Review by Orgulo

"I'd rather be chased than raced..."

I loved NFS: Underground when it came out. I had never played that sort of high speed racer before and it was thrilling to rocket around the city in the middle of the night, past flashing neon signs, skyscrapers and hapless oncoming traffic. As a single-player racer it was a great game, though it certainly had its flaws.

Anyway, NFS: Most Wanted is Underground's followup, apparently continuing the almost non-existent story of its nameless protagonist. You're kind of like GTA3's main character in this, though with even less personality. All the story in the game is related through either poorly acted cutscenes or through infuriatingly frequent cellphone messages which tend to appear after almost every race. There's no option to turn these off, and although they may be useful if you really really care about the characters in the game, they're a pain otherwise. The only point of watching the cutscenes is to see what Josie Maran's wearing (or not wearing) - sooner or later you'll just want to skip past them.

Your so-called character is really nothing more than a pair of eyes to which the other people in the cutscenes talk. You never see who you are playing as, you never speak, no-one ever addresses you by name. This makes it very hard to care about relationships with the other characters, who again only really exist in the cutscenes and are too generic, superficial and stereotypical for you to give a damn about. These cinematics are too infrequent and poorly realised to make any impact, so your player character ends up being the car you're driving in.

For all NFS:MW's style, there is virtually nothing to do except whisk your latest vehicle around town at high speeds. If you are looking for absolutely anything other than racing, chasing or evading then you won't find it here. All you are doing is driving your car around the same streets, whether it's participating in the game's many races, trying to build up your bounty score or trying to escape from the cops. The game world is quite big, but it's not big enough when you consider how the game is structured.

You begin at the bottom of the racing ladder and you have to climb your way to the top, ultimately aiming to take on the baddest (oh please) racer in town and regain your reputation. You achieve this by racing any number of lesser minions and coming first in every race (anything else counts as a loss - no points system here). You also have to annoy the police a certain amount before the game will allow you to progress to the next available 'boss' car, of which there are quite a few. The more races you win, the more money you earn, the better upgrades you can buy for your car (or maybe buy a new car). You could even get lucky and score the pink slip to one of the boss cars, though you'll have to beat them soundly first.

So, racing first. Before you take on one of the steadily tougher bosses you will have to compete in and win a certain number of races in that bracket. These take various forms: circuits, knockouts, sprints, speed traps, time challenges, even drag races later on. You do the time challenges on your own, the point being to reach the next checkpoint before the timer runs down; the speed traps involve passing through each checkpoint at the highest speed possible; all the other races pit you against computer opponents (usually three) and ask you to beat them all.

All of these race types are fun, but they have their flaws. The time challenges are the low pressure ones, because you have no opponents and you're simply trying to beat the clock - this is usually very doable. The sprints are great because you just have to get from A to B at top speed before anyone else does. The drags can be infuriating thanks to the scripted events, such as traffic always impeding you in the same places, but you will eventually get through by trial and error, knowing when to accelerate, when to swap lanes, etc. The circuits quickly get less fun, since many of them are big enough with only one lap, and they often encompass three laps altogether, which means you're running the same race for a long time and just one mistake could cost you. Knockouts are a slight variation on the circuits - just make sure you're not last on each lap.

Unfortunately, as they did in Underground, the programmers included an automatic catch-up system. This delightful bit of code ensures that you can never (or at least very rarely) thrash your opponents. The game is already curtailed enough by only allowing you to buy certain cars and upgrades at certain times, meaning that even if you upgrade your car to as high as the current level will allow it will only ever be slightly better than opponents' cars. This makes sense but does not make you feel rewarded, since the game is keeping the difficulty at a constant no matter how well you perform. The catch-up system only makes this situation worse: the premise is that if you get too far ahead through seriously nifty driving your computer opponents will suddenly become vehicular gods, blasting through the course to catch you up within seconds. This is so unrealistic it has to be seen to be believed - just think how annoying it is to be miles ahead and then suddenly see those three yellow dots representing your opponents practically translocate up the road until they're right behind you again. This is very depressing when it happens, and it will. In the end the best way to win is to be consistent - stay just ahead of your opponents and you stand the best chance of beating them. Leaving them eating dust early will only get you punished later.

Or you could always hope that they all have a horrific crash near the finishing line. This can happen and it's a joy when it does. Pity that this isn't Carmageddon. Trying to nudge your opponents off the road is rarely rewarded and it's best to just stay away from them and concentrate on getting ahead. They're very hard to put off or dislodge and I can't help thinking that griefing could have given the game much more style. You need something to offset the catch-up feature. Another point is that your fellow racers are nothing more than cars, just like you. No personality to be seen, they are just random cars with random CAPSLOCK'd names - MIGGS, JONNY, DAVE. Hmm, how deep. Once the race is over they carry on driving around the city, and you can follow them indefinitely if you like, though they cease to matter, and the next race will turn up more random goons for you to leave behind. This makes you feel a bit pointless, not part of any great racing fraternity in the city at all. If your opponents are drones then why is what you're doing so important?

