Need For Speed: Most Wanted
Need For Speed: Most Wanted first arrived on the scene in 2005, hot on the heels of Underground 2. It once again placed you in the shoes of an illegal street racer, this time in the streets of Rockport. An early encounter with Sergeant Cross makes it clear that racers are not welcome in the city and that the police will be out in full force. Disaster strikes after you race against a somewhat unscrupulous opponent and your character loses just about everything. Enter Mia, played by Josie Maran, who puts you back on track and assist you with your climb up the blacklist in a quest to become the most wanted.
When I first played Most Wanted back when it was released it was on PC, but EA released the game on just about every format known to man. Having previously completed it, I decided to give it another spin, now more than six years later to see if it still holds up. The game was one of the early Xbox 360 titles and still looks respectable even now. The city of Rockport is quite large and packed with scenic locations. In contrast to the two Underground titles before it, all the races take place from early morning to late afternoon and never during the night. This gave the game a unique visual style that still looks cool even today. There are a few occasions where it starts to rain which is a nice touch but that’s about it as far as weather effects go. Driving around Rockport you’ll notice a lot of visible product placement for brands like Burger King, Castle and Axe. While quite visible, it did not bother much, but I know some people absolutely despises this kind of advertising. The game features full motion cut-scenes, which was a first for the series and part of what made the game so memorable. The rivalry between you and Razor, who is the scumbag that stole your car, is acted out in completely over the top fashion that make it as funny as it is corny. Sergeant Cross and his underdressed side-kick also make a few appearances, plus Mia is given enough screen time to justify her no doubt large paycheck. The combination of CGI and actors worked well and holds up nicely.
There are a lot of cut-scenes in the beginning as everything is explained to you, but after a while things settle down and the story progresses mostly through text messages and voice mails. The meat of the game is the career mode where you have to work your way up the blacklist in order to reach Razor and get your ride back.
He has somehow managed to weasel himself up to the number one spot using your car while you were in jail so payback is meant to be personal. Getting to the top of the blacklist isn’t as simple as you might think as each of the racers have certain criteria, called milestones, that you have to complete before they will even look at you. While this makes the game longer and more challenging, it also bogs things down a lot. After completing a set number of race events and finishing the milestones, you will still have to rack up a high enough bounty before you can take on a blacklist racer. Sadly, these showdowns are often anti-climatic. Beat them however and you move up the list, only to repeat the whole process only with harder targets that take longer to accomplish. This can turn the game into a grind and it took me close to 30 hours in order to finish everything 100%
The biggest feature about Most Wanted was obviously the return of the police chases. These start out ridiculously easy, but as your car accumulates heat things get progressively worse. Smashing through roadblocks, dodging spike strips, helicopters and police cruisers while tearing through the city is a lot of fun at first but can turn into a chore after a while. You see, to evade them you first have to drive out of their sight in order to enter a cool-down period. If you are not spotted during the cool-down period, the pursuit ends and you are credited with all the milestones and bounties you have racked up. The milestones can be anything from bumping into a certain number of police vehicles, dodging a certain amount of roadblocks or being chased for a certain length of time. The problem is once you are caught you get none of these milestones, receive a nice fine and can get your car impounded if it has enough strikes on it. As harsh as this is, it wouldn’t have been so bad if the police AI didn’t go so crazy at higher heat levels. Rockport must have a police force larger than the military force of a small country and each officer is as suicidal as the last. If you have ever seen anyone get attacked by a swarm of killer bees you’ll have an idea of how a typical police chase looks in this game.
