Need for Speed Most Wanted Hands-On

EA shows off its latest entry in the NFS franchise at the Infineon Raceway. We go for a test-drive.

SONOMA, Calif.--Electronic Arts showed off Need for Speed Most Wanted this weekend in Sonoma at the Infineon Raceway. On Saturday, the well-known Northern California track played host to the Formula Drift championship, the sole professional drift championship in the world (which EA sponsors). One of the key activities of the show was a contest revolving around the latest version of Need for Speed. Attendees were able to compete for the best time in a tollbooth race, which challenged them to make it through a series of checkpoints with the best time. We managed to try out the short demo of the game to see how the latest iteration of the popular racing franchise is shaping up.

The limited demo featured three race options--tollbooth, sprint, and blacklist--but only the tollbooth race was available for the contest. The goal of the race was simply to finish the race before time ran out. Reaching tollbooths spread out along the route can extend your time provided you reach them in time. However, the race wasn't as straightforward as it sounds, since you appear to be very popular with local law enforcement officers, who pop up during the latter part of your run to ensure a dramatic finish.

The short demo offered a solid, albeit brief, feel for the gameplay in the upcoming racer, which differs from the last few Need for Speed games. The most notable elements that were outside the norm were the "speed breaker" feature, the police presence, and an interactive environment. Speed breaker is a bullet-time effect that gives you added control during some of the ridiculously close calls you'll encounter as you weave through traffic and obstacles. When you initiate it, the action will slow down for a short period of time and let you better navigate turns or simply avoid obstacles such as traffic.

The police-chase feature, which appeared in the latter part of the race, sends a wave of highly enthusiastic law enforcement vehicles out to stop your high-speed shenanigans. The cars poured out from just about everywhere and formed miniature roadblocks directly across our route. The last standout aspect of the demo was the interactivity with the environment. The demo featured some Burnout-style destruction as we plowed satisfyingly through the tollbooth in one of the roadside areas. The control was as rock solid as you'd expect from a Need for Speed game, despite the fact that the game was still a work in progress.

In Most Wanted, the fuzz will try to stall your flight at the most inopportune times.

The visuals in the Xbox game that was being used in the contest appeared to be a mix of the stylized elements in Need for Speed Underground and the more traditional art style seen in other Need for Speed games. While not quite as shiny as the Xbox 360 game we saw at the Electronic Entertainment Expo, the game still purred on the Xbox and featured well-done track detail and all sorts of special effects to heighten the experience. The now de rigueur speed blurs were in full effect, as were buckets of particle effects for when you scrape other cars or the environment. A cool, subtle touch is the blue filter that washes over the screen when you're spotted by the police. In addition to the obvious audio cues, the blue tint lets you know you need to haul tail and watch your back.

Though the demo was brief, we were pleased by what we saw of Need for Speed Most Wanted. The game is fast, it looks good, and it has a solid racing core. We're eager to see more of what it has to offer, especially the new blacklist race. Need for Speed Most Wanted is slated to ship later this year across current consoles and the Xbox 360. Look for more on the game later this week in our coverage of EA's press event, which will include a live On the Spot broadcast from EA's Redwood Shores offices.

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