Review: A most needed return to form...almost.
Though it actually started as a standard racing simulation on the ill-fated 3DO, for years, Need for Speed was the epitome of pick-up-and-play arcade style racing, letting you get behind the wheel of exotic, high-powered sports cars that few of us will ever be able to afford let alone drive in reality, and put them on tracks in equally exotic and/or unique locales. In time (namely, 1998's Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit, which is when the series actually started getting good), EA added The Law into the mix, adding yet another layer of insanity to the average race; not only did you have to deal with other opponents, but also put up with the cops who were hell-bent on taking you out, by any means necessary, be it roadblocks, spike strips, or even an odd bomb-dropping helicopter. It made Need for Speed stand out from the glut of arcade racers that overflowed the PlayStation era. The culmination of the NFS philosophy didn't come until the PlayStation 2 however, when Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit 2 released, and became not only an instant classic, but also the standard bearer for arcade racing, which stood until Burnout 3 came around. 3 years later though, HP2 is without question one of the best racers on the PS2, and has really withstood the test of time.
But then, just as quickly, Need for Speed went Underground. Clearly influenced by the sudden rise in street racing awareness (thanks mostly due to that Vin Diesel guy), NFS Underground took the series in a controversial direction ? perhaps by a need to mix things up; after all, HP2 was the ultimate NFS game. Gone were the Jaguars, BMW's, Lamborghini's, and Porsche's that made NFS stand out, replaced by a bevy of common, everyday vehicles and semi-exotic Japanese sports cars like the Nissan Skyline and Toyota Supra ? all of which could be tuned with new parts and decked out using a deep customization system. And even if the direction of the game seemed perfect for it, the police were nowhere to be found. The change was jarring to many NFS fans, but for EA, it was a winner, seeing that the game was the #2 selling videogame of 2003, right behind Madden NFL 2004. In other words, at the risk of driving (no pun intended) off their core audience, they ended up finding a whole new one. It was still a good game, and the core gameplay was great, but it lacked the magic of past entries. Last year's Underground 2 built on this, adding more cars and events, and bringing in a Grand Theft Auto style city which you could freely explore and find hidden races, shops, and cash; as well as a more fleshed-out (if pretty much stupid) storyline about the street racing culture of Bayview. Which pretty much sucked.
It was only a matter of time though before EA would bring back the things that made Need for Speed so good back on PlayStation ? the Underground theme couldn't last forever. However instead of just making a sequel to Hot Pursuit 2, they instead combined things from HP and Underground (with emphasis more on Underground's concepts), making a racing game that keeps the tuner racing intact, but tosses in some exotic cars (but not a whole bunch), puts things back in the daytime, and most importantly, brings back the police in stunning fashion ? evading them has never been more entertaining or as in-depth. Dubbed Need for Speed: Most Wanted, this brand new chapter makes up for the errors of Underground 2, and hopefully will bring back old fans who missed ripping up the roads in expensive cars while avoiding cops all the while. It doesn't quite reach the level of HP2, but since the whole Underground concept is likely here to stay even if the tuner fad has diminished a bit, it will certainly do in the long run. There's one glaring and conspicuous omission that will frustrate PS2 gamers, but otherwise, NFS: Most Wanted is an excellent return to form for this very popular franchise.
Like its predecessor, Most Wanted features a street-racing culture storyline for the Career mode, though this time there's actual purpose to it and not just fluff. In short, you arrive into the fictional city of Rockport with a highly tuned BMW, out to make a name for yourself in the racing scene there. You wind up dealing with a turdface named Razor, who's mouth runs faster than his own ride. He cons you into a race, and things go well until your car breaks down and you lose. Since it's a pink slip race, you lose your ride, and end up getting arrested by the police and tossed in the slammer. It's here you begin a 'relationship' with a dame named Mia (played by Josie Maran). She gives you the scoop on Razor ? his boys rigged your ride to break down, and the jerk has used it to rise to the #1 spot on the Blacklist, which is the 'official' rankings of the city's racing scene. Thus, your job is simple ? rise up the Blacklist, reach Razor, and extract some revenge on him. So there's certainly a purpose to the Career mode in the motivation to bring down a real scumbag, though there's certainly a bit of mystery surrounding Mia as well, which you learn of as you climb up the Blacklist. All of the story is presented in a throwback manner ? FMV. No, not pre-rendered stuff that you might find in Final Fantasy, or anything like that. I mean Full Motion Video, the kind of cheesy crap you would find on Sega CD back in the early 1990's that was once thought to the the future of gaming. Only it's not actually that cheesy; on the contrary, it's pretty good.
