Reviewed: December 6, 2005
Released: November 15, 2005
EA’s Need For Speed line of games is one of the longest standing racing series on the consoles. Second only in years to the Test Drive series, EA has successfully cranked out over a dozen or more iterations of the popular franchise over the period of a decade – with versions covering every aspect of racing, from the series exotic street racing roots, to off road and rally racing, and right into the tuner culture of the recent Underground titles.
While the early last-generation NFS titles were showroom examples of technology and excitement, the string of games accompanying the current generation of consoles has not been quite as impressive. Don’t get me wrong; all of the NFS titles have been massively successful with regard to sales – the Underground series alone is one of the best selling racing games ever. But just because the masses are buying up your work does not mean it is new, or fresh, or even any good – just ask Britney Spears!
Seriously though, on a critical level the NFS series of late has seemed more than comfortable simply following the latest trends rather than starting them. In the shadow of competitors like Criterion’s (and ironically, now EA’s own) Burnout, and Rockstar’s Midnight Club – who continually push the boundaries of the genre with each subsequent release – EA’s NFS series has simply been spinning its wheels for the past three or four years.
It appears as though EA has is realizing that a change is needed – so in true EA form, rather than really go out on a limb and try something entirely new, they have opted to take the best parts of their two most popular current-generation games and meld them into a single super-game of sorts called Need for Speed Most Wanted. And you know what…it works.
As mentioned earlier, with Most Wanted it appears that EA took a long look at their long-running Need For Speed franchise, decided upon the two most pivotal titles, selected the best features from each of those titles, and then wove them into one cohesive game. The two games in the running were 2002’s Hot Pursuit and 2004’s Underground 2, and in order to fully explain the gameplay of Most Wanted, we need to cover a little background on those two titles.
In 2002, Hot Pursuit was an old school Need for Speed title through and through. Featuring only the most gorgeous super-exotic rides, Hot Pursuit was made for those with a taste for the finer things in life. A bevy of beautifully rendered courses spanned a variety of different environments – and each was thick with police cruisers chomping at the bit to run you and your fellow racers off the road and straight into the pokey.
The police would work in unison – with the other cruisers, a spot-on dispatcher, even air support – to team up on you, box you in, and get you off the road at whatever cost. It was a great design, and resulted in some of the most amazing edge-of-your-seat racing. Pursuit was extremely well received by critics and gamers alike, and is still considered one of the best arcade-style racers of all time.
But times were changing, and suddenly – as a result of the popularity of movies like The Fast and The Furious – the public was taking more of a hands-on role in racing by tuning and customizing their own daily drivers and racing them on the streets. EA picked up on the trend, and shifted gears with the Need for Speed series to embrace the movement.
The result was the Underground series, which did away with the exotics and featured a stable of mod-your-own rice burners and daily drivers. The first release was an experiment of sorts in the genre – it featured a bunch of neat elements, like body modifications and the like, but in the long run it was really a bit thin and uninspired. With the second release, EA listened to the fans and blended in a Midnight Club-inspired open city structure, well as making a few modifications to the progress structure of the game.
But the times they are a-changing again, and the tuner culture fad is quickly becoming a thing of the past. So EA has decided that the time has come to once again shift gears with their series, and hence we get Most Wanted.
Most Wanted takes the open-city structure and daily driver modifications of Underground, and mixes it with the super-exotics and intense police chases of Hot Pursuit. Best of all, EA has taken these proven elements, and rather than simply use them as-is; they have substantially improved them in each and every way.
For instance, while Underground 2 did feature the free-roam city of Bayview, between you, me, and the fencepost…it wasn’t all that good. Sure, Bayview was big and impressive – but it was also really, really tedious to drive from hot point to hot point through the empty, boring streets. Most Wanted’s Rockport is so much better; it is equally as big and beautiful as Bayview, but features heaps of shortcuts and sites for jumping, things that might have breathed a bit of life into the boring town. And if you ever get bored with driving the streets of Rockport, simply tap the D-pad and you have quick access to menus that let you check maps or even hop directly to events, or back to the safe house without having to wander aimlessly.
