I am a big fan of the Need for Speed series of games, from the humble 3DO console incarnation to the first ever Hot Pursuit and the later sequel, but for me NFS was always about the fast sports cars, racing through traffic and looking good while you did it.
The replays were exciting and the racing was good fun, it was a challenge without being overly hard or nearly impossible. So what happened to the series, it evolved, but the evolution hasn't really done much to recapture the glory days.
Told through a mix of live action over-acting and a pretty smooth integration with in-game engine footage, this incarnation for the Xbox 360 pulls out some impressive graphical stops but the story is as typical as you might find. Enter you, the player that has a fast car and dreams of being number one on the Blacklist. Enter the obligatory race against the cheesy in-your face bad-guy and you know where this is going.
If you like this kind of thing then you'll probably love the story to the game, things go wrong and the bad-guy uses your car to get to number one on the Blacklist himself - its up to you, with the help of generic Hot-Girl 356 to race like a maniac and do what it takes to take down Razor.
There's racing galore, an open city and various challenges to go through in this version of the NFS series. The controls and gameplay are pretty standard this time around, if you've played Underground and Underground II then there's going to be no problem leaping behind the wheel of some high performance sports cars as you try and climb the Blacklist and become the Most Wanted racer out there.
The Blacklist is the place to be, once you've collected a certain number of Milestones by performing various challenges (race types) and upsetting the local Law Enforcement you'll be invited to go auto-to-auto with the Blacklist racer who you have to take down next.
The Police are the star of the show and they're just as aggressive as you might expect, rolling out in larger and larger numbers the more notorious you become. As you drive around and cause trouble, the heat level on your car rises. If it gets too high then you're going to be dealing with more than just a couple of patrol cars. There are shops of course, these offer parts and visual upgrades to your car ala the last two games, essentially making this NFS: UG II plus cops.
Upgrade the look of your car and the heat level drops.
There's a decent level of customisation, but not as much as UG II - the chance to win the opponent car and their unique upgrades is new, and there's also a slow-mo bullet-time like ability that allows you to avoid serious crashes once you work out how to handle a car when you drop into it.
Tracks are taken from various routes found through the city so there's not really a level design to speak of. What you do have is a completely free-roaming environment within the limits of where the story wants you to go at the time, as you earn the right to race around more of the city then eventually the whole city opens up to you. The city design is good; it has a bunch of nice short-cuts and some devious tracks to test your skill on.
Most Wanted is a nice looking game with highly detailed car models, backgrounds and very fluid lighting. The 360 pours out these visuals without breaking a sweat and provides some nice new graphical touches such as the sky brightens to the player's character's eye as they come out from a dark tunnel into the light. It can disorientate for a few moments and mimics the human eyes response to sudden changes in brightness.
It has some very gorgeous shadowing and the textures/models on the various cars are superbly done. There are some external views, one internal view with the hood and no dashboard view - which is a total mystery since PGR 3 pulls this off without a hitch and looks jaw-dropping-ly better in comparison.
I detest rubber-band AI with the best of them, and Most Wanted has the worst case of rubber-band catch-up AI that I have seen in years. It makes the learning curve of the game very steep indeed as it goes from being relatively fun and a challenge to insanely hard. Having nitrous or any kind of new car is pretty much voided by the horrendous catch-up. The AI is often prone to driving near perfectly and their mistakes are few and far between. When the opponent cars catch up with you and rocket past at near 200Mph you'll find that the catch-up on your side isn't nearly as good or aggressive.
The sound is great however and has a real punch to it, the squeal of the tyres and the roar of the engine are all different, based upon the car you're driving and the view you're driving from. There's a good range of sounds to the game and it doesn't stint in the audio department.
A mix of tracks from various bands, a lot of it was decent but I found myself either turning off the music or using the Guide button to select my own soundtrack.
The acting in general is over the top and kind of fits in this game, it's akin to the Fast and the Furious and isn't dreadful - cringe-worthy yes, dreadful no. The real stars of the show are the Police conversations, they are spot on and when you're in a chase with over ten of the city's finest all communicating through your Police band radio/scanner it brings the chase to life perfectly.
I know I always say that I review a game for what it is, not what I want it to be. But for some games they need to step outside of the acceptable normal and comfortable safe public sales zone, or they'll just stagnate. NFS MW feels like a combination of UG II with cops in it, that's the be all and end all. There really isn't anything groundbreaking or that new about the game, coupled with the really bad rubber-band AI it drops the game's score quite a few points as you'll see.
What use is there in having all these gorgeous graphics and locations, the fantastic cop chases and nail-biting edge of the seat races - when they're gone in an instant. The 360 is a powerful piece of kit and PGR 3 proves what you can do in that respect. NFS MW has no replay feature and there's no way to enjoy your escape from the law or the rise on the Blacklist after the race.
The NFS series needs to get back to its routes, the first game was phenomenal for its time. It introduced a cocky opponent for some one on one races, replays and various cameras. High performance sports cars that felt like you had some power under the hood and there wasn't a custom shop in sight. The graphics were great and there were real dashboards for all the vehicles - there's no excuse on the 360 that those features were not put in, the only excuse is lazy development.
If they can marry that game philosophy with the current-gen or next-gen graphics and power, then perhaps the next NFS game might be more worthy of the name. Don't get me wrong it's still a cracking good game, but it's just not quite what the Doctor ordered, maybe next time.