Need for Speed Most Wanted Preview

We hit the road with EA's latest entry in the Need for Speed franchise in our exclusive preview. Does the series manage to hold on to its edge?

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Need for Speed Most Wanted is EA's latest entry in its long-running Need for Speed series. The game aims to marry the cool street vibe from the last two games in the franchise--the first two Need for Speed Underground titles--with the more classic cop-chasing vibe that had been a key part of the series until the recent change in direction. Though we've had the chance to get a hands-on of the game over the past few months, we've been curious to see how the above coupling would turn out. Fortunately, we recently got our hands on work-in-progress versions of the current-gen incarnations of the game and had the opportunity to put the game through its paces, to see if EA managed to pull off the latest evolution of the venerable series.

Quick race events let you climb into awesome rides right off the bat.

The game will feature three main game modes that are pretty much in line with what the franchise has offered before. You'll be able to try your hands at career, challenge series, and quick race. The career mode is the now-standard story-style mode that casts you as a new street racer in the town of Rockport, hankering to make the local "blacklist" a numbered collection of the top 15 street racers in the city. When the game starts, it appears that you're going about your business the right way, by challenging the 15th driver on the list to a race. Unfortunately, he tampers with your car, and you lose. To add insult to injury, the miscreant takes your tricked-out car and challenges the other racers on the blacklist...and makes it to the top position! Meanwhile, you're relegated to obscurity--and stuck with a crappy car, to boot. Your goal is simple: revenge! To get even with your car-stealing, top-ranked nemesis, you'll have to work your way up the blacklist and take on the other 14 drivers before squaring off against your foe and your old set of wheels. As with the previous entries in the NFS series, you'll participate in various race types to work your way up the ladder. The big wrinkle this time out is that besides improving your standing by winning races, you'll have to improve your rep by performing such notorious acts as running away from the police.

The challenge series mode requires you to race your way through 68 challenge events that alternate between pursuit challenges, which require you to avoid hazards such as roadblocks and police, and tollbooth time trials, which simply require you to make it to assorted tollbooth checkpoints to extend your time so you can make it to the end of a race. This may sound straightforward, but the challenge is wicked at later levels; be prepared to work your skills. Finally, the quick race lets you hop in to a randomly generated competition after a few button presses.

In addition to playing the aforementioned game modes, you'll be able to check out the fleet of vehicles you've amassed over the course of the game in the "my cars" mode. Xbox and PC owners will have the additional perk of online multiplayer modes that let you compete against friends online. Though the online modes haven't seen any radical changes and have added some of the Most Wanted-specific race types to the rotation, the development team has worked to make sure the online experience is improved over last year's game. As a result, you can expect to find races faster and more efficiently. You'll also be able to set up private races that will bar players with a high "did not finish" rating, which should help make online games less annoying.

Your high-speed antics will invariably make you a target for local law enforcement.

As far as gameplay goes, NFS Most Wanted lives up to the NFS heritage by offering fast-paced arcade-style racing with some perks. The big addition is the "speedbreaker," a bullet-time effect that lets you slow the action down and better take some of the hairpin turns that will come up on you like lightning during a race. Outside of that new mechanic, you'll find a new set of elements tied to the police presence in the game. As you're racing, you may find yourself in the unfortunate position of being targeted by local law enforcement for your speeding ways. While you could just pull over when you hear the police siren, the game is called "Most Wanted," not " Most Compliant"--so you can plan on trying to lose the fuzz often and with impunity. Not only is this a blast, but it feeds into your rep--so it's all good. The trick to making the most of this new aspect of the NFS experience is managing your "heat" in the game, which is basically affected by the time and effort the police put into nabbing you. Too much heat makes it extremely tough to get anything done; not enough, and you get no respect and can't progress. You'll be able to figure out the right level of heat by keeping a stash of different cars or tweaking your existing vehicle with the now-standard assortment of upgrades seen in the NFS games. If all your cars are hot, you'll just have to hide out for a while and let yourself cool down, tracked via a handy onscreen gauge. If you're ever curious about the specifics of your rep, you can do a bit of computer hacking and have a gander at your rap sheet, which tracks your notoriety.