And while Hot Pursuit may have featured some kick-ass police chases, they always took place while you were already in a race with a handful of other competitors. So, the police’s duty was simply to add another obstacle in your path to top the competition. In Most Wanted, the developers have embraced the police chase and built a whole mechanic around it, with an almost RPG like “Heat” rating system that builds and grows based on your past record, current infractions, and even your car’s unique visual appearance.
To make things even better, the game doles out a series of goals and requirements based on achieving a certain “Bounty” level gained by causing mayhem during chases. These goals could never be met during a race, so you will be forced to go out and initiate a free-roam chase. Running for the sake of running…it’s a beautiful thing.
But I haven’t even touched on one of the coolest aspects of Most Wanted; the movies…the full motion video (i.e. FMV) movies. Yes, the FMV movies. It took a good 20 years, but people the FMV movie has finally been done right with Most Wanted – so right in fact, that it took me a while to realize that FMV was what I was seeing. And the reason is, because the FMV’s are heavily filtered and then seamlessly blended with CG backgrounds to give an impressive and surreal look that rivals anything we have seen from Hollywood. The fact that these movies feature honest-to-goodness competent actors and actresses – not the least of which is the very beautiful Guess Jeans and Victoria’s Secret model Josie Maran – makes them even better. Really, the only downside is that there are not more movies in the game – I know it sounds strange, but it is true.
The movies help to tell the career mode storyline – which finds you, a new driver in town, taken under the wing by the beautiful Mia (Ms. Maran) and scheduled to race against a fella named Razor. But just as the race starts, Mia calls you up on the phone to tell you that you’ve left a pool of oil at the starting line – most likely the result of nefarious doings by Razor’s crew. The engine lasts just long enough for the police to get in full chase and then suddenly poop out – landing you in the pokey and your beamer impounded.
Mia bails you out, but by then Razor has taken possession of your vehicle and has used it to climb to the top spot on the town’s blacklist – a fifteen member list of the best and most notorious racers in town. Your job is to buy a new car and use it to make your way up the blacklist, to once again line up against Razor and redeem your honor.
But each of the fourteen other blacklist members will have to be conquered first, and each has his or her own requirements before they will even accept your challenge. Their requirements will include winning a certain number of minion street races, gaining a certain bounty level (gained during police chases), and meeting certain “Milestones” (crashing so many cop cars, being clocked above a certain speed at stationary radar units, etc.). The strange thing is, most of these requirements are much harder than the blacklist races themselves, and you will often find yourself repeating minion races multiple times, but beating the blacklist racer by a half-minute or more.
Like I mentioned, the cops are always on the lookout for you, and as this Heat level rises, you will have to either change your vehicle’s appearance – or hide the car altogether and start using another – or else the cops won’t give you a moment’s respite. This Heat mechanic really adds a lot of fu by forcing you to keep rethinking your MO on the streets, and giving you incentive to keep buying and designing cars.
While the career mode is the crux of the game, there is a whole plethora of other arcade-style single race and mission modes to dabble in. But the career mode is more than enough to keep gamer interested with it variety of racing modes – including simple head-to-head circuit and point races, to cool variations like Tollbooth and Speed Trap where you win based on highest average or clocked speeds.
The vehicle physics are much tighter and more realistic than in previous NFS games, with a greater sense of weight shift and drifting. The actual sense of speed is a little off, but that has been an issue with the NFS series since the early days, and can easily be remedied by using one of the excellent hood or bumper views.
All in all, Most Wanted is one of the coolest racing games on the market. It is not without its flaws – some I have mentioned already, some I will mention in subsequent sections – but it really is a fun take on the racing genre and a befitting tribute to a decade or more of great racing titles.
