At a glance...

Reviewer Platform Publisher Developer Players Screenshots
Matt Bailey Xbox Electronic Arts EA Canada 1-2 (Split-screen), 2-4 (System Link, Xbox Live) Here
Requirements Also on... Buy from Amazon.co.uk
Xbox Live subscription for online play Xbox 360, PlayStation 2, Gamecube, PC, PlayStation Portable, Nintendo DS Click here to buy Need for Speed: Most Wanted.

Need for Speed: Most Wanted review

Having topped the multi-format charts last week, and thus gaining the title of Christmas number one, there's no better time to look at EA's new racer - a title released not long after EA's other hit racing game, Burnout Revenge. However, despite the fact that neither titles are gunning for realism, they do take completely different approaches to the arcade racing genre, with Burnout choosing to offer insane speeds and crashes, while Need for Speed entertains the 'underground street racing' crowd. Ever since "The Fast and the Furious" hit the silver screen, the genre has been gaining popularity and titles, so what makes Most Wanted stand out? How much more, ahem, 'bling' does it have?

Most Wanted's approach is that it takes the street racing elements of the Underground games, and combines them with the police chasing that was so enjoyable in one of the series' better titles, Hot Pursuit, and does so to great effect. Overall, the game holds many similarities with Underground 2; the circuit, race and drag modes make a return, while the Drift and Speed X events have been dropped. In their place come new cop-orientated modes, like Bounty - where the objective is to be aggressive against the police and evade them to build up your bounty - and a Project Gotham Racing-inspired speed trap event.

The game revolves around the Blacklist 15 - a list which details the 15 most notorious drivers, and a list which you need to top. The story centres around you as a street racer, taking on a member of the list, only to find he has sabotaged your car, allowing him to claim victory (and the vehicle), before you find yourself car-less and arrested. When you're released, you discover your opponent is now at the top of the Blacklist 15, and has used your car to get there, hence the game's ultimate aim. You have to take on the members of the list from number 15 right through to number 1, and in order to be able to challenge them you have to meet a number of set goals first. How these are achieved are up to you. For example, for the first Blacklist racer you need to have completed 3 milestones (exceed speed limits, keep a chase up for a length of time, immobilise cops, etc.) and 3 race events (as detailed before), and have a bounty level (which can be increased by outrunning cops among other things, and lowered if caught).

When you're able to actually challenge the rival, you will have to compete in multiple events and if successful, you get to pick 2 symbols (known as markers) which contain a "mystery prize". These include Get Out of Jail Free cards and a pink slip for the opponent's car (where you win their car). There's usually a choice of 6, with 3 unknown (the best ones), so it's quite likely you'll get something worthwhile out of the deal - but you won't always get their car. All in all, there's a lot to be done; it's quite refreshing to find a career mode in a non-simulation racing game that will last you so long, with at least 15 hours minimum, plus all the time you'll gain from single races and multiplayer - both on and offline.

Online services are, of course, provided by Xbox Live. After last year's 'attempt' at Xbox Live, it was nice to see EA providing us with a much better service, with a more stable system, and only a Terms of Service screen holding up your online entertainment. The usual array of Xbox Live options are available to you, and upon selecting Quick Match, Optimatch, or Create Match you are given the choice of a Circuit, Sprint or Drag race; no Pursuit online, which is disappointing. You can, however, take your career cars online, complete with all their customisations, or use the stock cars you've unlocked during the career. This means there is often great variety on the track, and makes creating a good looking car all the more important for some people. If you have a good connection then the racing itself is smooth and enjoyable, but someone with a bad connection can have a tendency to ruin the game for you all, with their connection sometimes meaning everyone drops back to the lobby, so something to watch out for. There's also still no Xbox Live Aware option - you're only visible online while on the Xbox Live mode, though at least this is dealt with on the Xbox 360, where the system is there beyond the game itself.

Presentation is an important element in the game. The whole game gives off an urban vibe; the heavy use of black, the font choices, and the bold menu design work well together, and help provide atmosphere in the game. There are even full motion videos (FMVs) that guide you through a story - something that is scarcely done these days. They feature a soft tone, and acting that's probably better than you'd expect, although they aren't anything particularly special, just different.

The presentation also guides the two key elements of gameplay and graphics. The career mode itself can be accessed through a free roam mode, that allows you to actually go and find the action yourself. When you come across an icon indicating a race you can hit up to initiate the challenge. You'll also come across police who will automatically chase you, allowing you to pick up bounty. This mode was present in Underground 2, but was too slow and sometimes boring; now things are more interesting, with a more lively city with modes in much better reach. There's also the option to hit right and initiate the modes anywhere you like (as long as you're not currently in a Pursuit), or head to the safe house where the same can be achieved. Voice and text messages are also sent to you while roaming to inform you of rules, tips or race offers. On the graphical side of things, the urban feel is ever present, with the game's much darker tones. Overall, the graphics aren't overly impressive; the surroundings don't look as impressive as in Burnout Revenge but the car models themselves are very detailed, and work well amongst the game's special efforts, such as the sparks.

After all this, I still haven't discussed how the game actually plays. Well, first and foremost, the game is enjoyable; the police chasing in particular is great fun, but the other modes offer plenty of entertainment. It is also important to note that the game's handling is probably not what you'd expect. The cars themselves feel rather heavy, particularly around corners, and give the game a feel more akin to Ridge Racer, with powerslides around corners than EA's own Burnout Revenge. Having recently spent quite a lot of time on that title, it took some adjustment in order to make Most Wanted feel natural, but when in full flow, the high speed sections play like the excellent OutRun2, offering exhilaration, satisfaction, and most importantly, a real sense of speed.

Ratings

Graphics The car models are particularly impressive, but the surroundings not so much. Overall, while it doesn't look at all ugly, it doesn't look as good as Burnout Revenge. 8/10
Gameplay Enjoyable, addictive, and with a driving style that's somewhat of a cross between the best bits of Ridge Racer and OutRun2. 9/10
Value There's plenty packed in to make it worth owning even if you have Underground 2. 9/10
Lifespan There's a lot to do in the career mode alone, with single racers, and multiplayer - split-screen and Xbox Live - adding to this package. 10/10
Audio The sound effects are pretty good, and the cop chatter is great, but the music leaves a lot to be desired; another EA Trax listing almost worth completely ignoring. Even worse is the lack of a Custom Soundtrack option present in Burnout Revenge on Xbox. 7/10
Overall Need for Speed: Most Wanted is not only one of the best games in the series, but is probably one of the best arcade racers of 2005. It's certainly pleasing that although the game topping the Christmas charts is from giant publisher EA, it almost certainly deserves to be there. 8/10

Click here to buy Need for Speed: Most Wanted from Amazon.co.uk.

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