After two distinctly average Need For Speed games, we'd pretty much given up all hope for the venerable street-racing series. However, the good news is that NFS Most Wanted is a much, MUCH better game. The basic premise might be the same as NFS Underground 2 - race heavily modified cars, illegally, through the free-roaming city of Rockport for cash and respect - but Most Wanted does it with a real sense of style. And by that we mean law enforcement-style.
Not only is it necessary to beat your rivals, now you have to do it while avoiding the rozzers as well, and it's this twist in the gameplay that turns out to be the best thing to happen to the Need For Speed series since, ooh, police chases were last a big feature of the game (NFS: Hot Pursuit 2 to be exact). Need For Speed Most Wanted's police chases are so good, that you'll want to get caught speeding just to hand Old Bill his arse on a plate yet again.
It's this sense of excitement more than anything that elevates Most Wanted over its forerunners. Here is a game that hits the ground with all four wheels running. A game that thrusts you into a world of illicit street-racing and cop baiting. A world where, just like in dodgy full-motion videogames of ten years ago, real people act against computer-generated backgrounds. Yes, it's tacky, yes, it's cheesy, and yes, you really do have to endure an endless stream of third-rate actors talking directly to camera, but somehow it works. And for a while it's great, racing street punks and pissing off traffic cops. Properly great, even.
But then you get busted, and it's back to square one with just enough cash to buy a low-end hatchback. It's here that Most Wanted starts straying back into banal Underground territory. The idea is to build up 'Cred' (what else?) through races and run-ins with the law. The more Cred you have, the higher up the 'Blacklist' of notorious drivers you can challenge, until eventually you reach the top again. Which is fine - it's just the getting there that's the chore. Put simply, it's the same old races from Need For Speed: Underground all over again: generic and predictable. And while Rockport might look pretty enough, we can't help but notice how suspiciously empty all its roads are (despite the switch to daytime racing), or how similar it all looks. Most Wanted might be a vast improvement technically, but this is still nowhere near as impressive as Midnight Club 3: DUB Edition or Burnout: Revenge.
Until the police start chasing you again that is, at which point everything speeds up, the music switches back into BIG SCREEN ACTION mode, and everything feels right with the world again. Even if the cop chases do start to repeat themselves after a while, there's nothing quite as satisfying as slamming a siren-topped sports car into a big,
But what about the bit where you strip down your boxy, sales rep Lexus and kit it out with a bad-boy spoiler, pearlescent paint and several litres of highly volatile liquid nitrous oxide? Naturally, this being Need For Speed, car-modding is still an important consideration. There are hundreds of official performance add-ons, body kits and decals, it's just that now they're not nearly as integral to the plot as they were in Underground 2.
Whereas Underground 2 force-fed you its carmodding-is-cool philosophy at every opportunity, Most Wanted simply lets you get on with it as and when you have the time/cash/inclination to spare. You'll still need to upgrade your car if you hope to remain competitive, but as an aside to the racing it's less confusing, more approachable and generally better all round - even if it does use a strangely counter-intuitive checkout system for making purchases (items have to be put in a basket first, and then bought together in what appears to be some kind of weird homage to amazon.co.uk).