Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: EA Games
Release Date: November 16, 2005
Cars are cool. Fast cars are really cool. Customizing a fast car is really, really cool. This could be the entire justification for the Need For Speed series to exist. Handing a guy the keys to a hot ride and letting him make it as flashy as he wants must resonate with some primal masculine instinct to pilot large, noisy vehicles at unsafe velocities. (The concept strikes a chord with some ladies out there too, as I understand.)
I'll admit it: I didn't particularly care for the previous entry in the NFS series, Underground 2. The first Underground revolutionized the series by introducing many people to the tuner subculture, which emphasizes after-market modification and tweaking of automobiles. Underground 2 expanded upon this idea by injecting the ubiquitous "free-roaming" element cribbed from Grand Theft Auto, as well as new cars, parts, and race types.
Unfortunately, Underground 2 also added glaringly obvious corporate sponsorship (a major no-no in the "underground" world of illegal street racing), ludicrously desperate "hip" dialogue (I dare you not to laugh out loud when, "Yo, homie, ya'll gotsta cop that bank, dawg" spouts from your speakers), and the wooden-as-a-tree performance offered by former E! host Brooke Burke as your race sponsor. The sprawling city, while nice to explore, came with its own set of downsides; is it necessary to have to drive across the entire city to enter a race or shop for parts? Yes, it's realistic, but it got really boring after a while, which I could also say about the entire game.
Forget the old problems, all of them. Surprisingly, EA fixed nearly everything that was wrong with the series before, and added some nice new touches. For street racing fans, Most Wanted is, without question, your game.
Instead of the vague, half-hearted "story" from Underground 2, Most Wanted actually has a compelling narrative. It doesn't exactly break any new ground and could be seen as incredibly vapid by some, but it works in its own way. Your faceless racer enters Rockport City looking for a challenge, and you've got some considerable bite behind your bark: you're driving a near-unbeatable BMW M3. Of course, your awesome ride doesn't stop the usual pompous jerk from getting on your case. Razor is #15 on the Blacklist, a collection of the 15 fastest, meanest racers in the city. Despite being low man on the totem pole, Razor's pretty cocky; he sends all of his lackeys to race you, which you easily defeat.
Razor knows he'll never stand a chance against your car, so he sabotages it before your big race with him, with pink slips on the line. (As an aside, when your nemesis' goons jestingly ask whether or not your ride is running okay while snickering and averting their eyes, is it really that far a stretch of the imagination that perhaps you should at least check for tampering? No? Okay, never mind, then.) Long story short, you lose your car and your freedom, as you're arrested right after the race by the local police, who are fed up with the street racing that's taken Rockport by storm.
A mysterious girl named Mia, played somewhat awkwardly by Maybelline model Josie Maran, decides to help you get revenge on Razor (plus score some cash for herself, of course) and hooks you up with information and safe houses to call home. And so, your quest to get your car back begins. Nothing too significant, but in this type of game the story takes a backseat (no pun intended) to the furious rubber-burning action.
Name a problem with Underground 2, and it's been fixed in the sequel. Instead of giving each category of parts its own shop (which required a great deal of tedious, unnecessary driving), there's a one-stop customization center, which houses everything you need to pimp your ride. Instead of unlocking parts through completing a certain number of races, new pieces of equipment become available after bumping off certain Blacklisters. This approach works much better; there's a real sense of accomplishment when entering a shop after defeating a tough opponent and finding new stuff for sale.
Every time you win a race with a Blacklister, you're given a choice of two prizes from five semi-random selections; some give special parts, others bestow get-out-of-jail free cards, and if you're lucky, you could even get the pink slip for your opponent's car. Simply awesome, but it seemed that getting the slip was incredibly difficult, for me at least. Gimme that free car, dammit!
Most Wanted's racing system was also given a welcome overhaul. Don't feel like driving for 10 minutes to get to a race? Enter your Blacklist menu whenever you wish and choose an event to compete in. Need to build up the bounty on your head? Same deal. You don't have to drive anywhere if you don't feel like it, except to check out new parts and cars, and to evade Rockport's law enforcement. It may make the game somewhat shorter, but giving players an option helps out Most Wanted tremendously.