When it comes to dealing with the police while driving, you'll have a whole world to lose them in...if you're careful. You will always have to be aware of your surroundings when dealing with the police; as you gain more heat, law enforcement employs some pretty wicked vehicles to stop you. In the unfortunate event that you're nabbed, you'll be fined, and your car confiscated, until you can liberate it by either waiting a set amount of time or using an impound marker. The most painful aspect of this is the processing fee to get your car out of the lot, which is a percentage of your car's value.

Control in the game is customizable, but the core layout works fine. Besides the basics of steering, accelerating, braking, e-braking, nitrous, and adjusting your view, the new speedbreaker feature will be mapped to a button as well. Finally, the D pad will have four actions--one mapped to each direction. You'll be able to enter shops and engage events by pushing up, check the world map by pressing left, access the SMS system by pressing right, and check your blacklist by pressing down.

The cars in Most Wanted look great, especially once they're tricked out.

The visual presentation in the game is shaping up well across the board. The look of the game blends equal parts of the stylized, glossy look of the Underground games and the more realistic look of the traditional NFS games. The end result is a cool hybrid of those elements. The city of Rockport is a massive burg that will offer you all manner of nooks and crannies to explore and crazy roads to test your driving skills. The game features a varied color palette that gives the world a richer look. The warmer color scheme, coupled with the day settings, works well and helps maintain the wide-open feel. Better still is the sense of speed you get while driving, which is impressive. The environments also feature a measure of interactivity; you'll find you'll be smashing the heck out of structures, which yield a satisfying amount of deformation. The cars themselves are a shiny assortment of wheels that are rendered with a generous amount of polygons and buffed with an array of clean textures.

One sketchy aspect of the game's presentation are the cinematics that tell the career mode's story of revenge and redemption in the street-racing set. Though the story is fine, the vignettes that move it along offer a "love it or hate it" presentation that's a cross between community theater and the emoting seen on the old Sega CD and 3DO games. The cheese factor will either appeal to or turn off players. We fall into the camp of those who appreciate a good dose of cheese in our games--we can appreciate wigs and accents--but some may find the "badittude"-fueled antics a bit much. As far as the specific breakdown on platforms goes, the various platform versions of Need for Speed Most Wanted fall into the expected breakdown for visuals. The PC and the Xbox lead the pack with crisp visuals and solid frame rates, while the PlayStation 2 and GameCube are next, with both platforms having their unique strengths and weaknesses on the visual front. The PS2 is a touch grainier, while the GameCube's frame rate still needs some tightening. Fortunately, the versions we played weren't quite done; the team still has time to smooth things over.

Driven by revenge, you'll stop at nothing to get your wheels back.

The audio is pretty typical for a Need Speed for Speed game, and makes use of the expected assortment of car noises, eclectic music, and plenty of voice work. The mix is fine and does its job of pulling you into the gameworld. The various bursts of chatter you'll hear from your radio are convincing and do a good job of keeping you up on what's going on. As with most recent EA games, you'll find the requisite assortment of EA Trax tunes drawn from a variety of genres and featuring music from artists such as Jamiroquai, Paul Linford, Chris Vrenna, The Roots, and BT.

Based on what we played so far, Need for Speed Most Wanted is looking like a promising evolution of the series. The gameplay keeps the action lean, and it sticks to the basics that have always given the series considerable charm. The visuals are well done and the game runs well, which ensure that the experience will be easy on the eyes. If you've been a fan of the series, odds are you've signed up for the game already; if you're new to the series or have dropped off, you'll find a respectable amount of content to warrant a look and hold your attention. Need for Speed Most Wanted is currently slated to ship in early November for current-generation platforms, and later that month for the Xbox 360. Look for our review of the game soon.

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