Product: Need for Speed: Most Wanted
Company: EA
Authour: Peter "Ruined" Calderwood
Date: March 11th, 2006
Genre: Racing
Difficulty: Medium
Players: 1-2 (Offline); 2-4 (XBOX Live)

SYNOPSIS
Wake up to the smell of burnt asphalt as the thrill of illicit street racing permeates the air. From the makers of the hit Need for Speed Underground series, Need for Speed Most Wanted challenges players to become the most notorious and elusive street racer.

Combining illicit street racing and tuner customization with the intensity of strategic police pursuit that surpasses any Hollywood-style chase scene, Need for Speed Most Wanted will be on every gamer's 'must-have' list this holiday season. Out-race rivals, evade cops and exploit hundreds of miles of open road as gamers make their way up the Blacklist.

Does EA do the Need for Speed name justice in this latest incarnation? Read on.

GRAPHICS: B-
Score reflects graphics viewed at 1080i resolution
Need for Speed: Most Wanted has a gritty yet detailed look to it that is not at the level of Project Gotham Racing 3 but far beyond Ridge Racer 6 and current-gen games. One thing that holds back the graphics, though, is a subtle stuttering in the framerate. From my observations, it appears that this stutter that happens quite frequently is actually caused by disc accesses; the game uses streaming to deliver a load-free world to you however it appears that EA is attempting to stream too much data - resulting in the game pausing for a split second very frequently. Thankfully, one gets used to this and after a while it does not tend to bother the user much. Once you get past that, you will be able to admire the high resolution textures, HDR Lighting, Motion Blur, and other special effects within the game. Overall good graphics, but the score suffers due to the pausing problem caused by poor disc streaming.

SOUND: B+
Score reflects sound played back in 5.1 Surround
Sound is very good with enveloping sound effects and a quality music lineup. While original music might have been a more creative inclusion, the mix of EA Trax included is diverse yet cohesive - offering a solid blend of Rap, Metal, and Electronic styles. The sound is also highly polished and truly gets the player in the mood for the game.

CONTROL: C+
Oddly enough, the department where this game suffers the most is in control - which does not bode well for a racing game. At first glance, the game seems to have extremely poor handling; the cars seem to drive like boats instead of cars. However, upgrade your car some and you will find that this will change, with the top end cars having spot-on handling. Though a Lamborghini Gallardo should handle better than a Chevy Cobalt, the cobalt should still not feel like you are driving a brick through molasses. Exploring further, it appears that the bulk of control problems come from poor visual cues when in 3rd person mode; switch into first person road/hood views and the control problems for the most part go away. While this bodes well for the game as you can race just fine in 1st person mode throughout the game, 3rd person mode is a necessity for Pursuit police chases - especially later in the game where a wide view of your surroundings is necessary to evade capture.

Though one can therefore remedy the control difficulties by driving in 1st person mode, not everyone likes this mode and it just plain doesn't work for Pursuit chases. For these reasons, the Control suffers quite a bit. That being said, I'm sure EA can rectify the visual cues given by cars in the next NFS game.

SINGLE PLAYER GAMEPLAY: B+
Need for Speed: Most Wanted attempts to blend underground street racing with police chases without falling into the cliches of the Need for Speed Underground or Midnight Club series. For the most part, EA has succeeded in doing so; the brand new Most Wanted series is the most ambitious and best directed effort EA has made since the original NFS: Hot Pursuit. EA has essentially carved out a section for the NFS series to fit into without fully treading into Burnout or Midnight Club territory, and I think this is the best direction for the Need for Speed franchise to follow in going forward. Races in the game take place entirely during the day, and you can jump into races either through a "Safe House" menu or by driving to icons in free-roam. The free-roam system works well and allows you to access virtually all of the content the main career mode offers, though you will likely want to jump to a Safe House to access the menu to get into the action quicker.

The primary mode of gameplay in the single player game is the Career mode. The story behind the Career mode involves climbing the Blacklist, a list of the "Most Wanted" street racers. You begin the game at the top of the Blacklist, but your car is sabotaged by a racer named Razor - resulting in you losing your ride to him while also getting busted by the cops. After getting out of jail you have nothing but vow to get revenge on Razor; you start small, planning to work your way up the Blacklist start with #15 and eventually ending with the now #1 Razor. The cars offered are a diverse blend of American, European, and Japanese cars that range in class from sportscar to supercar; most everyone will be able to find a ride they like in this game. After you buy a ride to start with, you can start racing the various Blacklist races for money that you can use to upgrade your car with. Race types include Circuit, Sprint, Lap Knockout, Speed Trap, Toll Booth, and Drag Race. Circuit is a traditional multi-lap race, Sprint is a point-to-point race, Lap Knockout is a circuit race with the last place car being knocked out every lap, Speed Trap is a race where final position is primarily derived by total speed racing through multiple radar-gun traps, Toll Booth is a time trial with multiple checkpoints along the way, and Drag Race is a first person race where you must shift manually but have a limited autopilot. Police can and will interfere with some, but not most, of your races.

