A) straight racing and B) avoiding the cops, so while it seems like there might be a big difference between speed traps and sprints, or Cost of State and Violations, there isn't much. The streamlining of the race variety isn't too big of a problem, but the game's variation is slimmer than in NFSU2 and can get dully repetitive.
That's where GameBreakers and PursuitBreakers come in. A GameBreaker is essentially Bullet Time, which at this point has been incorporated into just about every game from shooters to platformers and adventure games (Thanks, Max Payne!). This feature might help gamers take especially tough turns, zip underneath an 18-wheeler, or straighten out after a tough jump. I never used it once, but my brother, who rarely plays racers, tried it out at IGN Live and loved that particular feature. That was his hook into the game. I never needed it, but apparently it works. Each to his own. PursuitBreakers were far more fun and definitely feel like they've been influenced by Burnout. These are special destructible objects in the environment. When you drive underneath them, they collapse, causing cops to stall, pause, top in their tracks. These objects range from water towers and gas stations to yachts and radio towers.
Once you beat a racer on the Black List, the progression system kicks in. You earn money by winning all races, but by defeating a member of the top 15 list, you get the chance to pick two "markers." Markers are like tokens. Each racer has three hidden markers, and a few obvious ones like cash or special mod parts. The hidden markers are way more fun, adding surprise to each race's winnings. Hidden markers range from an extra $10,000, get out of jail free card, or, if you're lucky, the pink slip to the competitors' car. Your chances are 66% that you'll get it, but you never know.
The currency system works well, and it's restricted so cheaters cannot instantly upgrade and smoke the game AI. Players can spend earned cash on four levels of upgrades, each unlocking new parts for either performance or visual upgrades. The upgrades for spoilers, rims, hoods, trunks, rails, etc. are exactly like the ones in NFSU2, except here you get the custom designed cars. For instance, if you missed out on winning that Mustang or RX-8, you can take those earnings and buy a new car. All upgraded and modded cars can be brought online and raced in EA's much improved online lobbies. Gamers also can get in and out of online races faster with fewer hiccups and dropouts.
The range of cars is fat. The complete list includes: Aston Martin DB9, Audi A4 3.2 FSI Quattro, Audi TT 3.2 Quattro, Audi A3 3.2 Quattro, BMW M3 GTR, Mercedes-Benz SL 500, SL65 AMG, Mercedes-Benz CLK 500, Dodge Viper SRT10, Fiat Punto, Ford GT, Ford Mustang GT, Corvette C6, Corvette C6.R, Cadillac CTS, Pontiac GTO, Vauxhall Monaro VXR, Cobalt SS, Lamborghini Murciélago, Lamborghini Gallardo, Lotus Elise, Mazda RX-8, Mazda RX-7, Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren, Mitsubishi Lancer EVOLUTION VIII, Misubishi Eclipse, Porsche Carrera GT, Porsche 911 Turbo S, Porsche 911 GT2, Porsche 911 Carrera S, Porsche Cayman S, Renault Clio V6, Subaru Impreza WRX STi, Lexus IS300, Toyota Supra, and the VW Golf GTI. The special Black Edition of NFSMW has a few extras not listed here.
Like any racing game, there are cars that are pretty worthless, but I for one am glad that the SUVs are gone. Those were so worthless! The real point here is the diversity. Sure, there aren't 500 cars, but you do have knockouts such as the RX-8, five different Porsches, three Audis, the new Mustang, the Dodge Viper, and two Lamborghinis. Once those last five levels are opened up, the racing gets really fast, and the Lamborghinis create a fantastic sense of speed and control.
The biggest change to the series, control-wise, is the newly added sense of weight and accompanied physics. The cars all have a heavier, stickier feel. You'll feel the change from previous NFS games when you take turns at high speeds or when you start up your car. The vehicles require more skill to pull out of powerslides, where you'll feel the added weight shift heavier to the side you're sliding in. You'll also feel the weight and dead-stop characteristic when you crash into an unseen object. If you smack into something, you'll need to reverse and the punch it. There is an extra split-second required to reverse, and to re-orient yourself to get back into the race. Not everyone will like the new feel of the cars. I love powersliding, so the extra weight didn't both me, but because there are a bunch of sneakily placed unbreakable objects put in key spots around turns, you'll smack into them, and you'll wish your car accelerated faster.
Luckily, the course and overall city design are much better in NFS Most Wanted than in NFSU2. EA learned a few things from last year's endeavor, which is that open worlds are fine and dandy, but you'll need to fill them if you have them, and Most Wanted is a racing game, not an adventure game. In that light, EA has done two things: It's created a massive cityscape that's interconnected for non-stop action, and it's also built in the ability to instantly quickly jump to any race in the game without having to drive there. It's pure efficiency, and I like it.
Actually, this same quick-jump function was in NFSU2, but it didn't function nearly as well or as clearly as this does. Also, the functionality here isn't an excuse for a wide-open city that's not all that fun to drive around in. It's purposely designed into the fabric of the courses so its functionality feels natural and smart.
The freeway system is much improved. Last year's freeway was a bitch to get on and off, and it created difficulties in simply getting from point A to point B. In that game, the GPS system was always on for a reason. In this one, it's rarely on. There are tons of little shortcuts, too, making the exploration in each race a little challenge. The enemies even use them occasionally too.
Most Wanted is also a long game. It's packed. Each of the 15 racers requires anywhere from seven to 10 races before you race them, and those boss competitions are usually two races. That's easily 15-plus hours just to beat the career mode. And that doesn't include the dozens of cop chases, additional milestones or free-roam races you can pick up at any time. It doesn't include the challenge mode or the online play either.
Finally, the cops. The cops are never that smart, but they continually grow in aggressiveness and numbers. When you first start, the cops are a joke. You'll smash them to bits, ditch and generally humiliate them. The cop radio chatter is excellent. The police constantly chatter about your location, behavior, and their plans to catch you. The cop chatter is really well done. When you reach Black List player number 8, the cops grow angrier and more aggressive. The helicopter will appear around that time, although much of your status is based on a heat meter, which is attached to your car, and they add that very necessary component of challenge, annoyance, and heat that makes this game so fun. I wish there were more helicopter-like cop enemies, like motorcycle cops, or more forceful tactics, or even tanks or something heavier and meaner. A greater variety of cop behavior and types would have really brought this game home in a big way. As it is, you can toy with the fuzz for at least half the game before they become half-serious.
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