A one-trick pony, but a damned good one
Most Wanted is essentially two different games rolled into one - a street racer and a police chase simulator. The street racing aspect of the game is competent and plays essentially like you would expect any Need for Speed game to play like. You'll find yourself tackling many different types of events throughout the game's career, ranging from the standard Circuit and Sprint challenges to more exotic events such as Drag and Speedtrap (where player's compete to have the highest speed as they pass through certain checkpoints). The game takes place in the city of Rockport which is open-world, allowing players to roam the streets as they please. The game features a large selection of exotic cars and shops that allow you to customize them almost any way you could wish.
The street racing aspect sounds nice, but if it was all the game had to offer, it wouldn't be a very memorable experience. What sets Most Wanted apart is the police chases, and rather surprisingly, the story. Police chases had been absent from the Need for Speed series since Hot Pursuit 2, and were significantly revamped for Most Wanted. Instead of only being present during races, cops can be encountered at any time during free roam, which allows the player to take the chase wherever they desire. There are different levels of chases, ranging from one to five. While on heat one, players will encounter small numbers of generic Crown Victoria's that are easily shaken loose. By the time you reach heat five however, you'll be dealing with whole squadrons of undercover Corvette C6's, helicopters, spike strips, SUVs attempting to ram you head on, and an insane amount of roadblocks. Police chases, especially in the higher heat waves, are non-stop adrenaline rushes that require unwavering attention by the player. Certain areas of the city known as "pursuit breakers" are parts of the environment that the player can interact with to cause damage to police vehicles in pursuit. These events include everything from knocking over radio towers to ramming loose a giant donut from a coffee shop and only serve to add to the sheer insanity of the pursuits. Once the player has managed to stay out of visual range of the cops for a few seconds they will enter a "cool down" phase where they will either have to stay out of any patrolling cop cars for a set amount of time or find "hiding stops" that are spread throughout the city.
The police pursuits are by far the most interesting part of the game and are very high-tension, even after a dozen hours into the game. This is partly because the city of Rockport is very well designed and fun to drive around. The city of Rockport consists of three distinct boroughs that all offer very different environments to drive through. This huge amount of variety is a big plus to the game; players can race through shipping docks, a state penitentiary, the campus of a university, a downtown area, a golf course, and a traditional boardwalk. The city definitely has a great personality, and it keeps the game feeling fresh even in the endgame.
When evaluating racing games, gamers usually don't take into consideration their story. However, this train of thought should be disregarded when considering Most Wanted, for the story is actually a highlight. This is largely because the cutscenes are literally as over-the-top and ridiculous as possible. The player takes the role of a street racer just entering the city of Rockport for the first time. You pretty quickly come into contact with Mia, a fellow racer with a gorgeous body, and Cross, the head of the county police's street racing division. The underground world of street racing in Rockport is dominated by the "Blacklist 15", which consists of the 15 the most wanted racers in the city. Upon building up enough "rep" you challenge the #15 man on the Blacklist - Clarence Callahan, or better known by his nickname as Razor. To create a high stakes race, the winner of a Blacklist challenge gets to keep their opponent's car. Halfway through your race against Razor you get a call from Mia informing you that you left oil slicks at the starting line and that someone tampered with your ride. Everything falls apart as Razor wins the race, takes your car, and uses it to rise to the top of the Blacklist. To top things off, Cross catches you at the end of the race and sends you off to prison.
It may not sound like a terribly engaging story, and it telegraphs every plot twist it has, but the FMV cut-scenes are so hilarious and corny that even the most cynical of gamers will fall in love with them. The characters are all completely stereotypical, the voice acting is over-the-top, and the dialogue is among the cheesiest every written. It's one of those rare cases where it's so bad, it's completely genius. I'm almost positive that the developer's took the story very seriously, but if they did intend for it to be as tongue-in-cheek as it is, I applaud them. The only real flaw of the story is that once the player gets past the first half hour or so of the game, the amazing cut-scenes virtually disappear and the rest of the story progresses through text and voice messages the player will receive. More of these cut-scenes would have made the game even better.
The game therefore is essentially a tale of redemption, and you'll spend the whole career working your way up the Blacklist so that you can challenge Razor (who is now #1), and reclaim the car he stole from you. To challenge a Blacklist racer you must first complete certain goals. There are three goals for each Blacklist racer; one requires you to win a certain number racers, the second is obtained through accomplishing certain feats during a pursuit, and the third is obtained once you reach a certain notoriety with the police. This system forces the player to both win races and engage with the cops, and strikes a pretty good balance between the two.
Most Wanted is not without its flaws - in fact it has several which can cause severe annoyance. The most prominent is the weird difficulty curve and the "rubber-band" AI. The game starts off ridiculously easy, but then suddenly ramps up to very hard at around blacklist #6 without any warning at all. A more gradual difficulty curve would have fit the game better. This difficulty is only worsened by the severe "rubber-banding" of the AI. If your opponent makes a mistake and falls far behind they will still somehow manage to catch up and pass you, even if you are driving flawlessly at top speed. This can lead to some very frustrating losses. Other problems that can cause gameplay issues are occasional graphical glitches that can cause your car to stop flat due to a texture sticking out, and a rare screen flickering issue. Those who have played Underground 2 will also likely be disappointed by the car customization. Even though there is a fair amount of alterations one can make to their ride, it is nowhere near as comprehensive as the previous game in the series.
However, despite all these faults, Most Wanted rises above the pack and delivers an entertaining and unique experience. The police chases are truly what make the game great - every second you are in one is exciting and filled with an enjoyable tension. These chases combined with a competent racing component and a hilariously ridiculous story are what make Need for Speed: Most Wanted the most well respected game of the whole franchise. It's successors would often try to emulate the formula that made this game so special, but they could never match it in quality. Even today, five years after its release, I would still recommend Most Wanted to anyone who enjoys the occasional racing game.