Every good hardware launch needs a great-looking driving game. With the increased graphical power that new hardware tends to provide, we've got yet another test bed for just how realistic computer-rendered cars can actually look. For the release of the Xbox 360, Electronic Arts is serving up the latest installment in its long-running racing series, Need for Speed Most Wanted. Its high-speed races and police chases make for an extremely exciting game, which is further enhanced by the game's terrific graphics. This is one of those games that makes the previous generation of hardware look older than it actually is.
This racing game is broken up into multiple parts, but the largest part of the puzzle is the game's story-driven career mode. You'll start out as the new guy in town, attempting to work your way up in the city's illegal street racing scene. That scene lives and dies by the Blacklist, a top-15 ranking list that lets you know who the most notorious racer in Rockport is. The beginning of the game serves as a prologue. You attempt to run up against the number-15 racer, Razor Callahan, but this jerk isn't about to give up his spot. When you attempt to take him on, his boys tamper with your BMW and you lose the race, your car, and your freedom, as the cops quickly haul you in. Before long, though, you're back on the streets and starting fresh, thanks to the help of a mysterious woman named Mia.
After you're back out and starting over again, the game's story is conveyed mostly via voicemail and text messages from the various racers. But the entire prologue is delivered to you as a series of easy races broken up by full-motion video cutscenes. These scenes mix CG cars and environments with live actors. It's a neat-looking effect, but the best part of the whole game has to be the characters and performances, because the acting--especially from Razor and his homeboy Ronnie--is completely over the top and ridiculous. They're amazingly hilarious, and really make you wonder if the comedy is intentional or not. Either way, they look neat and they're fully insane, and it's a real shame that there isn't more of it.
Your career mode goal is to work your way to the top of the blacklist and take out Razor, who has used your old car to get to the top spot. You'll have to take on each member of the list, one at a time, but you'll also have to prove yourself by completing a series of races and other milestones before you can face off against a Blacklister. The races are standard and come in a few different varieties. Circuit races and sprints are as basic as they come. Knockout races eliminate the last-place racer at the end of each lap until only one remains. Tollbooth races are checkpoint races against the clock. Drag racing is similar to how it's been in the last couple of Need for Speed games, focusing more on proper shifting and dodging traffic. Speed-trap races put a series of speed cameras on the track. Your speed is clocked at each point and added to your overall score, and the highest score at the end of the track wins. Each of the race types is slightly different, but the speed trap and drag races are the only ones to make you rethink your racing strategy.
The racing is fun, but the game's artificial intelligence sort of gets in the way at times. The three computer-controlled racers are definitely programmed to keep it close. If you fall behind, they'll usually slow up or make a mistake that lets you regain the lead. If you're in the lead, the AI rarely fouls up, ensuring that there's usually someone on your tail. It makes most of the races really easy--we set the controller down for 20 seconds and were still easily able to catch up and win the race. However, the game suddenly gets harder when you hit the top five on the Blacklist. The cars still stay on your tail, but they know every shortcut and don't stay too close after they get ahead of you. It's a sudden and dramatic shift, and a more gradual difficulty slope would have probably worked better here.
In addition to your race victories, you also have an overall bounty on your head and milestones to achieve on the open streets of the city. The police are a major presence in Most Wanted. They'll occasionally appear in the middle of a race, which makes the races more hectic and exciting. But the real excitement comes from engaging in police chases outside of races. Once you've been spotted, it takes some fancy driving to lose the cops. Chases usually start with just one car on your tail. But as you resist, you might find 20 cars giving chase, in addition to a chopper flying overhead. Losing the cops gets tougher as your heat level rises. Level-one heat results in the appearance of just your standard squad cars. But by the time you get up to level five, you'll be dealing with roadblocks, spike strips, helicopters, and federal-driven Corvettes. A meter at the bottom of the screen indicates how close you are to losing the cops or getting busted. Stopping your car--or having it stopped for you by spike strips or getting completely boxed in by cops--is how you'll get busted.
To actually get away, you'll need to get out of visual range...and stay there. The initial evasion changes the meter over to a cooldown meter. You'll have to lay low and wait for that meter to fill up to end the chase. This is probably the tensest part of the entire chase, because you never know when two cops might blow around the corner and spot you, starting the whole process over again. It all sort of works like some sort of strange, wonderful cross between Grand Theft Auto's open city and Metal Gear Solid's stealth mechanic. All the while, you'll be acquiring heat on your car. This means that you'll have to keep a couple of cars around, because acquiring heat on one car lowers the heat on the others. Also, getting busted too many times can result in your car getting impounded, though you can avoid that by resetting the system whenever you get caught (if that's more your speed).
