NEED FOR SPEED MOST WANTED (2005) – EA CANADA
For anyone with a memory longer than 7 years ago, the recent drab sales of Need For Speed: The Run over the Christmas period may come as a bit of a surprise to you. Need For Speed was once a franchise that was almost guaranteed the top spot in the UK charts over the festive period, but a series of uninspiring sequels have left EA’s once golden goose a bit rusty; the likes of Carbon, ProStreet & Undercover were terrible games trying to stretch the ‘Pimp My Ride’ culture beyond its respectable lifespan, and while Hot Pursuit returned some of the glory of the series, it was made by Criterion – the creators of Burnout who know what they are doing. Need For Speed is still in dire straits then, and I can’t really work out why the series hasn’t improved on its finest hour; the 2005 entry, Need For Speed Most Wanted.
Most Wanted straddles a fine line between the past and what was then the trendy present, combining elements of classic cop chases from the original Hot Pursuit games with the crazy customisation of the Underground games. It therefore differentiated itself from the serious Gran Turismo 4 and the outright crashing fun of Burnout, but maintained a respectable audience. It also holds one thing over both of those games – a half coherent plot. Basically, you are a nameless, faceless young racer who has just entered the city of Rockport in a shiny BMW M5. You soon make a friend in local girl Mia, get involved in a few tutorial races, and are soon ready to challenge the first member of the Blacklist (a set of 15 racers in Rockport wanted by the local rozzers). During the race however, you get set up, lose your ride to the opponent, one ‘Razor’ Callahan, and get thrown in jail. Mia bails you out and gives you a hideout, and handily informs you that Razor has taken your car and made it to the top of the Blacklist with it. It is then up to you to enter the underground racing scene, beat the Blacklist at their own game, and get your ride back from the smug bastard. I found it to be quite enjoyable to follow; EA went to the effort of finding real life actors to represent the 15 Blacklisters who are all introduced via snappy video sections, and you find yourself genuinely hating them which makes victory all the sweeter. There’s also the opportunity for some excellent chase sequences, with the finale especially standing out for its ridiculous scale.
Of course, the meat and bones of the game lies in the racing, which is split into different modes. There are two main attractions; for those who want to just race, there is a freeplay option where you can choose from a variety of races; Circuit (laps around a track from the city), Sprint (point to point action), Lap Knockout (3 lap races where the person in last place at the end of each lap is eliminated), Drag (drag races over a short distance with focus on gear changes), and two new races in the form of Tollbooth, which is basically checkpoint racing, and Speedtrap which involves you breaking the speed limit in a limited space. The best mode however is the Career mode, which incorporates all of these races, and also allows you to drive around the sizeable city of Rockport at your will.
In Free Roam mode, you can also attract the attention of the cops, which leads to the best part of the game in the form of Pursuits. Basically, breaking the rules of the road will cause the cops to chase you and will make you gain ‘heat’ on your ride, and by committing further crimes and staying in long pursuits, you can build your ‘heat’ through five stages. At Stage One you will be chased by average cops, whereas Stage Three will make the police break out roadblocks and helicopters, before Stage Five brings out the heavy SUVS and spikes on the road. All the while, you will amass a bounty, which is the key to making your way up the Blacklist. Pursuits end either when you get caught, or by escaping the cops and ‘cooling down’ the heat rating in secluded places like car parks and garages. You can also take out cops by strategically crashing into certain objects and buildings which will fall down on your pursuers. It’s all jolly exciting and helps Most Wanted from becoming just another forgettable racing game, because you can engage in endless pursuits and cause suitable amounts of mayhem which is all recorded in game.