Most Wanted is a visual dichotomy; while the backgrounds are bright, sunny and drop-dead gorgeous, the cars themselves look jagged and blurry and slightly out of proportion. It seriously looks as if the designers couldn’t get around the anti-aliasing of the subject car, so they simply applied a softening filter to the car to blur the sharp edges away.
But like I said, the backgrounds are great, and it is so nice to see the EA giving us daylight again – I was getting quite sick of the super-slick sheen and neon that they kept forcing upon us in Underground.
Overall, the city and surrounding area has a distinctly European flavor to it – which is fitting given the Vancouver home of the developers has similarly European architecture.
EA always provides a strong audio offering, and Most Wanted gets the royal treatment. From some downright scary-realistic engine sounds to the constant blaring of sirens and incessant radio chatter – Most Wanted will definitely give your ears a healthy workout. In fact, the constant noise will probably drive you batty after a while. I can’t count how many times my wife asked me to turn down the sound on this one – and she was in the other room!
Speaking of the radio charter – Most Wanted nails the whole interactive radio chatter thing better than any other game out there. I mean, I haven’t spent enough time in a police car to compare, but it really does sound like these cruisers in constant communication, quickly narrowing down your location and then calling in for the backup.
There are continuous updates of street names and block locations (which can be verified from the street signs), including some honest-to-goodness excited mispronunciations (and subsequent corrections) and even requests to “go mobile” to avoid letting you eavesdrop.
Critics used to cite Hot Pursuit as having some great interactive chatter bits – but I was always turned off by the straw-boss, good ole’ boy hillbilly shtick that seemed so out of place in Pursuit’s tropical locales. No, Most Wanted sounds like real people trying to nab real criminals. It is definitely cool. No surprise, with the solid acting comes solid voiceovers in the FMV sequences. Any ethnic dialects and accents sound genuine, appropriate non-demeaning.
And as far as the EA Trax soundtrack – well, I am reaching my limit with EA’s sound choices. I mean, the Burnout soundtrack was pretty good, but Most Wanted features your standard chunky rock and rap radio fare that, when coupled with the constant racket already emanating from the speakers, ends up sounding like a hodgepodge of white noise.
EA’s Xbox Live online support is terrible. With EA’s requisite four players-maximum play, there should be no excuse for the massive butchering of graphics and framerate that comes with EA’s online play. While we always appreciate developers including online play in their games – EA’s promise of Xbox Live supports is a veritable joke. We all know it, we all accept it, and NFSMW is the same as every title before it – so I’m not even going to count their online offerings.
But even without the online play, NFSMW is an incredible value. With the open-city structure, 15 blacklist competitors to chase after, an infinite amount of minion races and police chases to get wrapped up in, and countless cars and courses to choose from – Most Wanted is about the closest thing to a GTA-inspired sandbox racer you are ever going to find.
And then there are the FMV-CG hybrid movies featuring the very beautiful Josie Maran, which alone are worth the price of admission. It just goes to show ya’ – if you get good actors and good scripts, then FMV can be kinda cool.
How can I be a proper Burnout fan boy, when I am so hooked on this darn Need For Speed game? I have never much cared for the NFS line in the past, and along comes Most Wanted and suddenly I’m crossing the fence? What is this world coming to?
Seriously though, NFSMW is one of the best NFS games to come out in a long time. The amalgamation of the open-city concept of the Underground games with the police chases of Hot Pursuit make for a sort of “best of” of the NFS history.
NFSMW might not hit all of the technical benchmarks established, even years ago, by Criterion’s Burnout games – I definitely found every bit as much (if not more) enjoyment playing Most Wanted as I did with this year’s Revenge. In fact, as much as I hate to admit it – I think that Most Wanted has a much greater staying power than my beloved Burnout series ever will.
Could it have used some more visual polish? Sure. How about better online play? Yes, indeed. Most Wanted could have used a lot of work in the presentation department. But who cares? Most Wanted rocks, pure and simple, and we couldn’t have asked for a better final hurrah on the old black box. Kudos to EA – you might not have given gamers something entirely new to look at – but it is a hell of a lot of fun.