No need to have a guilty conscience anymore: Need For Speed is back on form, and about time too.
For the past couple of years it's been tough to admit you like Need For Speed. It's been like associating yourself with the embarrassingly boozed-up mate who chants football songs, hugs random strangers and willingly sports an ironic haircut with no sense of irony.
We didn't really want to be seen in public with EA's driving franchise anymore.
When something you've cherished for so long veers so harrowingly off course, the only thing you can do is put on a brave face and hope it's "just a phase".
But when that "phase" went and sold about 20 times better than any of the previous NFS efforts, there was a clear and present danger that the franchise machine that is EA would just carry on making the same game a further 47 times. It all felt like the worst kind of dream, except with more 'Yo'.
So it came as something of a surprise to find that Most Wanted isn't the hideous abomination we feared it would be. No sir. It's easily a contender for the arcade driving game of the year.
Hotter than the sun
Drawing heavily from our all-time favourite NFS diversion, Hot Pursuit, EA has sent the rozzers after us again, and it's up to you to prove that you're not only the best driver the state has ever seen, but that your cajones are the size of space hoppers. In other words, Buster, you've got to cause as much abject mayhem, destruction and general chaos while giving the fuzz the slip. Easy.
Well, it would have been fairly straightforward if Mr Vest himself, Razor, hadn't gone and stuck a banana in your tail pipe and sabotaged your ride - winning it off you in the process.
Forced to work your way up the criminal Blacklist from the very bottom of the pile, the career premise is to defeat all 15 challengers, fill your 'rap' sheet, customise and buy new, faster wheels and eventually take on the smart-mouthed Justin Timberlake wannabe, win your ride back and shout "Have it!" in his stupid, surly face.
But doing so is a challenge that will test even the most hardened arcade racing gamer out there. Unlike, say, the Midnight Club series, you must overcome a great selection of races and challenges before you can even win the right to face-off against each Blacklist member. Presented with a familiar open-world environment, you can either drive around at your leisure to each race, or jump straight to them via the pleasingly slick menu system. With pretty much everything (such as maps and phone messages) accessible via the d-pad, you can access any of the currently available Race or Milestone challenges by simply hitting down.
Lap it up
This takes you to the race menu, and from there it's a simple case of selecting one and roaring off down the track to inevitable glory. Well, not quite. In terms of race types, Most Wanted has plenty. As well as the familiar Circuit challenges, there's Lap Knockout (last place eliminated each lap), Drag (manual gear-shifting short, straight race), Sprint (point to point race), Tollbooth (time-limited checkpoint racing), and Speedtrap (accumulate the fastest speed through each). So far, so standard.
But on top of that (and here's where the fun bit resides), you must also complete a set number of Milestone challenges before you get to meet each Blacklist member. These are comprised of various law-breaking tasks, such as clocking up a specific speed trap infraction, trading paint with a specific number of cops, or perhaps merely evading the law post-chase within a time limit. As with the race challenges, there's no linear path to follow and it's up to you to select whichever takes your fancy at any given time.
Such is the nature of the scoring system of the milestone challenges that it's actually possible to find yourself knocking off several challenges at once. For example, should you manage to clock up several minutes on the run, you'll probably also have caused a ton of damage, traded paint with several cop cars, and made yourself into a valuable bounty. So long as you successfully evade the law by whatever means, all of your numerous infractions will help to not only tick off the various milestones you need to have reached, but also the bounty tally the game sets you.
Having finished all the races required and met all the various milestones, you still might find you're lacking in the bounty tally - and Most Wanted also gives you a number of pre-arranged bounty areas to choose from, allowing you to be effectively dropped into a hot-spot so you can start causing trouble immediately. Even at the early stages, Most Wanted is definitely a game that requires a concerted effort on your part.
You won't mind making the effort, though, because the excellent structure means that you'll probably end up making progress even when you're idly engaging in some exploratory free-roaming. And even during races there's a chance the law will tear after you, meaning that when you complete your race you've got the added challenge of shaking them off.
Evading the law, of course, becomes the key focus of the game, and Most Wanted doesn't let you down in this regard. Although you can try and ram cars off the road, it's not all that easy to do. Sure, Nitrous certainly comes in handy when you need to make a clean getaway, but you can rarely burn off the cops that easily. With the filth haring after you from all angles, the last thing you want is to be boxed into a corner and busted, because not only does it cost you, but you risk having your car impounded. With so much to lose, Most Wanted allows you to ram into pre-determined scenery items known as 'Pursuit Breakers'. Marked on the mini-map as a red triangle, you can lure your unsuspecting lawmen into an explosive gas station or collapse a rickety tower on them - just in time to let you make a clean escape.
Even then, you still have to lay low for a while, with other units likely to head for your last known location. Cunningly, though, Most Wanted offers up a number of spots to hide in on the mini-map, allowing you to speed up the 'cooldown' process into the bargain.
Borrowing from the GTA school of law-breaking, there are five degrees of pursuit - known as 'heat' in this case. At 1, you're probably faced with just one unconcerned cop, but by the time you reach 5 you're on the run from a bevy of SUVs and even state choppers. And the more times you evade the law, the more they'll be all over you like a rash when you do re-appear. With this degree of recognition likely to hamper your progress, you can go much further than GTA's Pay N' Spray, with body modifications more likely to fox the law than a simple re-spray.
