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.
The game's characters act in a hilarious, over-the-top manner that makes the cutscenes one of its high points.
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.
Getting away from the cops is huge fun that'll keep you coming back for more.
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.