Climbing the Blacklist is rather simple. Each racer has a set of requirements needed to challenge them, in three categories. You need to win a set amount of race events, reach specific milestones during a police pursuit, and get a required Bounty level, which rises with each law you break and when a milestone is reached. Once you fulfill the criteria, you'll be able to challenge a Blacklist driver. Beat them, and you'll move up the ranks, and earn a couple goodies from them, such as cash, unique upgrade parts...even their own car when you can then tune, customize, and race against higher-level competition, which range from basic vehicles like a Chevy Cobalt, all the way to a super-fast Lamborghini, which will certainly bring smiles to the hardcore NFS fan who misses the days when it was all about the exotic car in exotic locales. Thankfully, there's not an SUV in sight this time. The Career mode offers a large amount of events; some familiar, and some new. As you'd expect, basic races of both circuit and point-to-point variety are here, as are NFS trademark Lap Knockouts and the now mandatory Drag races that came around in Underground. However the Drag races are a bit different this time around; rarely are they straight shots down a road, but now have blind turns, hills, and other obstacles. So if you hated them before, you'll just love 'em in Most Wanted.
In addition to these familiar setups are two new events that you'll frequently encounter. The first one, dubbed Tollbooth Time Trial, is basically a checkpoint time trial, with the Tollbooths acting as the markers. Much more entertaining is the Speedtrap races. With this, the goal isn't about finishing in first place, but instead getting the maximum speed through speed cameras. Whoever has the highest combined MPH, judged by their speed when going through the camera checkpoints, is the winner ? not the guy who finishes the event first. There's a far different kind of intensity to these events, when top speed is far more important than opponent AI ? you'll probably spend time finding the perfect line for max speed at the right point, and that N2O will be really handy at the last second. You'll also deal with the speed cameras when achieving milestones, as you will be required to hit them at a certain speed to complete the challenge. Unfortunately the Drift Racing from Underground is nowhere to be found, though perhaps they don't fit in this particular street racing scene; though being able to drift in a Porsche would have been fun. Thankfully though, those stupid Street-X races (or whatever they were called) from Underground 2 are nowhere to be found, so it balances things out I think.
Like NFSU2, Most Wanted's fictional city can be explored at will, Grand Theft Auto style. To be honest, I thought the open city of Underground 2 was awful and ruined the game, thus I feared the worst with Most Wanted since there's no way they'd go backwards. When you take basic things like performance shops and then hide them throughout the city rather than making them appear on the map right from the start simply is not a good idea. To top it off, you had to do a lot of driving to reach events, and that got to be a pain after a while, especially when some races were numerous miles away. A menu-based system has worked in racing games for years, ya know. Thankfully, EA Canada heard the complaints and criticism, and did something about it. Now in addition to simply driving to events, you can use the Blacklist menu either inside your safehouse or in-game and instantly hop to whatever you want. It's glorious. You do have to go out and drive to a car shop or performance shop, but both tend to be not far from your home base so it's not a big deal. Unlike Underground 2, the performance shop combines everything into one place; no more hitting up different places for parts, upgrades, and customization. And hey, it's right there on the map! When you want to trigger pursuit events through the menu, it automatically places the police on you, saving the trouble of actually getting their attention.
Aside from the meaty Career mode, NFSMW offers a pretty large set of individual events. Alas one thing you won't
find in the PS2 version is online play. It was once supposed to appear, but quietly was dropped at the 11th hour. Most likely Microsoft and EA struck a deal, since the only way to play it through the Internet is via Xbox Live, on either the Xbox or Xbox 360. Since the PSP version of Most Wanted does include online, it doesn't take much to figure out the scoop on this situation. However you can still play split-screen multiplayer. In conjunction with the Career mode via unlockables, you can partake in all the events in a Quick Race format set to your own specs. If you happen to have the special Black edition of Most Wanted, a horde of customized cars are available to use here, including a fully tuned up BMW (like the one Razor jobbed from you) and a '67 Camaro which is exclusive to the Black edition. Finally, there's a set of fun Quick Challenges to play for a quick fix. Almost all of them deal with the police in some form, whether it's about causing as much damage as possible, 'tagging' as many cops as possible, dodging or plowing into a roadblock, avoiding spike strips, or doing a Tollbooth Time Trial while being chased. There's roughly 70 challenges in total to tackle with a random car for each one, so if the Career is getting boring, or time is short and want a quick race or two here's your fix.