The thrilling police chases make Most Wanted well worth playing for fans of arcade-style racing games.
Most Wanted puts a slightly heavier emphasis on storytelling than most racing games, which is to say that it actually has a story. It tells a timeless tale of boy has car, boy loses car, boy climbs local street racing circuit to take out the punk who took his car and get it back. When you first start the game's career mode, a series of awesome over-the-top cutscenes sets up the story, in which you roll into the town of Rockport in your souped-up BMW M3 GTR looking for some action. It's not long before a scumbag named Razor Callahan cheats his way into getting your pink slip, and then it's up to you to defeat all fifteen members on the local street-racing blacklist one by one to challenge Razor and win back your wheels. The entire career mode is made up of your efforts to climb the blacklist and face Razor. Unfortunately, the cutscenes stop coming once you've made a bit of progress, and the story then moves along through a series of far less interesting text and voice messages you receive on your Cingular phone (preferably while on your way to Burger King or Auto Zone, or maybe to the drugstore to pick up some Axe body spray and Edge shave gel). Still, the cutscenes at the beginning do establish Razor as a totally despicable antagonist, making the prospect of climbing the list and taking him down all the more sweet.
Of course, you can't just face the fifteen people on the list in rapid-fire succession and win back your car in a matter of minutes. Each blacklist racer has certain challenges they put before you that you must complete before they'll deign to race a lowlife like you. There are three categories for their challenges: races, milestones, and bounty. The races you have to win come in numerous types, including straightforward circuits, sprints and time trials, as well as knockout races (in which last place is eliminated at the end of each lap), drag races and speedtrap races. The drag races control differently from all the other sorts of races; in these, you don't steer the car, but rather just tap the control stick to the left or the right to change lanes in that direction, while focusing more on properly timing your shifts. It's an interesting concept, but these races actually become more about memorizing traffic patterns, since unlike in every other type of race, which let you just plow right through traffic and continue along, one crash at high speed in a drag race means it's all over. Thankfully these races are relatively few and far between. A lot more interesting (and a lot more frequent) are the speedtrap races, in which winning isn't determined by who crosses the finish lane first but who racks up the highest cumulative speed when passing the speedtraps along the way. Winning a speedtrap race often calls for skillful use of the nitrous system each car comes equipped with, and the unusual victory condition puts a fun spin on the race as a whole.
However, while the races in the game are fine, the other primary aspect of Most Wanted's gameplay is so outstanding that you may end up feeling as if the races are just hoops you have to jump through in between the really good stuff. It's in the police chases that this game really shines. Each blacklister sets a certain amount of bounty you have to earn before they'll face you, and the way you earn bounty is by giving the cops a hard time and then evading them. You also need to complete a certain number of milestones, which are challenges that often require you to meet specific conditions during police chases, such as evading the police after a certain number of minutes or causing a certain amount of property damage. When the police first start coming after you, it's very easy to evade them; sometimes it's even a bit too easy, and you may often find yourself hunting for a cop instead of feeling like they're hunting for you. But as you continue to wreak havoc, the "heat" level on your car gets higher and the cops start making your life harder with faster cars, heavier SUVs, helicopters, roadblocks, and evil, evil spike strips. The higher the heat level, the faster you rack up bounty, but in order to actually earn the bounty, you've got to successfully evade the cops. If they manage to pin you down and bust you, you lose everything you've worked to earn. Seeing all the bounty you've racked up slip away can be frustrating, but the sense of exhilaration and relief that comes with successfully evading the cops after a good long chase makes it all well worth it.
In order to evade the cops, first you've got to get out of their sight, and then you have to successfully get through a cooldown period without being spotted again. If you're lucky, you'll be near one of Rockport's convenient hiding spots. Duck into one of these and you're safe. Otherwise, you've got to just bite your nails and hope a cop doesn't come your way before the cooldown is over. To help you shake off the cops, there are pursuit breakers scattered generously throughout Rockport. These are environmental elements you can use to distract or destroy the police cars on your tail, and they include things like drive-in movie screens you can crash through, radio towers you can knock over, and gas pumps you can detonate. The novelty of crushing police cars under a giant donut may start to wear thin after a while, but the pursuit breakers do serve to make the chases and the environment more interesting.
Speaking of the environment, Rockport is a picture-perfect city and it looks gorgeous on the 360. Just about everything in Rockport is clean and beautiful, from the farms to the lighthouses to the industrial parks and the skyscrapers of downtown. (It looks especially fantastic in high-definition, which also comes in handy for spotting evil, evil spike strips from a distance.) The city also provides opportunities for all kinds of driving; you can maneuver on the sharp corners of old town, open it up on the highway, or take it offroad at the country club golf course. The game's tight controls make driving all over Rockport a pleasure in any of the game's thirty-plus cars. Don't expect to have the cash in career mode to score all of them, though. If you're lucky, you'll win some pink slips from some rival blacklisters, but in any case you'll need to pour some cash into upgrading the cars you have instead of buying every car you might want. You can also customize the look of your cars with different paint jobs, vinyls, rims, spoilers, and other accessories, and in addition to making your ride look rad, this serves to lower the heat on your car so the police won't be quite so keen to bust you.
The game sounds even better than it looks. The EA Trax soundtrack is a mixed bag of mildly interesting rock-rap fusion and truly awful, soulless, corporate, derivative rock-rap fusion, but the custom soundtrack option provides an easy solution to this, and the cars themselves all sound great. The real highlight of the audio package, though, is the radio chatter you hear during police chases. The constant exchanges between police dispatch and the cars on your tail sound pretty authentic, and will often tip you off to what tactic the police are about to use against you, or where they may have placed an evil, evil spike strip to take you down. It's yet another element that helps make the chases so thrilling and memorable.
There's also a pretty lackluster online mode, but who cares about that? Ultimately it's the exhilarating police chases that make this game great. That and the satisfaction of finally making that poser Razor Callahan eat your dust. Man, that feels good. Take dead aim on Razor Callahan. Get him in the crosshairs and take him down.