What’s more, the game plays better than any Need for Speed game has in years. In effect, the game works as a cross between the much loved Hot Pursuit series and the better selling Underground efforts, but while the result could have been a disaster, it’s actually worked superbly. On the one hand, you have Underground 2’s free-roaming city environment, where you can drive around, looking for races and challenge events, shop for parts or new cars, or just explore as you see fit. On the other, you have a tighter structure and a diligent, street-racer hating police force, just like in Hot Pursuit. And the game ties the two together through a cunning plot that has you working your way up a street-racing blacklist. It’s a pretty standard tale of revenge against the guy who stole your reputation and your wheels, but if I tell you that it’s told in cheesy 1996-vintage full-motion-video and I still didn’t hate it, then you’ll realise how effectively it works. Perhaps the babe in the cropped tops and sprayed-on jeans helped; I wouldn’t like to say.
Making your way up the blacklist takes three things: straight wins in races, time-trials and knockout events; a sizable bounty from the local law enforcement; and specific ‘milestones’ that usually involve anti-social activities. It’s lucky that EA put a disclaimer at the start, because I would otherwise believe that it endorsed speeding, the destruction of police cars or public property, and the use of any means necessary to resist arrest, for the simple reason that the game makes it so much fun.
You see, the straight racing is great, and there is always something compelling in the game’s classic race-earn-buy-race car collecting and upgrading formula, but it’s the cops that make Most Wanted what it is. Some milestones explicitly involve engaging them in pursuit, but they’re just as likely to appear when you’re racing or trying to get a ‘high score’ on a speed camera. At first you might just have one on your tail, but as the pursuit wears on and things get broken, more and more officers join the fray. Eventually, the only way to get rid of them is to prang a specially marked “pursuit-breaker”, bringing whole buildings down around their wheels.
To be honest, pursuit can be a pain – you spend ten minutes losing one mass of black-and-whites, when a lone officer spots you and the chase begins anew. At its best, however, it’s hilarious. The police try to block you or join forces to box you in, set up road blocks or try to outmanoeuvre you, and you crash, bang and powerslide your way through. It’s like something out of The Bourne Identity or The Blues Brothers: chase sequences so spectacular that friends and family will actually sit and watch, shrieking “Quick, go that way” or “Aim for the water tower” as you go.