So, that's the basics of the racing element, and it may not take too long to get bored of steaming around the same locations over and over, at least until the game decides to unlock the next area, effectively doubling the space you have to drive around in. By the time you reach the end of the game all four areas of the city will be available at once, and it's a lot of road to cover. Plenty of places to go to, for example, hide from the police, which brings me to the next facet of the game, and in my opinion the most fun.

The cop chases in this game are so good that it actually becomes imbalanced: you would rather get into trouble with the police than participate in yet another boring race. In chases it's all about you and your decisions. Go anywhere you like, hide anywhere you like, smash up whatever you like, just make sure the cops don't get you penned in for more than four seconds, or you're bang in trouble. And while the cops are actively after you you're accruing bounty points to help you unlock the next boss race, meaning that you MUST cause trouble no matter what. You are given certain targets to reach (which truly get ludicrous at the highest levels) - destroy 10 cop cars, avoid 5 road blocks, etc. Cause enough trouble and the excitement will escalate, with more and bigger law enforcement vehicles hoving in for the capture - helicopters, SUVs, special ops cars. Spike traps turn up, huge 4WD trucks appear around corners and smash you in the face at a moment's notice. Wrench your ride around chicanes, off ramps, through golf-courses in ongoing attempts to leave the cop cars trailing behind in your carnage, hopefully shaking them off altogether. And all the while you can hear the cops communicating with each other - this is so well done you'll get goose-bumps. It's great knowing what strategies the cops are planning, or hearing them call for help when you've rammed their cars into a donut store. There's nothing like keeping your ears open to find out which side the cops are putting the spike traps on so you can swing to the other side of the road ahead. The police comms are the best part of this game, and even playing now I hear new speech I had never come across before.

One thing I want to mention - and this really bugged me in Carmageddon too - is that the cops only target you and you alone. The game is heaving with illegal racers, so why am I being harassed while all three of my opponents simply breeze past the blaring cop cars with a friendly wave? It would have been much more exciting to know that you had skillfully evaded half the police contingent while the other half were successfully hunting down and hauling off to jail one of your luckless competitors. But nope, it's just you they want.

By the way, forget about stunts. No loop-the-loops here, the closest you get is driving off a high ramp and landing on the road below. It's difficult to flip your car and even harder to flip your opponents'. There are no explosions (unless you count gas stations) and the vehicles end up feeling like blocks of granite with an unusual addiction to gravity.

Unless you're heavily into cars you probably won't be interested in all the tweaks you can apply to each vehicle you possess. You may just be interested in buying the latest easy-to-install upgrades or slapping on some new paint, vinyls or wheel trims. More upgrades become available as you progress and it's always fun taking your new pimped-up car out on to the streets. The cars are not the only things which looks amazing in this game. The scenery is spectacular and each part of the cityscape is unique and instantly recognisable just from driving around for long enough. You'll know what types of roads to expect in the area and where all the tight turns and shortcuts are just by looking at the surroundings, which gives it more of a purpose than just looking pretty. If you have the PC to run the game at its highest settings you'll be blown away. My only quibble is that the world is not dynamic at all, every place will look precisely the same every time you pass (unless it's raining). It's always daytime and there are no pedestrians to be seen. The only models or sprites are the other vehicles all over the roads - the city doesn't feel like a ghost-town but it basically is one. Even the things you smash up while running from the cops will be magically repaired and in pristine condition five minutes later. This makes the game feel even more empty and characterless, and in the end your only link with other humanity on the streets is the sound of the police yammering to each other while they try to shove your front bumper into the nearest wall.

Sound in the game is good, though almost the only sounds are caused by the vehicles, since they're really the only things in the game that aren't scenery or smashable objects. Most of what you'll hear is engine drone, unless you plough through a gas station or accidentally knock into a lorry carrying a bunch of logs. You can (thankfully) turn off the music, which predictably is always either metal or hip-hop, these being the only two types of music that car-owners ever listen to. The only sounds I look forward to hearing in the game are the cops; other than that there's little in here that will hold your attention.

Replayability is probably much greater online than in single-player (though I've never played it online). There's only so many times you can stand racing random nobodies around the same circuits in single-player, but the game does force you to do it so many times during the course of just one campaign. The next campaign will be exactly the same - same races in the same order, same cars and upgrades available at the same times, etc, etc. I have tried to replay it a few times but I didn't get very far into it before giving up and playing a more dynamic, variable game.

If you like heaving your snazzy cars around a beautiful but shallow city, competing against mindless and characterless computer bots with an annoying advantage over your human skills, this one might be the racer for you. If you want a game in which you escape from cops with max thrills and spills, pick this game up now. It's a really good racing game but you won't still be playing it two years from now. I'm off to find out if Carbon's any good...

Reviewer's Rating:   3.5 - Good

Originally Posted: 09/14/07

Game Release: Need for Speed: Most Wanted Black Edition (US, 11/15/05)

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