With such a rich template of possibilities, Most Wanted becomes a thoroughly compelling prospect, forever testing your racing prowess and then following that up with increasingly insane chase sequences. Taking its cue from every Hollywood car-chase you've ever seen, the action's as fast and frenetic as you could possibly hope, constantly offering up one crazed set-piece after another. If you're not sending a lorry-load of enormous logs across the highway or flipping a patrol car into the air, then you're doing Duke of Hazzard jumps in slow motion at 164mph while scattering lamp-posts, boxes, and fire hydrants asunder.
Bang and blame
And yet, while all the attention is likely to be placed on the pursuits, the racing side of the game quietly goes about its business. Feeling like a more assured version of the Underground handling model, there's an initial tendency to feel like you're driving on bald tires. Holding corners is a bit of a joke, and wet or bumpy surfaces are a lottery. But as you spec each car up (by beating Blacklist members and unlocking new upgrades), and eventually buy (or win) the superior models (permed from Porsche, Lamborghini, Mazda, Ford, Mitsubishi, and BMW) the game becomes faster and even more of a rush to play. We're not sure that making the game less fun at the beginning is an especially smart idea, but at least the game gives you a tantalising glimpse of what's to come before you're forced to drive the rubbish cars.
Allied to a well-crafted progression system, the game ups the ante at sensible increments, never completely overwhelming you with ill-judged difficulty spikes that rob you of your resolve. The closest we came to being completely exasperated was when we found ourselves unwisely speccing up one of the earlier cars rather than buying a new one - suffice to say we then spent a long, laboured session having to earn cash in order to get the model that was capable of winning races. If we have one over-riding gripe with Most Wanted, it's that the game doesn't reward progress with new cars, and by leaving it up to the player there's a big risk of leaving them unable to make progress. Some clearer signposting or mandatory upgrades would have saved a lot of hassle here, but so long as you're clear on what cars to own it's a game you can make steady, satisfying progress in.
And with this progress comes not only faster, more intense gameplay, but extra chunks of the city to explore, and given that it's one of the most fantastically beautiful environments driving gaming has ever seen, that's a pretty decent incentive to get going. On the 360, at least, it's staggeringly beautiful at times, with a full dynamic lighting system able to change the mood and ambience of any given scene. Some of the sunset effects are truly stunning sights to behold, and even the merest glance at the game's sparking, effervescent brilliance is enough to make you aware you're looking at something that's a clear jump ahead of anything else we've seen in the genre. Finally stripped of the baby oil sheen that blighted the last two NFS titles, surface wetness actually looks right for once, as do the thunderous weather effects that rumble into life midway through a race. Needless to say, the cars themselves look just as impressive, bouncing off the delightful-looking scenery with the most incredible reflective effects. If only there wasn't the tendency for the screen to look like it's coated in Vaseline we'd be singing its praises even more. Sometimes clarity is preferable to feeling like you're losing your eyesight. And as one very small, minor gripe, the game does - on a few occasions - suffer from the odd pause. Odd, but noticeable.
Under my wheels
Sonically we're torn between the utter brilliance of the roaring engines, screeching tyres and satisfying crash effects that scream past in full surround sound, and the characteristically awful soundtrack. Whether it's plumbing the depths of generic rock or club anthems, there's not one single tune that stands out as being anything other than utterly mediocre on repeat listening. We realise it's all a matter of taste and all that, but seriously, this is one game you'll want to create your own custom soundtrack for.
As far as the rest of the package goes, the news is good, too. Admittedly, the customisation side of the game isn't quite as deep as the Underground series, but it's forgivable in this context on the basis that those games were all about the street racing modding scene. Even so, you still get innumerable opportunities to spec your car up - just not to the mind-boggling brand-obsessed degree you could before (to us, that's a good thing, to be frank).
Elsewhere, even outside of the vast career mode there's an expansive Challenge Mode that essentially breaks down some of the best elements of the game into bite-sized chunks, while the presence of Quick Race always comes in handy if you fancy tackling a specific part of the proceedings. But for many, it's multiplayer where the real added value will apply, and Most Wanted's structure lends itself perfectly for a huge variety of both unranked and ranked online races. Essentially, all the race modes available in single-player are playable online for up to four players, (with four-player split-screen as well), with the usual ability to jump into quick play, or filter them in a custom match or create you own. Although you do, admittedly, still have to agree to EA's blessed T&Cs, the experiences we had were slick, lag-free and basically identical to any other non-EA Live experience. We won't ever have the time or talent to make the Blacklist 15 (the game's online leaderboard), but it's proving immensely popular already.
Unlike a lot of arcade racing games we've played over the years, Most Wanted is one of the few games that's destined to provide a lasting challenge, despite the inherent repetition at its core. Although it does tend to recycle a lot of its routes and tracks too, it's a game you'll enjoy exploring, and one that - if anything - grows in appeal with repeat play. Thanks to an excellent progression system, there's always something better, faster, more intense to enjoy around the corner, building the already frenzied action to the kind of climax that'll make your head spin. Building on the solid base provided by old and more recent Need For Speed titles, EA has finally created an arcade racing game that has the mass appeal its shareholders demand yet has enough substance to keep the hardcore happy too - and for 360 owners it's near enough an essential purchase.