Thankfully taking place in broad daylight, Need for Speed Most Wanted takes the series out of the Underground, and result is the best title in the franchise since Hot Pursuit. The variety is incredible, and it's enough to carry the game all the way to the finish. Flaws are noticeable, though by no means severe enough to keep fans of the franchise from a purchase.
The key to the single player mode is the Blacklist, a list of 15 insane street racers, and you're looking to become a member of their ranks. The challenges required to move up include breaking through speed traps, evading police for a certain amount of time, and of course racing. The early cinematics set up the story with high production values but low acting skills.
Racing itself definitely feels some of the "Burnout effect." The speed blur when blasting nitrous is now apparently requirement if you produce a racing game, ramming into roadside objects (whether mobile or not) is encouraged since you can't ruin your car, and slow motion collisions will occasionally showcase the brutal impact of a 200+ mph intentional side swipe. Control is easily tweaked to the players liking, and taking a tight corner is rarely a challenge if you've spent more than 10-minutes with the game.
Sadly, there's little explanation for certain aspects of the game, and you'll still be learning about features hours into it. It's overwhelming at first, and the meager manual, lack of training, and limited explanation means you'll need to spend some quality time with Most Wanted to grasp everything it has to offer. Menus continue to reveal new features nearly all the way to the finale.
If it becomes too rough, there's always the option of free riding around the city. This feature doesn't exist to kill time, but also doubles as a menu system. The flawless integration means you don't have to use the d-pad to maneuver through the game in boring selection menus. You can drive right up to every challenge or engage in a pursuit if the police get word of your generally reckless (and stupid) behavior. Their chatter is one of the best features of the game, and isn't used for atmosphere alone. Listening will provide information as to traps ahead and where police presence is heaviest.
The entire experience is smooth because of the menus being accessible with a quick flick of the d-pad. The same goes for the frame rate that never dips. The lighting and weather effects are superb, yet suffers from the same thing Underground did. Everything in this city (and it's huge) looks the same. All the roadways are covered with fallen leavers, the monochromatic color scheme doesn't allow for individuality in newly unlocked areas, and all the tracks have a similar feel because of it. Yes, the lighting and cars look spectacular. Unfortunately, the rest of the game doesn't offer anything new compared to what you start with, and it makes the game feel stretched out by the end.
There's also the problem of the difficulty. If you play the game as intended, you'll have a problem. Tweaking your car is much easier this time as the explanations for the different parts and their effects are clear. There are also ludicrous amounts of useless visual upgrades, and that's what the game caters to. If that's where you spend most of your earned cash, you'll find the game has a difficulty level that hovers around proper. As such, the games difficulty caters to the lowest denominator. In other words, each race needs to be tweaked so the player with a weak but flashy car can still win. Those who wisely save up their money for the important performance upgrades only will have very little trouble.
When taking on the first few Blacklist members, it would seem the entire game would follow that same line of difficulty. It does, at least until you break into the top 5 and the challenges continually push the idea of a fair difficulty. The final races will require knowledge of every turn, shortcut, and hiding spot available if you want first place. Again, spending money on visual upgrades is a terrible idea.
Xbox Live support is basic. All racing modes included in single player can be played online. Selectable courses are determined by what the host has unlocked. EA's servers are fine, with no noticeable lag to destroy the service.
Even with some minor gripes and oversights, this next-gen racing game fits itself snugly in the middle of the genre for the 360 launch. It's nowhere near the arcade stylings of Ridge Racer 6 given the customization offered and it's not the simulation Project Gotham 3 is trying to be. Its depth, length, and easy to pick up racing make it an obvious purchase if the gameplay style appeals to you.
(**** out of *****)