I haven’t even covered the Blacklist races which are another crucial element of the Career mode. When you earn a certain level of bounty and complete enough races, you will be forced to face the next member on the Blacklist. Each member has their own speciality, and generally their races will be tailored towards their strengths. These races are the toughest that you will encounter in the game, but the rewards for winning make it worthwhile – you are given two opportunities to pick between six unknown objects, all of which are for your benefit. These range from cold hard cash, needed to buy cars and upgrades (more on that later), unique upgrades that you cannot buy, and the ultimate ticket – the elusive pink slip, meaning you earn the ride of your beaten opponent. Be warned though, if you lose the Blacklist race, they have the opportunity to get your pink slip, so make sure you are prepared before taking the challenge i.e. save and reload until you get the pink slips and money.
And so to the issue of how one races in the game. Most Wanted features quite an impressive roster of exotica to drive…nothing in comparison to the cars of today mind you, but more than enough to thrash around the city of Rockport. Everything from top level Mercedes and Porsches to modder’s favourite VW Golf’s and Holden Monaro’s are catered for here, and all can be customised in game with performance upgrades and custom paintjobs. As for controls, the game encounters its first disappointment; despite moving away from the drift happy monsters of the Underground games, the cars in Most Wanted do not exactly feel bolted down to the ground. Quite often you can find yourself sliding round a corner unintentionally, which can be the make or break moment in a race as you crash into the barriers. In order to minimise this, you can use another device that was all the rage in 2005 – god damn bullet time. Yep, you can slow down time for a few seconds and correct any mistakes. This works via a drive gauge that gradually refills over the course of a race, similar to your nitrous oxide supplies, meaning you have the chance to outwit the AI. Overall though, it is not as pleasant as the likes of Burnout to actually control.
This is not aided by the thing that frustrates me beyond belief with this game – unequal difficulty. Some races can be a piece of cake, and others can be excruciatingly unfair. Rubber banding is very much in effect all through the game, meaning that even if you are a ace driver and can get clear of the field, a single tap of the barriers will lead to the other racers behind you closing in at a rate recorded faster than the speed of light. It works in reverse however; in one race I purposely waited until I was a lap behind, and then won at a canter by screaming past the opponents on the final straight. Similarly, having the cars from the other Blacklisters makes the game far too easy – by chance, I won the beefed up Porsche Cayman held by the number ten chump on the list, and proceeded to decimate the next seven bosses. The difficulty changes also apply to the Pursuits – early stages of heat are easy to negotiate, but it takes an utter master to last more than 5 minutes against Stage Five heat – my record was 30 minutes, and that was done by glitching onto a ledge. A bit more polish to the difficulty would have been greatly appreciated.
A bit more polish would have also been appreciated in the graphics department, which follows a long standing EA tradition very prominent in the FIFA franchise – make the main attractions look pretty, and to hell with everything else. What we get therefore is a game where the licensed cars look excellent (and if you are an aspiring artist, there are some really nice custom designs to be had), the city looks functional, and everything else, including every other car on the road, looks terribly generic and bland. It really is a shame, because it cuts into any realism one may have hoped for when your gleaming Lamborghini hits a mass of uninteresting grey polygons rather than…a car. Even the weather creates problems; when it’s sunny everything is fine and dandy, but there is a notable drop in frames per second when the gritty rain effects come into play. On the audio front, it’s another mixed bag. The hired actors do a fine jobs of being douche’s for the Blacklist, and the cars sound lovely when revved t the max. Its also worth pointing out that the police chatter during pursuits, while incessant, is at least accurate and heightens the tension as your hear their plans in advance. The soundtrack is a love it or loath it affair; there’s too much rap and average metal for my liking, and I ended up turning off the music to listen to the engines instead.
So; it’s not as fun as Burnout, and isn’t as realistic as Gran Turismo – and yet despite its shortcomings, Need For Speed: Most Wanted is a good compromise between the two. If one focuses on the oft-frustrating racing then it can become a drain, but the always fun Pursuit modes and challenges meant that this was a game that I kept coming back to…until the disc got a bit scratchy. I would prefer that before next Christmas, the head honchos at EA go back and play this to realise how far they have strayed from their arcade roots and that they take positive lessons from it, so that Need For Speed can get back on its feet. Or wheels.