You can’t blame EA for sticking to a good formula. You can almost hear the businessmen in a board meeting somewhere looking at the sales numbers for the Need for Speed Underground series and asking for another sequel. And while it’s hard to expect a miracle from this kind of number crunching, derivative game development, Need for Speed: Most Wanted does have some bright spots.
It’s not that Most Wanted is a bad game, technically or stylistically. It’s just that it feels like EA tried to take the good parts from a bunch of different games and slap them all together. The result is a street racing game where you run from the cops as you tune and customize your car, trying to gain rep and take on the biggest, baddest names out there. Oh, and there are some hotties thrown in for good measure. In short, it’s just about the most generic street racing game possible.
The first few minutes of the main story mode are a little confusing as they set up the background story. The stylized, heavily filtered cut scenes are interesting, but the plot itself is hardly compelling; you’re a driver who breaks into a new town, but in the big showdown with the toughest guy on the street, your sweet BMW is sabotaged. Now you have to start from the bottom, taking on the 15 racers in the blacklist one by one.
The problems with this story are manifold, but the main one is that it’s just bad. Listen EA, the Fast and the Furious movies don’t have good plots. People watch those movies for the cars and the chicks, not the story. While you’re trying to emulate the rest of the formula, don’t try to emulate the storytelling. It’s also a little strange that the reason you’re fighting through the blacklist — to get your ride back — becomes completely irrelevant about halfway through, when you’ve earned enough money to just buy a new BMW and trick it out exactly like your old whip. By the time you reach the top of the blacklist, you could buy an entire car dealership. The story is really just there as an excuse to put flames on the sides of cars and race them dangerously through the streets.
The racing itself is solid, and though it gets repetitive there’s enough to do that you shouldn’t get bored. If you’ve played either of the Underground games you pretty much know what you’re in for. Event variety is good, ranging from straight sprints to laps to drags and timed tollbooth (checkpoint) races, but most of them feel the same. Since you have to complete a certain number of challenges to take on the next blacklist rival, each race seems to be more of a speed bump than an actual event.
And the racing itself, well, this isn’t Gran Turismo and it’s not trying to be. All of the cars are licensed, but they stick to the road like a Williams F1 and accelerate like a top fuel dragster. Brakes are option for the most part, and in fact most of the events aren’t about racing but rather holding down a button and watching your car go fast. This isn’t to say the challenge level is low. The first half of the blacklist is insanely easy, and quickly conquered with no tuning and only a couple of cars. After that, things get tougher, you’ll need to find faster cars more often, and there is a certain amount of challenge to the races even if it isn’t about finding the right apex and exit speed for each corner.
The other half of the game is pursuit. Each blacklist rival will also require pursuit challenges of you, ranging from a certain level of “bounty” (the score you rack up in pursuits) to breaking through roadblocks, wrecking police cars, or flying through photo ticket zones at certain speeds. Often, the pursuit challenges are harder than the races, and the bounty adds a twist because it follows both you and your cars. As a car builds up bounty, the police begin to recognize it and get more aggressive about taking you in, requiring you to switch from car to car while things cool down.
The unfortunate thing about Most Wanted is that it just doesn’t seem like it was made for the PS2. The environments are beautifully detailed and really feel alive, and the cars are modeled almost perfectly, but it doesn’t matter how good a game looks if things bog down when the action starts. Framerates are decent for the most part, until you get to some of the more serious police chases. Get five or six cops on your tail and it’s like watching a PowerPoint presentation. Just hope it doesn’t rain too, which makes the game slower than a stutterer in a spelling bee. It does become an issue when one wrong move means you’re busted, and EA should have made more changes to the PS2 version to avoid these problems.
The ambient sounds are excellent, from engine sounds to the police radio, and you’ll be treated to another installment of EA Trax. You can decide if this is a good or bad thing, but if you’re not into pounding bass and heavy guitar, you’re pretty much out of luck. You can turn off the songs you don’t like, but unless your musical tastes are wider than Oprah when she’s off her diet you’ll only be left with three or four songs. A few of the tracks are just bad no matter what your preference; you know those seizures the instructions always warn us about? They’re not caused by flashing lights, they’re caused by that “I am Rock” song.
What it comes down to is this: if you liked the Need for Speed Underground series, you’ll like Need for Speed: Most Wanted. Yes, there’s some pandering; catch the ads for body sprays and auto parts shops, not to mention the fact that all of the decals you can add to your ride are ads in and of themselves. Yes, it’s strange to be able to damage cops but not have a scratch even when they hit harder than Ike Turner. But that’s all part of the fun, and it’s unfair to judge a game for not being something it’s not trying to be anyway. This isn’t the blockbuster racing hit of the year, but it’s worth at least a rental.