Review: Street racing speeds its way into the next generation.
Based on marketing and expectation, Project Gotham Racing 3 is the featured racing product for the Xbox 360 early in its life. This being said, EA Canada's Need for Speed: Most Wanted needs to be distinguished from the aforementioned Bizarre Creations product for two reasons: 1) it is an arcade-style street racer that is much more stylized, and 2) it holds itself up against next generation expectations. Does this mean that NFS: MW qualifies as a ?Triple A? title? Well, no, not by a decent margin, but it remains very functional, playable, and entertaining for those who are into high-impact racing and a great sense of speed.
There have been a slew of previous Need for Speed titles, and many of them brought something to the table; some of the noteworthy features were police pursuit, roadblocks, dynamic environments, and a screaming sense of speed. For this iteration on the 360, the people at EA Canada have effectively picked the bones of those games and then augmented some flashy technical muscle to create an entertaining alternative to the Project Gotham's and Ridge Racer's of the world? the 360 world, that is.
What is also notable about this version of Need for Speed is that it goes, very directly, towards a street-racing style. In doing so, the single-player experience is built around gaining ?street cred? by knocking off other racers. This single-player style shares many similarities to games like Midnight Club 3, especially since you ? eventually ? explore your options of street racing in a large, open-ended city. In cruising around the city, you can take place in various point-to-point or drag races that will build your respect level amongst your racing peers; this is a key since you need to have certain levels of respect to challenge key racers on the ?blacklist.? This list is derived from a bunch of racers who belong to a gang that jacked your ride at the beginning of the game. In order to challenge the head honcho of said gang, you have to best all of the underlings to show you can truly hang with the big boys. In climbing the ranks of racers, you'll also have to hit certain milestones (and have various bounties against your head) in order to proceed; the races you participate will help with this, but also completing various challenges and timed sequences can achieve many side goals.
The police play quite a prominent role in your experiences within the city, and they will often pursue you quite heavily if your heat level is getting out of control. Essentially, the game will elevate your wanted level if the fuzz start catching onto your activities, and you might eventually have streams of cop cars tailing and ramming you, helicopters scouting up above, and spike chains being deployed to blast your tires. If you get caught, your ride gets confiscated, but you can just keep resetting/reloading the save if you want to avoid this from happening (kind of like GTA). Still, you'll want to have several cars around in order to compensate for confiscated vehicles.
When sitting behind the wheel, NFS: MW feels appropriately ?arcadey,? and you'll get a great sense of speed when blowing past other racers or ditching the fuzz. The racing action controls in fairly standard fashion, as you have the thumbstick for steering and the triggers for acceleration and braking. The cars respond reasonably well to inputs and they don't float or drift any more than you might expect. You can also use your nitrous oxide boost to blow past the competition ? this is street racing, after all. The boost gets replenished during your race and it is helpful to pick your spots when you want to make your move on an opponent.
A small wrinkle in the gameplay comes from the ?speedbreaker? ability. This is yet another game mechanic that is ?borrowing? from the Max Payne bullet time effect. In Most Wanted's version of this, you can control your car and aim it more precisely in the slower time, and this is meant to help you take tight corners, get under or around obstacles, and just generally avoid potential pitfalls. Also similar to Max Payne is that this game uses a white meter to represent the amount of ?speedbreaker? you have left. Whether this effect is useful or not depends on the skill of the racer. It is kind of handy to save yourself or avoid some danger against high-level racers, but online it is not used at all so you can see that good racing is really what is needed to succeed.
When racing against AI opponents, you'll find some reasonable competition, but I did get flashbacks of Mario Kart (sans the heat-seeking red shell) for the game's rubber-band style of opposition. It never feels as if you're blown out of the water when you're behind, and you can usually focus in to catch a racer. Conversely, when you are being pursued by someone, they will almost always be on your tail and never get tripped up by an obstacle. Still, the AI remains competent and doesn't just roll over; the higher level guys will give you a good dose of challenge. You'll have to beat all 15 guys on the blacklist to get all 1,000 achievements ? just so you know.
The cars available in the game are all licensed, and they number more than thirty, all told. You'll start with basic stuff like a Chevy Cobalt, but eventually there will be many options available to you such as Corvettes, Porsches, Lamborghinis, BMWs, and Mustangs. Since your racer experiences the taste of ?the pink slip? early in the game, it is good that you can also claim other dudes' rides later on, which eliminates the need for tweaking your equipment under the hood. That being said, you can still undertake the task of fixing up your speed machine, and there are many options available. While the stuff inside the car obviously affects performance, it is noteworthy that the body kits and external features have a purpose, as they allow you to drop your heat level ? a nice touch.
Taking the action online is reasonably enjoyable for NFS: MW, but it is lacking in a couple of areas. The racing is actually pretty good and lag is nowhere to be found, but the omission of some kind of inventive ?pursuit? mode or player support above four racers is a bit annoying. But again, it plays well online and there are plenty of Xbox Live specific features ? matchmaking, connection checks, leaderboards, race modifiers ? that make the experience functional. As an aside, I must provide a Memo to EA: Stop making users sign in through your servers. Unless you plan on doing something truly inventive with actual ?hosted? servers, don't bog down the experience with redundant sign-ins and clunky menus. This is a gripe for many of their sports titles, as well.
Visually, your eyes won't melt the way they do when viewing a game like PGR3, but NFS: MW still manages to impress on a next-generation level. There's a saturated effect that everything in the game has, and the lighting filters and sun flare really help give the game a sort of urban and ?otherworldy? look; it's not like you're in some bizarre locale, but the game just has a sense of intriguing style to its presentation. Car models are very detailed, and they appropriately reflect many of the nearby objects and the sun from up above. Also of note is the speed blur that you experience when executing the nitro boost; this is counter to the extremely focused look of the time-altered speedbreaker effect ? each of these look crisp and convey the power and precision they are striving for.
The audio aspects of the game reach a similar level of quality to the visuals. You'll have access to the usual array of tunes from EA Tracks, but you can always just throw your own stuff on with the ubiquitous custom soundtrack feature. The cars sound appropriately powerful when jumping off the line or crashing through each other, plus the blare of police on your tail gets the pulse going. The police also provide some nice chatter on the radio, as they call out codes that represent what's going on and how they're going to take you out ? neat stuff. There are some cutscenes in the game as well, with the featured actress being Josie Maran (Van Helsing, The Aviator)
. All involved in the story cutscenes don't do a bad job, and the acting is actually kind of funny, in a campy sort of way (note the cops chasing and frisking you, as well as the heavy who you have to eventually take out).
On the whole, you can't really knock too much about what Need for Speed: Most Wanted brings to the table. Sure, the game has some faults that can be observed in its online space and artificial intelligence, but you are still provided with a lengthy career mode that will keep your attention for a good while. This release may not quite hit the stride that PGR3 achieved, but does manage to entertain with the sum of its parts.