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PlayStation 3 Review: Need for Speed: Most Wanted

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At some point in my life, it struck that I will never be a race car driver nor will I find myself a Fast and Furious-style street racer of any sort.  I am not sure that either of those notions upset me as such, but I do get an incredible kick out of playing a good racing game.

Now, while some racing games prize realism, there are others which prize… let’s say awesomeness.  It isn’t that realism can’t be awesome, it’s much more that being in the middle of a street race with nine other cars through a gorgeously rendered city; having the police chase you through that city during the race; hitting a bridge badly causing your car to barrel roll three or four times, and then getting to pick up the race from that exact spot a few seconds later is nearly always awesome.  Especially if there’s a sense of speed an exhilaration that accompanies such a ludicrous feat during an insane race. 

Let me say this – unequivocally, the new Need for Speed: Most Wanted is a supremely wonderful arcade racer.  It is gorgeous to look at, the cars are plentiful, the races are wild, and there is plenty to do.

The drawback to it all is that the game requires you to be self-motivated.  There really is no story and while there are a few cars you can get by winning races, the vast majority of the cars are—literally—just sitting there waiting to be found.  Rather than having to go out and wins races to get money to buy new rides, in this Most Wanted, you drive around the city trying to spot where the cars are parked and then just drive up to them to add them to your stable.

I don’t mind that, but I can understand where some folks would find it upsetting.  After a few hours, the entire game ends up feeling a little like a story-based adventure title (Assassin’s Creed) where you’ve beaten the game and are just going for that 100% completion by grabbing all the odds and ends you skipped earlier. 

Put another way, Need for Speed: Most Wanted quickly shows you what it is (an outstanding arcade racer) and then asks you to love it or leave it.  The game isn’t going to go and give you some storyline or entice you with new bits and pieces (beyond the basic “get points so you can level up your car and race the next boss” stuff).  It wants you to love it for what it is, to keep racing and searching for cars because you’ve set that goal for yourself not because the game has set if for you.

Each car—and there are dozens of cars—can be improved by winning races, many of which have car components (tires, gears, chassis, etc.) as rewards.  You do need to grab these in order to have a car that is good enough to beat the 10 boss street racers in the city.  And, during this whole endeavor (except some races), the police are out there, just waiting for you.

The game takes place in one city.  It is large and varied, with many nooks and crannies, but it is still a single city.  This city not only has various districts, but it also has speed cameras (one of the goals of the game is to clock a high speed at each and every camera) and police.  You can nudge a police car without getting into too much trouble, but if you speed or run a light or opt to hit a cop in a head-on collision (come on, it’s just too tempting not to do), the law is going to be on your tale and you’re going to have to escape them.  Take too long to escape them and they escalate their pursuit with better roadblocks, spike strips, and faster vehicles.  Not to repeat myself, but it’s awesome.

I certainly question the physics of it all—some of the flips your car does seem relatively impossible—but in an arcade racer I’m not entirely sure that matters.  You’re playing the game because of the speed and thrills it provides, and it provides a whole lot.  And, going online and playing others is a nearly seamless experience which really does actually make things more fun (as opposed to so many other titles where it’s just kind of there).  I am still not sure I buy into the concept of competing long-term scorekeeping with friends about who has posted the fastest time, but if that’s your bag it’s in there too.

The biggest snag to the whole title is this notion of it being a self-guided journey.  The game will tell you where races are and what you’ll get for winning, but the exploration needed to find cars is not something we regularly see.  I keep coming back to Assassin Creed II‘s feathers that were hiding out in the cities.  It was easy to find a bunch of the feathers, but after a while, hunting down those last few could be really painful.  I don’t necessarily advocate going out on the internet to find out where the cars (or feathers) are hidden, but you can and I’m sure many folks will. 

On the flip side, what impresses most about the game is the attention to detail.  You are in a truly beautiful and varied city.  Every little piece of it has been thought out and well-rendered.  It is a pleasure to drive through at 30 miles an hour or 130 miles an hour, and even though you’re going to do the latter a whole lot more than you do the former, you’re not going to be unhappy if you take a minute to smell the roses.  The cars, as you would expect, are gorgeous as well, even when they enter a state of disrepair… and don’t get me started on how good the sparks from your wheels look after the cops take out your tires with a spike strip.

Criterion has put out another great racer here, and if you’re into arcade-style free-roaming racing, you’re not going to want to pass on Need for Speed: Most Wanted.

Need for Speed: Most Wanted is rated E10+ (Everyone 10 and older) by the ESRB for Alcohol Reference, Comic Mischief, Violence. This game can also be found on: Xbox 360 and PC.

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About Josh Lasser

Josh has deftly segued from a life of being pre-med to film school to television production to writing about the media in general. And by 'deftly' he means with agonizing second thoughts and the formation of an ulcer.