The game has more than 30 licensed cars that you'll be able to purchase or win from other racers. We started out with a pretty weak Chevy Cobalt, but eventually we picked up a much faster Supra, a new Covette C6, and so on. You can also find the Ford GT, a Ford Mustang GT, and other cars from BMW, Mitsubishi, Porsche, Lamborghini, Lotus, and more. You'll buy your first car, but as you move through the Blacklist, you'll get a shot at the pink slip of the other racer, letting you ease right in to the driver's seat of a new, tuned vehicle. Buying them from scratch means you'll have to apply enhancements yourself. You can buy a lot of different performance gear and a ton of visual stuff, like body kits, spoilers, vinyls, and so on. Applying visual upgrades lowers your heat level, making them pretty useful when the cops take notice of your faster cars.
Aside from the career mode, there's also a challenge series that gives you a car and a specific goal. Race goals are fairly easy to understand (just win, baby), but the pursuit challenges ask you to achieve specific milestones like blasting through five roadblocks or racking up a specific amount of property damage. You can also just dive into quick races, or go online. The online game is focused strictly on racing, which is a little disappointing. Teaming up to avoid the cops or letting some players drive police cars probably would have been more interesting. Still, the game offers sprint, circuit, and drag races for up to four players, and it keeps an online version of the Blacklist going so you can see who the most dangerous online opponent is. On the game-creation side, you can play in ranked or unranked games, and you can specify a disconnection or "did not finish" percentage, letting you manually weed out jerks. You can also turn off collision detection between players if you want to prevent people from just crashing into one another throughout the entire race, but that's only possible in unranked games. All in all, the online is functional, but without any sort of pursuit mode or other police-tinged races, it's awfully standard.
Most Wanted's graphics are one of the best things about it. The visuals certainly aren't perfect, but when you play it on the Xbox 360, there's no doubt that this is a next-generation game, especially if you're playing it on a nice HDTV. The car models look extremely sharp, and are rendered so that you can see the interiors of the cars through the windows--unless you've tinted them. The environments reflect off of the vehicles in a realistic fashion, and a lot of objects, like trees, cast realistic-looking shadows. The flashing lights of police cars also reflect quite nicely, and even the streets will reflect when the roads are wet. The city of Rockport is large, and there's a good deal of variety to be found on its city streets, its freeways, and its back roads. The customizable car parts give the game a real sense of style, and stuff like triple-colored paint looks really nice. The game makes heavy use of blurring effects when you're moving quickly, and this helps give the game a believable sense of speed. However, some of that sense is dampened by some skipping and stuttering that seems to show up in the horizon whenever you take a turn. We also noticed a few spots where textures would pop into view a little late. That visual weirdness holds the game back a bit--it's pretty noticeable--but it doesn't get in the way of the gameplay or anything like that. Even with those problems, this is still a great-looking game.
On the sound side, the game has outstanding engine noises that change depending on which car you're in and which upgrades you have. The rest of the sound effects are also of excellent quality. The game uses quite a bit of voice acting in the story, which is good. But the best voices come from the police. When you're being chased, you'll pick up the police band and hear them communicating and cooperating as they try to take you down. The cop talk sounds awfully authentic, and you'll eventually decipher the police's 10 codes and figure out when they're going to lay out spike strips, set up roadblocks, and so on. While the 10 codes used don't seem to be the actual ones the real police use (at least, that's what a little basic research told us), they sound good enough to be realistic. The music included is the standard mix of rock and hip-hop you've come to expect from EA's games, including a few songs from Styles of Beyond.
There's a lot to see in Need for Speed Most Wanted, but really, the best moments in the game come from the police chases, which are easy to get in to, hard to get out of, and addictive enough to keep you coming back, even if the racing itself doesn't stand out. It's also a shame that there aren't more insane cutscenes to drive the story along, but what's there is still most definitely worth seeing for yourself. All things considered, if you're in the market for an Xbox 360 and you require a driving game, Need for Speed Most Wanted is a great choice.