EA's Need for Speed series was on hand earlier this year for the PSP's launch with Need for Speed Underground Rivals. That game, along with other subsequent racers, like Ridge Racer, Burnout Legends, and Midnight Club 3: DUB Edition, have all helped set a benchmark for how driving games on the platform should be. So it is with some disappointment that we find ourselves with Need for Speed Most Wanted 5-1-0, a fairly meek street racer that only does a marginal job of bringing the new concepts found in the latest Need for Speed game on consoles to the PSP. It's not all bad, mind you, as the game supports the full roster of multiplayer features for a PSP game, and there's quite a bit of content to play through. But if you were hoping for a step forward from what Rivals offered up, you won't find much of one here.
Regardless of what the subtitle might suggest, Need for Speed Most Wanted 5-1-0 isn't some kind of street-racing adventure set in the city where they shot The Mack. This is, at its core, a basic street racer with all the usual toppings, like a variety of unlockable cars, both performance and visual tune-ups, and rival street racers to duke it out with on the streets of...well, wherever it is that this game takes place. Most of this takes place in the career mode. This career isn't an awful lot like the one you might have experienced on consoles, mind you. There's no storyline to speak of, but there is a blacklist consisting of the top 15 drivers, and you have to beat each and every one to move up in the rankings. Unlike on consoles, there's no open-ended city to drive around in, though that's not necessarily a detriment here, since that could have made playing on the go a far more unwieldy thing. Instead, you'll simply play a series of event races before taking on the boss racer in a one-on-one duel.
It's a pretty simple progression that throws a decent amount of race variety at you in the process. You'll do everything from straight circuit races, to Burnout-style elimination races, to full-blown racing tournaments. As you pass each race, you'll earn both cash and respect, which you'll need to earn cars and take on the boss racer, respectively. The lack of any storyline does make things a little duller than you might hope for, as there's really no interaction with the boss racers. These boss racers are just anonymous faces that you can put to the car you're racing against, and that's about it. Still, the career mode is quite lengthy, and won't leave you hurting for things to do.
The actual racing itself is mostly quite good, if a bit uneventful at times. You'll find yourself racing against up to three opponents across a decent number of tracks. All the tracks have shortcuts you can find, though it isn't terribly often that the computer-controlled racers are able to find these shortcuts. The cars all have a good feel to them, with just the right amount of weight balance to create mostly realistic slide outs and drifts, and the game's sense of speed is generally quite good. It might take a while to really feel like you're going fast though, as it takes at least a few hours of play before you can start unlocking the seriously fast cars, and even the upgrades you purchase for the slower cars don't make them that much faster. There is also a new "speedbreaker" mechanic that lets you slow down time for a bit to make tight turns, and it makes avoiding potential traffic obstacles a little easier. But the actual number of times you'll really need to use this can be counted on one hand, so it doesn't really affect the game in any meaningful way.
One interesting addition made to both the console and PSP game is the addition of police chases. Your "heat level" is measured throughout every race, and by doing the sorts of heinous things that street racers do with their cars (speeding, wrecking, bumping other cars), your heat level will increase, and the cops will steadily begin to try to run you off the road to bust you. Cops will just start appearing on the track, and as you bob and weave, trying to shake them off, your heat level will just keep going up. Roadblocks will start popping up, as will tougher cop cars, though you'll never really find yourself dealing with more than a few cops at once.
For the most part, cops are merely a nuisance in this game, and rarely a big problem. The cop artificial intelligence isn't terribly good, so it's not too hard to get them to run into one of their own roadblocks or something equally lamebrained. What's also deeply perplexing about the whole cop mechanic is when you are challenged to outrun them. There was a clear and present reason for doing that in the console games, but here it's a worthless endeavor. As you play through and defeat races, you'll be earning thousands of respect points. The bonuses offered for outrunning the cops are minimal, at best, and completely inconsequential to you reaching your overall respect goal. So really, the whole mechanic is pointless.
Apart from the career mode, there are quick play, multiplayer, and car-customization features at your disposal. The car-customization stuff is pretty decent, and the performance upgrades do have a big impact on how your car drives. Unfortunately, cash is usually in short supply, so it can be tough to justify purchasing the array of visual upgrades for cars, since they really don't affect anything beyond aesthetics. The multiplayer is both ad hoc and infrastructure-based. The ad hoc is predictably easy to play, but the infrastructure has some problems. For one, it requires an account with the EA Nation online service, and anyone who has played an EA online game this year has probably told you about how arduous a process that can be at times. Once you actually get into a game, you'll likely run into some lag issues as well. We saw lots of cars jumping around the track in disjointed fashion, even those with seemingly excellent ping times. On the rare instance we played a race where things weren't jumpy as all get-out, the multiplayer experience was quite fun. Just be aware that you're more likely to run into laggy, off-kilter games than smooth ones.
Need for Speed Most Wanted 5-1-0's graphics are easily its best feature. This is a smooth-running racer no matter how much is happening onscreen, and all the details, from the cars to the tracks, look about as good as most any racer on the platform. The cars are definitely the best part, mind you. Though there aren't a ton of licensed vehicles in the game, all the ones that are in there look just like the real-life cars, and the visual upgrades do look quite nice, even if it is tough to justify purchasing them. The tracks are beautifully lit with a sort of late-afternoon, early evening haze that gives the scenery an almost serene look at times. There are some ugly details, of course. Ground textures are pretty nasty-looking and it pays not to look at things like roadblocks or ancillary traffic up close, as they're just not nearly as clean-looking as everything else is. But aside from those blemishes, you'll likely be impressed with what 5-1-0 does visually.
The audio is less impressive, though not bad by any means. The soundtrack consists of more licensed artists than you can shake a stick at, including such notables as Bullet For My Valentine, Disturbed, DJ Spooky featuring Dave Lombardo, Mastodon, The Perceptionists, Prodigy, The Roots and BT, and Styles of Beyond. It's an eclectic mix of music that seems more akin to one of your music-snob friend's esoteric mix tapes than a licensed game soundtrack, but it totally works in spite of itself. The sound effects, if anything, come across as overly tempered. You don't get that visceral thrill from hearing the loud roars of tuner engines or big crashes into the scenery or other traffic, simply because none of it really sounds impactful, even with the volume on the PSP turned all the way up. The effects themselves are certainly OK, but they all could have used a little more oomph.
Need for Speed Most Wanted 5-1-0 has its appealing aspects. The ad hoc and infrastructure multiplayer modes are always welcome features, the career mode is quite deep and lengthy, and car fanatics will enjoy tuning up and customizing their rides. But even with all that said, 5-1-0 really doesn't do anything better than other racers on the PSP, and in some cases, it does certain things worse. Above all else, though, 5-1-0 just isn't as thrilling or exciting as a street racer should be on any platform. It's a decent racer with some enjoyable components, but it's not a must-have for any PSP-owning racing fan.