The biggest addition to Most Wanted is actually nothing new to the Need For Speed series, as it was first introduced back in Hot Pursuit several years ago. Shockingly, police patrol the city you're tearing around in, and they'd like nothing more than to toss you in jail and tear apart your car. What does this mean to you? Well, for starters, if you're pushing 100 mph through a neighborhood or doing donuts in a busy street, somebody's gonna call the 5-0. This isn't necessarily a bad thing; in order to gain enough rep to challenge the Blacklist, a great deal of notoriety is required.
Catch a cop's eye, and the chase begins (with dramatic freeze-frame and suspenseful music first, of course). To escape, you'll need to pull ahead until the police's line of sight with you is broken, and then stay hidden until a "cooldown" bar fills up. At the beginning of the game, ditching your pursuers is easy, but over time, the "heat" level on a particular vehicle grows, indicating just how badly the authorities want to take that car down. This forces players to build up several cars at once to avoid launching a massive manhunt every time they're caught speeding. Rather than letting us have one uber-ride that gets boring after it's been customized just right, Most Wanted cleverly makes the player build a stable of well-rounded, unique vehicles, which scores well with me.
Speaking of well-rounded vehicles, the car lineup is much improved here. Instead of the tuning world's usual suspects from Underground 2, a greater variety of American and European rides are represented, from the Ford Mustang to the Lotus Elise. Sure, you've got your Mitsubishi Lancer Evo and Volkswagen Golf if you wish, but more exotic options are available, if you've got the cash, of course. Rather than just being given cars at certain points, you've got to shell out for a new ride. As usual, new cars become available after vanquishing certain Blacklist champions.
Eye candy fans, welcome to flavor country. Everything here is high-res and gorgeous, with very few clipping and pixelization issues. Even the cut scenes are slick and sexy; the idiotic comic strip-style "movies" in Underground 2 got the boot. Old-school FMVs make a comeback, but with a bright, washed-out, almost cel-shaded style reminiscent of the film "Sin City," which would sound strange if it didn't work so well. They aren't perfect, of course; Mia's acting is painful, and the bad guys are hilariously over-the-top, but nothing even approaches the depths of horrendousness charted by Brooke Burke and her asinine crew of posers.
On the audio front, the symphony of roaring engines and squealing tires is dead on, as always. Unfortunately, EA has once again ignored one of the Xbox's coolest features, custom soundtracks. For future reference by EA: I know you're proud of all the huge artists you've gathered for the game, and it's nice that you've got a diverse stable of musical styles represented. You even put some genuinely good songs in this time, but please, for the love of God, stop making us listen to EA Trax. At least Burnout 3 and Revenge had the option of replacing the awful music. Even if you must force EA Trax upon us, put more than 15 songs together. If I'm going to be playing your game for 30+ hours, I need some variety; a song that I kinda liked when I began playing became an agonizing ordeal a dozen hours later.
As solid as the single-player experience is, the multiplayer stumbles, especially the online. While there's nothing technically wrong, it simply cannot compare to the career mode. Admittedly, there are some neat touches; a global Blacklist is set up, tracking the cream of the crop and inviting heated challenges. Oddly, the "pursuit" aspect of career mode isn't touched upon at all. This would have injected a level of excitement and unpredictability to sometimes straightforward online matches. A suggestion to EA: The inevitable Most Wanted 2 (or whatever it will be called) should definitely feature some kind of "cops vs. tuners" online mode.
Do yourself a favor: stop putting money into "modding" your 1993 Honda Civic (y'know, the one with the shoddily-tinted windows, Japanese nonsense painted on the side, and obnoxious exhaust system) and spend the cash on Need For Speed Most Wanted. It'll fulfill all your outlaw tuner desires, with the added bonus of not making you look like a complete fool when you take it for a spin. Just a suggestion, that's all.
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