You have a few tricks up your sleeve in order to defend yourself against the cops, but they can still bust you within seconds if you are not careful. “Speedbreaker” was a new feature for the series where at the touch of a button time slows down and the weight of your car increases. This is to help you take tight corners, smash through roadblocks and dodge spike strips. The meter is finite, so don’t think you can spam it all the time. Next up was the “Pursuit Breakers” which is basically marked parts of the scenery that can be smashed through in order to slow down the police. However new patrol cars have the habit of appearing out of thin air just ahead of you so while the pursuit breakers might get a few cops off your back you will soon be feeling like a bunny that is chased by a pack of dogs again. This makes it very hard to enter and stay in cool down mode on higher heat levels, especially when a helicopter chases you. Special cool-down spots aid in filling this meter faster, but can be hard to reach unnoticed. If the police manage to bring your car to a standstill you are busted and you will be amazed how quickly you can go from traveling full speed down the highway to a dead stop as ten police cars pile on top of you.
For the actual racing, you are stuck playing against opponents that will use every cheat in the book. Whether you drive a perfect lap or limp around the track hitting every wall on the way, these guys will rocket past you on the last few corners even if they were miles behind. This was supposed to make races more exciting, but it just serves to annoy. With later races taking up to ten minutes to complete it is a huge waste of time to redo them when an opponent suddenly grows wings and closes the distances between you in seconds. Nothing less than first place counts, which just adds further frustration to the rubbish AI. As for the tracks, you have circuit races, sprints, lap knockouts and drag races. The drag races are still nothing more than a frustrating obstacle course where you have to get from point A to B without hitting all the civilian cars intent on getting in your way. At least the new events introduced in this game offered some more fun. In tollbooth races you have to speed through a set number of checkpoints before the timer runs out. It actually reminded me of Outrun and since it is just you against the clock with no cheating AI to spoil things its way more fun to play. Speedtrap races on the other hand tasks you with getting the highest accumulated speed for all the traps you cross. It can get tricky with the amount of tight corners and civilian traffic on the road but remains one of my favourites. Street X races thankfully bit the dust, which is no big loss, but the lack of drift racing was a shame.
The Xbox 360 version of the game doesn’t offer much in the way of improvements over the PC version. The visuals didn’t look quite as sharp as it did on a computer that had decent specs, but it was still a step up from previous generation consoles. The achievements are a bit of a letdown as there are only fifteen of them, all tied to beating the blacklist racers. This is challenging, but not very creative. I would have liked to see a few achievements tied to the “challenge series” which is a set of challenges set outside the career mode. At least none of the achievements are tied to the multi-player mode seeing as the online lobby shut its doors in late 2011.
The customization aspect of the game was drastically toned down from what was possible in the Underground games. All the visual customization only serves to drop the heat level of your car. The performance packages also streamline the process of upgrade your car, but by winning the pink-slips of blacklist racers, it’s almost unnecessary to purchase these. Beyond my initial car purchase all my other rides were won and often had better upgrades than what was currently unlocked. Any damage to the cars was all purely cosmetic so beyond cracking windows or scraped paint jobs your cars are invulnerable.
The streets of Rockport can be driven around ala GTA, but since all the race events can be activated from a menu, there is little reason to explore. It helps to familiarize yourself with good pursuit breaker locations, but everything is shown on your map in any case. The audio has held up well, although the licensed soundtrack was the first to be switched off. Even all these years later the songs still sounded repetitive, but if it’s your first time playing you might enjoy them. The police chatter is hilarious and listening in as they plan their tricks for capturing you ads to the tension. You will want to leave this on if only to have a heads-up on any spike strips that lay ahead.
Need For Speed: Most Wanted was a classic back in its time and even all these years later held my attention for a second playthrough. It requires a lot of patience however, and finishing it can be a very time consuming effort. It also caused me a lot more rage than any recent racing games so watch out for that. With the multi-player lobby closed, games like Need For Speed: World Online available for free and new games in the franchise released on a yearly basis there isn’t much reason to go back to this one. I enjoyed the trip down memory lane, but was relieved when I finally completed it again. At this stage it’s nice to have for rounding out the collection, but I don’t’ think it will draw in too many new players. It is interesting to see how much the series has changed and how much has remained the same.
*Review originally published 2012.