It may be all about high-octane, aggressively pimped rides, but for a couple of games now, EA's Need For Speed series has been running on diesel. That's diesel with a capital D, because the two Underground games were totally in the thrall of laconic lunkhead Vin Diesel's boy-racer flick, The Fast and the Furious. And like the fuel, they were noisy, lacking in oomph and they stank a bit.
What they also did, though, was sell by the multi-million. EA was hardly going to ditch the associations that had turned Need For Speed from an also-ran racer into a permanent podium-sitter. So Most Wanted is even more obsessed with the Furious films, keeping the emphasis on the street racing scene and customisable, tricked-out motors, but going beyond it with a storyline emulating the muscle car melodrama of the films' plots - all cheating rivals, macho stand-offs, chicks in hot pants and undercover double-dealing. Happily, the game's makers also felt they needed to step it up a gear and set it apart from its identikit competitors. So they had a stroke of genius: they called the cops.
The game's intro, a time-skipping, 15-minute mix of easy playable races and cutscenes that combine real actors with CG backdrops, sets up your arrival in Rockport City as a hungry young racer with an unbeatable, race-spec BMW M3. No sooner have you attracted the attention of the local racers (including the lovely, mysterious Mia) and police, than a snotty rival called Razor sabotages your ride, steals it and uses it to climb all the way to the top of the police blacklist that defines racers' reputations. With Mia's help, you have to start from scratch and work your way up the blacklist through 16 rivals, to challenge Razor himself and win back your beloved Beemer.
To challenge a rival to a showdown (and win their car), you need to build your reputation by winning races - but that's just the half of it. You also need to earn bounty, a sort of currency of cool with the streetracing elite, by dicing with the police. Cop cars prowl the game's vast, freeroaming map, and they'll start a pursuit if they spot you breaking the law, even in the middle of a race. Once in a pursuit, you can earn bounty and hit milestone challenges by causing mayhem: trading paint with police cruisers, causing property damage, dodging roadblocks. You'll need to evade the pursuit (either with some nifty driving or by taking out your pursuers with some of the destructible bits of scenery dotted around) and wait out a cool-down period in a hiding spot to claim the bounty. Pursuits are hectic, destructive and unpredictable. They take advantage brilliantly of the single, sprawling map - where you lead the police is entirely up to you, and the better you know the streets, the better you'll be able to shake them off your tail. But it can be tricky balancing the need to escape with the need to spin a chase out until you hit your milestones. It's such a different bag from regular racing it takes some getting used to. But when it clicks - when you casually tease whole fleets of prowlers into ridiculous, escalating, Blues Brothers-style chases that literally bring the house down - you'll get a sense of satisfaction no other driving game can provide. But it'll be a long time coming.
Provided you stick with it, though, you will have time to spare. Most Wanted is an immense, feature-heavy game that delivers on the miles per gallon. But it's more about length than strength. The racing is solidly entertaining, with opposition that shows a bit more character than the usual oblivious robots - crashing, squabbling between themselves, brake-testing you, running foul of traffic or the cops - and numerous offroad shortcuts spicing up the tracks.