Incredible underdeveloped and disappointing in parts
Need for Speed: Most Wanted is an arcade racing game released in 2005 by EA.
On the technical side the PC version of the game is a bit of a mixed bag. While the racing graphics themselves still hold up suprisingly well, over five years later, thanks to it's pseudo-HDR and motion blur effects , the game lacks support for widescreen forcing a 4:3 aspect ratio. On the control side the game lacks native Xbox360 controller support and only supports it via DirectInput, which requires manual configuration and leads to numerous smaller issues, such as symbols on screen not matching the controller buttons, menus being entered via B and existed via X instead of A and B and some parts of the GUI not being reachable with the controller at all. The deadzone also seems unfit for the controller and one can't use gas and break at once. While annoying, none of those issues is however game breaking. The PC version, patched to V1.3, also crashed on me multiple times.
On the gameplay side the game sort of follows a similar open world model to that found in the later Burnout Paradise, meaning the player can freely drive around the whole map and drive to specific points to start races. Unlike Burnout Paradise however the races are scattered rather far apart and the game never really encourages using the free drive mode as the game isn't really build around the open world model, but instead follows a linear progression where the player has to beat certain races before he can move on to the next tier, thus by far most interaction will happen via a simple classical menu to select the next race to beat instead of wasting time driving there. The open world also lacks meaningful side activities, as while the player can upgrade and buy new cars, none of those can be accomplished by exploring the open world, as cars and upgrades are locked till a specific tier is reached, thus you upgrade exactly once when moving up to a new tier and then are locked out of all upgrades till you reach the next one.
The game also supports numerous optical upgrade abilities to the car, such as paint jobs, spoilers and other decorations. I however didn't find them all that useful, as customization isn't flexible enough to get creative and the rather linear progression means you won't be building a custom car anyway, but simply end up using whatever is the fasted right now.
The racing itself in the game is over the top arcade, focusing pretty much exclusively on constant high speed races with little braking, nitro boosts are available to give some extra speed. The players car has no damage model at all, it is invulnerable in crashes. Unlike Burnout Paradise, where racing happen completely free form, with only a start and a finish, Most Wanted only has closed tracks, where other areas of the open world will get locked up by magical barriers. Regular traffic still happens on all races and provides an element of random chaos. The races themselves come in numerous forms, simple races from start to finish against three opponents, racing on a round course with multiple laps, races against the clock over a number of checkpoints and races where not the position counts, but who has the highest speed at a checkpoint. There are also drag races, that use different mechanics then the regular racing. In drag races the players car is automatically controlled and instead the player has to focus only on boosting and gear shifting. All the player can do is switch lanes to avoid traffic. Drag races are only a small part of the game and provide a welcome puzzle-gamey distraction, as the goal here is essentially to learn the correct pattern for traffic avoidance and not so much actual driving.
The second half of Most Wanted's core gameplay are chases with the police. These can either be triggered within a regular race or started via the menu. Police chases happen on the open world map without restrictions, the goal in those chases is to reach specified milestones, such as a given amount of property damage, a specific number of damaged police cars or having the chase go on for a specific number of minutes. Doing those police chases is mandatory to advance to the next tier. The police chases are in equal parts probably the best and worst of Most Wanted. They are the best as they focus on free form open world gameplay, here the player can get creative in how he wants to evade the police and how he wants to destroy things. "Chase breaker" objects, scattered around the map, provide opportunity to destroy police cars, these include things such as gas stations which the player can drive through and have explode or collapsing structures. The longer a chase last, the higher the players warning level will get and the tougher the police cars will become. Getting for enough away from the police and hiding in specified hiding spots will end the chase.
At the best of times those chases are quite spectacular and can be a lot of pure chaotic fun. At the worst of times the chases can however be incredible frustrating. As the players car is invulnerable, it can't be stopped by the police by normal ramming or crashes, instead the police will try to circle the player to block him. If the players car doesn't move for something like three seconds, the chase lost. The police will further try to place blockages on the road and place spike stripes, spike stripes will lead to instant death as the player will be unable to drive any further. What makes the police chases so frustrating is that the bad end of the chase never really happens due to a direct the fault of the player. Sometimes crashing through a blockage works just fine, sometimes the physics engine will decide differently and let you get stuck in a car, sometimes crashing into a police car will slow you down enough that other cars can circle you, sometimes they won't. Most of the times you will simply get stuck by bad luck, not by any fault in your driving. What makes these things especially annoying is that one can't avoid them, if the goal of the chase is to destroy a given number of police cars, you can't avoid crashing into them, you have to do that to reach the count. Furthermore those chases take a long time, later in the game 10 minutes aren't unusual, and a single mistake or a chase of bad luck will mean instant death. Even worth, you can't even directly retry to chases, as reaching certain goals is only practical at certain warning levels, getting caught resets your warning level, thus you have to grind through all the none challenging parts of the chase before you can get to the meaningful one. On top of that the none challenging parts of the chase are later on so easy that you will often lose the police by accident, thus forcing you to actually chase the police so that they catch on to you again, as otherwise the chase would have again to be restarted.
The story side of the game is by far the biggest disappointment. While the game comes along with stylish and cheesy FMV sequences that suggest that a bigger story would follow, nothing ever comes of that. The game really only has three short FMV cutscenes, two right at the start of the game and another one at the end, in between the game has no FMV at all, all together probably less then 5 minutes. Instead all the 15 named drivers against which you drive are simply introduced with a few static pictures and a short text. Furthermore the game never really bothers to establish those drivers properly through gameplay, most of the races you drive are simply against random cars without any personality and once you beat a named driver, they are never mentioned again. The game also features a voice and text that you will get throughout the game, they however only really serve as tutorial hints and don't add anything to the story.
Overall Need for Speed: Most Wanted is a mixed bag, some of the chases sequences are amazing and spectacular and the core racing is pretty solid fun as well, but everything surrounding those parts just feels very underdeveloped and uneven, it's like looking at a half of an amazing game, with the other half just being plain missing. The open world aspect of the game would have given numerous opportunities to build some upgradeablility and personality into the game, but the game does none of that. The games story could have been easily extended to give the game world some substance, but it does none of that. Instead you have 3 minutes of FMV, then 30 hours of grinding through race after race and then another minute for the final cutscene, which conclusion also leaves a bit to be desired. There could have been aspects of car collection and customization, but the game makes no use or room for that. The invulnerability of the players car also locks out elements of managing repair and damage and leads to police chases that far to often end up in plain frustration. I still had my fun with the game, as it certainly has plenty of good parts, but it just feels like missed chance in far to many other areas.