The Need for Speed series has undergone numerous facelifts throughout its illustrious history, and none moreso than Need for Speed Underground in 2003, when the series changed focus to illegal street racing. Both Need for Speed Underground and its successor went on to become best sellers, and one would be forgiven for assuming EA would follow this up with another sequel. In an uncharacteristic move, EA have actually changed the direction of the series again with Need for Speed: Most Wanted. Was this the right move to make or should EA have stuck to what it does best?
There are a lot of changes to the title - for example, EA have put a bigger emphasis on story this time, which is a bit of a surprise but it works better than you'd expect. The main mode of the game is the career mode in which you assume the role of a guy out for revenge against the top ranked racer in the world of street racing, Razor. Razor sabotaged your ride and used it to climb to the top, so there is fairly good reason for wanting to defeat him. There are a few plot twists through the career mode as well, so the presentation is much better than we'd expected from a Need for Speed title.
Obviously you're not able to challenge Razor from the beginning of the game and you need to work your way up the blacklist to challenge him. The blacklist contains a list of fifteen of the top street racers and you need to fulfil certain challenges to be able to challenge each of the racers. However, The blacklist requires tasks to be completed before you can challenge any of the racers and these come in the form of races and milestones. The variation isn't too bad initially, but does become a bit repetitive after a while. The races in particular don't have as much variation as we'd like.
When you defeat a black list racer you move your way up the list and you can then choose from two rewards which include performance upgrades, visual upgrades and other bonuses. The best bonus by far is the pink slip to your opponants car, but you won't always get the car so it adds an element of chance and excitement to the career mode. Players also recieve money for defeating the black list racer which can be used to purchase extra vehicles. So whilst the career mode may seem wildly different to Need for Speed: Underground it is just cleverly disguised.
There is a large vehicle variety and the game includes over thirty licensed cars for your purchase and upgrading pleasures. The highlights include the Supra and Corvette but there are some fairly useless vehicles that you won't spend much time with including the VW Golf, but these vehicles still come in handy when you've got nothing else to drive at the beginning of the game.
Aside from the career mode, there is also a challenge mode which assigns you a car and a goal. The goals are fairly basic and include race goals or pursuit goals such as outrunning the police. There is also a quick race option as well as full Xbox Live support. The online mode doesn't really feature much emphasis on pursuit which may disappoint a few people, but there are plenty of racing options. The online options include sprint, circuit and drag races for up to four players so there is plenty of race modes. There is even an online version of the blacklist so you can prove your notierity online. It's still just a little disappointing that the pursuit options are seemingly forgotten in the transition from offline to online.
One of the coolest additions to the game comes in the form of speed breakers, speed breakers are activated just by pressing a button and slow time down, similarly to the Matrix. Whilst this isn't exactly an option that you'll be selecting as often as you could it still does come in handy and is especially helpful for those tricky corners.
Bringing the police back to the Need for Speed series is one of the best moves EA made for Most Wanted; the game feels that much more exciting when there is police chasing after you. The career mode is well presented which means you won't get bored of the main single player mode. The car roster is small though, which could be a problem for some people but there are a lot of really good cars in the roster though which compensates for the small number.
There is car damage in the game but it isn't very detailed which is a little disappointing. Windscreens will crack but that's about it. Personally we'd love for the series to put a little more emphasis on damage, even if it just remains visual. The real disappointment to the game comes with the AI, which sitll isn't that smart even after all these incarnations. The game still features rubberband AI and the police often don't make decisions that feel very realistic. In the heat of the pursuit you're unlikely to realise these issues, but in the race modes (which aren't as enthralling) you will curse the screen when you're on your third perfect lap and you clip something near the end of the race and end up coming last. Overall though, these issues are fairly minor and the game retains a superb sense of speed and it really is quite entertaining outrunning the police - and seeing the incredible lengths they will go to just to stop you.
Graphically, the game looks incredible and the large city environment is much larger and more immersive than the one in Need for Speed Underground 2. The fact that the city can load and stream off the disk without any loading is still a remarkable technical achievement. The FMV is all surprisingly high quality and effects such as rain will even splatter onto the screen (although this will startle you at first until you realise what it is). The car models all look great, and we haven't encountered any frame-rate problems.
The sound in the game is of a high calibre as well, the voice acting in the game works surprisingly well and each engine has a unique sound that changes depending on which car you're in. The soundtrack takes a backseat though, but mostly consists of rock. The most impressive part of the sound is that during the game the police will use radio codes to communicate with each other, if you play long enough you will actually become scarily able to identify what each radio code means, which is a good warning for what is about to come.
The career mode will last at least fifteen hours, and there is a fair amount of variety so we could see a reason to go through it again. The quick race option is always good for a quick play through and the online play is fairly addictive, and we found there were plenty of people online to play against, all trying to improve their blacklist rank.
Need for Speed: Most Wanted is one of the best racing games of 2005. It feels so polished and the presentation is really high class. The career mode is long and expansive and the FMV works surprisingly well and tells a story that is surprisingly decent for a racing title. Anyone who was turned off by Underground 2 has a reason to come back to the Need for Speed series, as this is one of the best games in the entire series.
There is also a collector's edition for the PlayStation 2 of the game entitled Need for Speed: Most Wanted: Black Edition. The game includes two exclusive cars; a '67 Camaro and a tuned M3, as well as eight custom rides, additional races, challengers and a bonus DVD. In exchange for this though the Playstation 2 version doesn't include online play.