Though Madden is often assumed to be its strongest franchise, and this is arguably correct, EA's Need for Speed series has long been a force to be reckoned with, and its two recent Underground titles proved to be wildly successful takes on the franchise.
While EA is often accused of rehashing series after series on a yearly basis, the publisher/developer actually does change up many of its proven formulas, taking risks on new designs that could potentially cripple its existing franchises. Being that these name brands are so popular, it awards them the somewhat safe ability to be able to try out new things while mostly guaranteeing strong sales based on name alone. EA's quite good at developing solid, if not excellent, games as well, which certainly helps.
The Need for Speed franchise has yet again taken a step in a different direction with Need for Speed Most Wanted 5-1-0 for the PSP. While the console versions of the game are set to be released alongside the PSP version, and they share certain fundamental design goals, like being chased by the po-po while working up a blacklist of the most wanted street racers, there are vast differences between the two versions that we should point out, just in case you've been mostly following the console versions. The PSP title is set up on an event-to-event basis, so there isn't a free-roaming city to tour around, and there aren't as many varied event types, like drag races and such, that you can just hop into.
Note that this doesn't really detriment the PSP version of Most Wanted in any way; it's just a different game. In fact, its stripped-down and streamlined design plays to the systems strengths and intentions, allowing you to hop into a race, finish it off in a few minutes and then put the system in your backpack.
One thing that's missing that is sort of unfortunate is that there isn't an overarching, fleshed-out storyline with a number of different characters and such. You're working up a ladder of 15 of the most wanted street racers, earning enough respect to be able to race each one in the ladder, but it's a very text and menu-heavy progression scheme, and not one where you're seeing characters taunt you or provoke you in any way to race them. They simply exist as menu options.
On Your Tail
Aside from taking down the 15 most wanted street racers and claiming your rightful spot at the top of the list, the other major design element to Most Wanted is your heat level, which dictates how many cops will be on your tail and how aggressive they'll be towards you. The theory is that street racing is an illegal activity, so adding in cops to set up roadblocks, ram you off the road and generally try to get you to slow the hell down sounds like a good one on paper.
The problem is that the execution winds up being exactly opposite of normal game design paradigms. Rather than being rewarded for driving well and winning races, you're punished for doing as the cops will sick after you as soon as you take the lead. Every time you hit abnormally fast speeds, drive too close to another car or do anything else of the sort, the same sort that basically every other driving game in existence rewards you for, you end up being punished for it.
By driving quickly in order to win a race, the cops will be more likely to take off after you. Once they're on your tail, you'll have to fight them off for the rest of the event as they attempt to stop you by trapping you somewhere to arrest you. Honestly, it's rather frustrating to do what needs to be done to win (drive fast and take risks), only to have the game attempt to punish you for doing so.
The somewhat confusing part is that the cops chase you during some events, but not others. Some boss battles don't have cops, for example, while some time trials do. You're trying to shave half-a-second off your time in order to pass the time trial, but the cops speed after you and constantly nudge your vehicle around the road while you're attempting to do so. Again, it can be rather frustrating. Should you be racing perfectly, but the cops happen to get a good nudge in on you and spin you around, you'll simply have to hit Start and retry.
If you can get past this aspect of the game's design, then Need for Speed Most Wanted 5-1-0 can be an enjoyable racing title. It's neither the deepest nor most stimulating racer out there, but it's a solid one.
For one thing, the game drives very well and features some reasonably interesting tracks with which to compete on. The cars feel a little top-heavy at first, seemingly having enough inertial movement and body sway that a tap of the controller will cause your vehicle to have to level out and dampen its body movement before the car straightens out, so it's a little odd at first. Once you get used to this though, which is rather quickly, the vehicles feel great to drive. They have a great feeling of weight and solidity that isn't present in a whole lot of other racing titles out there. It's a great mix that combines the realistic weight and feeling of movement of the vehicles, with a more arcade-style tightness to the controls that makes the cars a pleasure to pilot.
While the game doesn't feature the plethora of modes that the console versions have, it does throw in a nice mix of race events through the course of the game that keep it feeling fresh. Aside from the standard races, time trials and other expected race types, you'll come across Knockout races, which are essentially identical to the elimination races from Burnout 3 where the last place racer after each lap is eliminated until only one car remains.
You'll also find Heat Challenges, where you need to outrun the cops within a certain period of time. This basically requires you to pull better lap times than them on whichever track the event is set as, as you can't freely roam about the world and actually attempt to lose them. Regardless, it still works. Tuner Takedown has you reverse roles and hop into a cop car in order to take out a specified number of street racers before the time runs out.
Tuner Takedown is very reminiscent of the Pursuit mode in the Burnout series, which brings up the point that Need for Speed seems to be following in many of Burnout's footsteps for one reason or another. It feels a little different to drive, but many similar themes and modes seem to now be present in both series. This is more of an observation than anything that's swayed our score or overall take on the game, but it'll be somewhat interesting to see what directions the two franchises take in the future, and if they begin to become more similar, or if they'll attempt to stay wholly separated.
On a final note, Most Wanted is a really nice looking PSP racer, maybe not quite up to par with Ridge Racer (though that's arguable), but great in it's own ways. The track detail is pretty hefty for a PSP title, and the draw distance and framerate are both rock-solid. It does very well in enabling the game to feel as good as its does, which helps it a lot.
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