For the release of the Xbox 360, Electronic Arts is serving up the latest installment in its long-running racing series, Need for Speed Most Wanted. Its high-speed races and police chases make for an extremely exciting game, which is further enhanced by the game's terrific graphics. This is one of those games that makes the previous generation of hardware look older than it actually is.
This racing game is broken up into multiple parts, but the largest part of the puzzle is the game's story-driven career mode. You'll start out as the new guy in town, attempting to work your way up in the city's illegal street racing scene. That scene lives and dies by the Blacklist, a top-15 ranking list that lets you know who the most notorious racer in Rockport is. The beginning of the game serves as a prologue. You attempt to run up against the number-15 racer, Razor Callahan, but this jerk isn't about to give up his spot. When you attempt to take him on, his boys tamper with your BMW and you lose the race, your car, and your freedom, as the cops quickly haul you in. Before long, though, you're back on the streets and starting fresh, thanks to the help of a mysterious woman named Mia.
After you're back out and starting over again, the game's story is conveyed mostly via voicemail and text messages from the various racers. But the entire prologue is delivered to you as a series of easy races broken up by full-motion video cutscenes. These scenes mix CG cars and environments with live actors. It's a neat-looking effect, but the best part of the whole game has to be the characters and performances, because the acting -- especially from Razor and his homeboy Ronnie -- is completely over the top and ridiculous. They're amazingly hilarious, and really make you wonder if the comedy is intentional or not. Either way, they look neat and they're fully insane, and it's a real shame that there isn't more of it.
Your career mode goal is to work your way to the top of the blacklist and take out Razor, who has used your old car to get to the top spot. You'll have to take on each member of the list, one at a time, but you'll also have to prove yourself by completing a series of races and other milestones before you can face off against a Blacklister. The races are standard and come in a few different varieties. Circuit races and sprints are as basic as they come. Knockout races eliminate the last-place racer at the end of each lap until only one remains. Tollbooth races are checkpoint races against the clock. Drag racing is similar to how it's been in the last couple of Need for Speed games, focusing more on proper shifting and dodging traffic. Speed-trap races put a series of speed cameras on the track. Your speed is clocked at each point and added to your overall score, and the highest score at the end of the track wins. Each of the race types is slightly different, but the speed trap and drag races are the only ones to make you rethink your racing strategy.
The racing is fun, but the game's artificial intelligence sort of gets in the way at times. The three computer-controlled racers are definitely programmed to keep it close. If you fall behind, they'll usually slow up or make a mistake that lets you regain the lead. If you're in the lead, the AI rarely fouls up, ensuring that there's usually someone on your tail. It makes most of the races really easy -- we set the controller down for 20 seconds and were still easily able to catch up and win the race. However, the game suddenly gets harder when you hit the top five on the Blacklist. The cars still stay on your tail, but they know every shortcut and don't stay too close after they get ahead of you. It's a sudden and dramatic shift, and a more gradual difficulty slope would have probably worked better here.
In addition to your race victories, you also have an overall bounty on your head and milestones to achieve on the open streets of the city. The police are a major presence in Most Wanted. They'll occasionally appear in the middle of a race, which makes the races more hectic and exciting. But the real excitement comes from engaging in police chases outside of races. Once you've been spotted, it takes some fancy driving to lose the cops. Chases usually start with just one car on your tail. But as you resist, you might find 20 cars giving chase, in addition to a chopper flying overhead. Losing the cops gets tougher as your heat level rises. Level-one heat results in the appearance of just your standard squad cars. But by the time you get up to level five, you'll be dealing with roadblocks, spike strips, helicopters, and federal-driven Corvettes. A meter at the bottom of the screen indicates how close you are to losing the cops or getting busted. Stopping your car -- or having it stopped for you by spike strips or getting completely boxed in by cops - is how you'll get busted.
To actually get away, you'll need to get out of visual range...and stay there. The initial evasion changes the meter over to a cooldown meter. You'll have to lay low and wait for that meter to fill up to end the chase. This is probably the tensest part of the entire chase, because you never know when two cops might blow around the corner and spot you, starting the whole process over again. It all sort of works like some sort of strange, wonderful cross between Grand Theft Auto's open city and Metal Gear Solid's stealth mechanic. All the while, you'll be acquiring heat on your car. This means that you'll have to keep a couple of cars around, because acquiring heat on one car lowers the heat on the others. Also, getting busted too many times can result in your car getting impounded, though you can avoid that by resetting the system whenever you get caught (if that's more your speed).
Most Wanted's graphics are one of the best things about it. The visuals certainly aren't perfect, but when you play it on the Xbox 360, there's no doubt that this is a next-generation game, especially if you're playing it on a nice HDTV. The car models look extremely sharp, and are rendered so that you can see the interiors of the cars through the windows -- unless you've tinted them.
There's a lot to see in Need for Speed Most Wanted, but really, the best moments in the game come from the police chases, which are easy to get in to, hard to get out of, and addictive enough to keep you coming back, even if the racing itself doesn't stand out. It's also a shame that there aren't more insane cutscenes to drive the story along, but what's there is still most definitely worth seeing for yourself. All things considered, if you're in the market for an Xbox 360 and you require a driving game, Need for Speed Most Wanted is a great choice.
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