However, you need more than just a fast car to beat one of the 15 Blacklist rivals - you also need to prove that you can tangle with the cops and come out on top. To do this you must meet several Pursuit Milestones that change with each blacklist rival; these can range from things like "Trade Paint with 8 Police Cars" to "Get in a Pursuit for at least 5 Minutes." Once you complete a Pursuit milestone, you must then Evade the chase - or in other words, escape the cops. To Evade a chase the player must get out of the line of sight of the police for a good 10 seconds to engage "Cooldown" mode, and after doing this hide for another 10 seconds - 1 minute or so depending on your Heat Level. The level of Heat you have can range from 1 - 5; in addition to the longer cooldown time, the higher the Heat Level the smarter, faster, and more aggressive the cops are. The idea of Heat works well for the most part, though at the beginning of the game Heat 3-5 is extremely difficult while at the end of the game Heat 1-3 is extremely easy. In fact, by the end of the game the AI of Heat 1-2 is so bad that it is much more of a hassle to keep the cops from losing you than it is to escape them. The computer-controlled cops are given the tools to stop the player with roadblocks being deployed frequently on Heat Levels 2-5, spike strips being deployed on Heat Levels 3-5, Helicopters being depolyed on Heat Levels 4-5, and Corvettes being deployed on Heat Level 5. Likewise, the player is given the tools to evade the cops with Pursuit Breakers and Speed Breaker. Pursuit Breakers are buildings or items on the map which you can knock down on top of police cars that are pursuing you, while Speed Breaker is a button you can press that slows down the game Matrix-style allowing you to see where you have to aim to avoid a spike strip. After hitting a Pursuit Breaker the view briefly switches to a cinematic view of the landscape collapsing on the police cars behind you, although this brief camera cut results in occasional glitches; a few times the AI made a poor choice during a Pursuit Breaker cutscene resulting in my getting busted directly after I was returned control of my car.

Finally, you must demonstrate that the cops have put a high Bounty on your head; a numerical Bounty requirement also must be met for each Blacklist rival. One gains bounty by starting Pursuit chases that result in massive amounts of damage and finish with you escaping the cops; if you get busted by the cops, you lose all of the bounty you racked up during a chase - it's either all or nothing for each chase bounty-wise. This can get frustrating late in the game as you engage in 10+ minute Pursuits that end with you running over a spike strip and losing all of the bounty you gained over that 10 minutes of gameplay. A bit harsh, though the gambling with Bounty is certainly an interesting element; will you play it safe and settle for a low bounty, or are you going to go for that Pursuit Milestone to rack up a lot more bounty but risk getting busted and losing it all?

When you do face off against the Blacklist Rival, you will have to engage in a series of races. Beat the rival in each race and you take his spot on the Blacklist, plus you also get 3 rewards which could include the pink slip to his highly tuned ride if you are lucky. In addition, beating each Blacklist member results in faster cars being unlocked in the new car shop as well as higher performing upgrades available in the parts shop. Cars and parts you unlock in the career mode can be used online to devestate your opponent.

All said and done, the player will find that the races are easy to complete while the pursuit milestones and bounty requirements are difficult to complete. Even the races against the Blacklist Rivals themselves are a snap; most of the time your progress will be held back by the Pursuit element of the game. The game seems a bit repetitive and corny at first, however after investing some time in the game one gets used to the controls and the intensity level ramps up drastically - resulting in a great gaming experience.

In terms of customization, you can upgrade both the visual appearance of your car from paint job to vinyls to body kits as well as the performance of your car. Performance is done in steps and you can further tweak parts after you have installed them, though the customization is very user friendly.

There is quite a lot of fun to be had in the Career mode, and it lasts at least 10 hours. After that is over, however, you still have more to complete; over 60 events await you in the Challenge Series. Each Challenge Series event is essentially a race or pursuit you must complete meeting some requirement. Beat all of the Challenge Series and unlock a reward that will help both your single- and multi-player racing ability. You can also set up a "Quick Race" including Circuit, Sprint, Lap Knockout, and Drag Race. Unfortunately, the Pursuit element is mostly lost after you are done with the Career and Challenge Series modes; there is no Quick Race mode that involves Pursuits even in the same league as those in the aforementioned modes.

MULTIPLAYER GAMEPLAY & XBOX LIVE FEATURES: B
Difficulty to earn XBOX Live Achievement Points: Medium
Multiplayer gameplay is available offline via splitscreen and online via XBOX Live. Live gameplay is good though it lacks innovation. Essentially, you get the same "Quick Race" modes mentioned above. A real opportunity was missed in not allowing players to drive cop cars in multiplayers and pursue other players. The game also runs through the EA servers which do not seem as good as Microsoft's and you may therefore encounter some hiccups you might not encounter on games from other publishers. One must also note that if you hop right into multiplayer without playing through the Career mode first you will be at a major disadvantage as you won't have access to the top cars or parts.

All 15 of the XBOX Live Achivements in this game are earned in the single player Career mode, one unlocked as you beat each of the 15 Blacklist rivals. This is fair and allows you to earn points as you progress through the single player Career, though you may be less inspired to play the single player Challenge Series or multiplayer modes as they will award you no Live Achievement points.

OVERALL: B+
Need for Speed: Most Wanted is a very fun game that offers a lot of single player replay value but little in the field of multiplayer innovation. Graphics and controls are hampered by poor programming and the Pursuit element's significance is seriously toned down in the "Quick Race" & multiplayer modes, bringing down an otherwise excellent game.

If you were a fan of both Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit and Need for Speed: Underground, this title is the perfect blend of the two; EA is taking the series in the right direction with this title and would be able to earn a higher score next go around if they simply worked out the technical kinks and polished the multiplayer more before releasing the game. Still, a very good title for arcade and street racing fans! The Burnout series may finally have a worthy rival in the arcade racing department.

Link to buy: http://www.gamestop.com/product.asp?product%5Fid=200107

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