Review: A most needed return to form...almost.
For the most part, Most Wanted plays exactly like every NFS that's come out on PS2, so veterans can jump right in and play. That's not saying there's any differences though. The cars feel a bit heavier than before, and thus don't take corners as sharply. What's worse is most of them have a habit of getting jammed when you're trying to recover from a turn or evading police, so you can spin out really easy. That little issue aside, the cars handle really nicely and have just enough realism to them that none feel really out of control, but at the same time feel like untamed beasts when you tune one to the maximum and take it to the highest possible speeds. Yes, that's possible. It's done so well you can actually tell that the car has been tuned with new parts, something I didn't think happened much in either Underground games. The rubberband AI that's classic NFS is back, and like always it benefits a computer opponent more than you; they never get too far behind, but if you make a mistake and they get ahead, you will have a lot of catching up to do in a short period of time ? but it does make sure every race is intense and challenging. However the AI does make a lot of errors just like you, so it's pretty fair. And amusing when you see a rival car slam into opposing traffic. Though none of the tracks match the kinds found in Hot Pursuit 2 (none of the last 3 NFS games have come close), all of them are pretty good and feature numerous challenges, be it traffic, blind turns, and shortcuts that tend to be very dangerous but rewarding if you handle it right. There's even fake shortcuts that put you in even worse spots than before. Those are fun. And when the police get involved...hoo boy.
In the past, the police were opponents in the Need for Speed universe, but they always went away after a race and that was about it. Sure they got aggressive, but it was a one-and-done situation without any ramification in later races. In Most Wanted, they're not just window dressing ? they're miserable SOB's and will dog you quite often. Because of the open city, they don't go away after you finish a race; instead you have to evade them or risk being busted. Also, if you're just out cruising, they'll eventually find you on their patrol, or someone will file a complaint about you ? especially if you're reckless and enjoy slamming innocent drivers around or driving off the road. At first, they'll throw one or two cars out at you, and it's pretty easy to dodge, juke, and jive away from them, even take them out. After a while though, if you don't get away fast, they'll come in higher numbers and make things more difficult. Eventually, they'll set up roadblocks that are pretty tough to dodge and eventually bring out heavy artillery like spike strips and overhead choppers that are hard to get rid of. In short, these guys can be a nuisance.
A few things are set up to work in your favor though ? Pursuit Breakers. When in a chase, there's red triangles on the map ? hit them on the road, and they'll create destruction and block the path, letting you get away. You've gotta be careful with these though, as hitting one without anybody around wastes it ? the timing must be perfect. All the while, a little meter on the bottom of the screen will fill up, and once it goes all the way right, you'll be in 'Cooldown' mode, where the cops will lose sight of you and send a cruiser to your location. The easiest way around that is to use the open roads to go another route, or use the hiding spots scattered around ? or if your safehouse is near, you can head for that too. If you get spotted in Cooldown, the whole process starts again and usually by this time they'll send out backup which makes things even more difficult. You really can get into a pursuit that lasts minutes at a time if you're not careful. But then that might be what you want if you feel like reenacting your favorite chase scenes from the movies. Plus there's nothing like racing on a golf course.
If that little meter goes to the left...you're busted. Then, your car will have one strike against it once you're released, and again you can roam the streets. Get three strikes, and your car will be impounded (but if you have an free impound card from beating a Blacklist racer, this won't apply). If you have just one car...it's all over. So it's wise to not get caught. Meanwhile, like in real life, if you're causing chaos and getting the attention of police, you have a rap sheet. This rap sheet is all the info you need when dealing with your law-abiding friends, as you can find out what they have on you and plan accordingly. If you've caused a mess and evaded, you gain a bounty on your head, which makes the police presence more aggressive next time you get into a chase. The bounty you get sticks with whatever car you use, so switching rides to one with a lower bounty can ease the heat a bit. In addition to that, you can just hit up a performance shop and 'disguise' your car. After all, if they're looking for a green Lancer Evo with a certain setup, they won't pay as much attention if you change it to purple and install different visual parts. Why they don't just track by license number is beyond me, after all it just says NFSMW on it. It doesn't completely eliminate the bounty, but it makes it easier to deal with a pursuit next time. At least they've found a decent use for the otherwise superficial customization stuff.
It goes without saying that the pursuit stuff is the very best aspect of NFS Most Wanted. It's a bit unfortunate that most of the Career races are without Fuzz presence, but thanks to the achievements you need to complete in order to climb the Blacklist, you can still get into some insane chases which become even crazier when you have objectives to complete, like getting a specific bounty or dodge a certain amount of roadblocks, like in the Quick Challenges. It's here where the open city actually has some use, since you can pull all kinds of crap to escape, whether you hit the highway, hit the nitrous and hope to simply get out of sight, or find a curvy road and hope they hit other cars, even hit the Pursuit Breaker to make a giant donut fall off the local shop and smash your pursuer(s). Not only did EA bring back the police, they brought them back in a style that better not go away anytime soon. It just goes to show the missing ingredient to Underground was the boys in blue attempting to break up the action. The only thing that does suck is when in a race, the cops tend to ignore your opponents and focus all their attention on you, making it a bit unfair at times. Otherwise, this is the most exciting thing to happen in a Need for Speed game since Hot Pursuit 2.
After the neon-lit streets of Underground, perhaps the visuals of Most Wanted won't be as impressive. The car designs are great and still have that shiny look like NFSU, but otherwise this is the complete opposite of Underground. In this case, the city is much grittier, and nowhere near as glamorous as Bayview. But the change to daytime makes for a different sort of visual touch, like sunlight getting in your eyes, and a larger emphasis on environment rather than pastel colors. On the other hand, the sense of speed is absolutely ridiculous, especially when you hit the nitrous and things just whiz by ? but it's hella fast without it as well. Sometimes the framerate does drop in a pursuit chase, especially when you hit a roadblock. Though the cinemas are all FMV, they're done in a style that looks more game-like than straight video, and they use some pretty nice artistic touches ? you'd almost think it was real CG if you didn't pay attention or watched the NFSMW Black Edition bonus DVD. Still, you don't want the PS2 version for graphics; if you have the means you should get the much prettier Xbox 360 version instead. As is though, it looks good on PS2, especially for a game with such a large city that never stops to load once you're out there.
On the audio end, there's a glut of decent voice acting, and some good stuff here and there. Josie Maran does good as you'd expect (but does a much better job of being really flippin' hot), but everyone else is average at best, though few of the Blacklist racers actually say anything unless they send you the odd voice mail. The guy who plays Razor does a damn good job of being that smarmy guy who gets under your skin because he knows you're at a disadvantage, but sometimes he comes off as pretty cheesy. On the music front, EA has stuck in a bunch of forgettable Trax (I know there's a Disturbed song, otherwise I couldn't name any of the rest), some of which was already in either Madden 06 or Burnout Revenge. However when you're in a chase, the music goes away, replaced by a standard chase theme and the constant chatter from officers over their radios, which aren't just there for show, but also to tip off their next moves, which is important, you know. It also lets you know when the police start looking for you, so just hop to the safehouse and lose the heat unless you want to cause trouble. Rounding it out is basic engine revs and skidding tires, along with the sounds of slamming into stuff. Pretty basic things, though it's satisfying to hear a rival car hit a truck as you fly by them.