On its way Underground, Need for Speed lost its way a little. It was no longer entirely a game of raw speed at the hands of supercars as much as was about choosing an average car and giving it a paint job, alloys, body kits and vinyls - let's not forget those wonderful understated works of art. It did introduce performance upgrades and some mean drag racing, but all that illegal street racing drew no interest from the police. In retrospect, removing any trace of police, introduced in predecessor Hot Pursuit, just seems a bit daft given the nature of the racing. Furthermore, trading in sweeping country highways in favour of tight urban streets meant you never really got the opportunity to "open her up", to really feel the need for speed.
After you've clawed your way through the obligatory preamble, provided by the fuzzy, stylised cut scenes featuring live actors horribly pasted over computer generated backdrops, you find yourself mid-race, fighting for the ownership of your BMW M3 GTR. You've barely taken your first corner when the police appear and give pursuit. Needless to say, you lose the race (not that you have a choice) and your car with it.
Icky cut scenes
To save you having to watch those horrible movies, here's the skinny; you're the new kid in town and everyone except racer chick Mia wants to see you fail. Which you do, thanks to a spot of cheating. Back to the present day, and here you are with a shit car, bugger all money and a chick racer friend. She guides you through the game's interface, introduces you to the "Blacklist", 15 of the city's most wanted street racers. She also sends you loads of text messages and voice mails. Maybe she fancies you? Anyway, at last the "story" is exposed. You have to work your way through each racer on the Blacklist to beat Razor, cock of the racers, and get your car back. But it's not simply a case of racing each Blacklister, as each one requires you to prove your worth before they'll entertain you, setting a number of races to win, milestones and minimum bounty level for you to meet.
Let's be honest, you're not going to get anywhere in a crappy unmodded Fiat Punto. Even at the supermarket car park party on a Saturday night you'd get laughed out of town without at least a Kenwood window sticker, a baked bean can on the exhaust and a sub woofer filling the boot. So, you'll have to earn some money to buy upgrades. Fans of Underground will be happy to hear that the really important upgrades remain; iridescent paint finishes, spastic spoilers, roof scoops and body kits and, of course, the vinyls. You'll have to live without the undercar lights - given that this is daytime racing, what good would they be? The less important performance upgrades; engine, gearbox, suspension, turbo, supercharger and nitrous, are all there too in case you actually want to win a race instead of just looking cool. Most upgrades are locked until you've beaten higher Blacklisters, though it would have been nice to have open them all up and give them higher prices.
Really, it's not Burnout
The Underground races, circuit and sprint, drag and knock-out lap, remain. There are new races including tollbooth races, essentially single player checkpoint sprints, and speedtrap races where you attempt to clock the fastest speeds through a set of speed camera against other racers. It's all familiar territory for the racing gamer, but it's not simply a tedious retread.
Further differentiating the game from Underground are the sprawling boroughs which you are free to roam. No longer constrained to gleaming skyscraper canyons and urban sprawl, Most Wanted takes you out onto the country highways. It's at this point you get your first impression that you're actually playing a fusion of Burnout and NfS:Underground - not too surprising given EA's acquisition of Renderware, the technology behind Burnout. The lighting has that over-saturated look, with bright blooms of light as the sun catches the road, windows or breaks through trees. Pelting down highways, the screen shakes and objects blur as they flash by. Hitting the nitro gives a satisfying stretched perspective, even more blurring and a whine of the engine. You could have almost just hit that "Burnout" button, if it weren't for the anti-climactic crashes - it's often too easy, after stacking into a wall or truck, to back up, continue racing and still win. Collisions with other racers doesn't slow things down greatly, leading to that Gran Turismo trick of deflective cornering, and you can never truly wipe out.