Need For Speed Most Wanted

EA's forthcoming addition to its hugely popular Need for Speed series returns to its high-speed pursuit roots by reintroducing police to the streets as an added challenge for petrolheads to outwit and out-drive.

Rather than shifting its focus completely, Most Wanted still retains the ride-pimping and street-racing elements that helped accelerate the franchise into the fast lane of game sales by incorporating all of its parts into one vast, open world.

And, after buckling up for an extended test drive in the company of the game's senior producer, Larry LaPierre, EA's tinkering and tuning looks likely to ensure that Most Wanted will roll out of the garage as the series' most impressive drive to date.

Of course, to make Most Wanted work, cop evasion and street racing must be successfully integrated into the driving challenge and, as LaPierre explains, this has been achieved in typical EA style.

"To progress through the game you must meet street-racers and race them, but in order to do that you must have enough of a reputation as a bad-ass. The only way you can build your reputation is by getting away from the cops and having a bounty on your head."

The pursuits themselves are peppered with neat little touches to help drivers give four-wheeled law enforcers the slip. Duck into one of the hiding spots scattered throughout the world without being spotted and, if you remain undetected for a cool-down period, the cops will abandon the chase.

Objects called pursuit-breakers offer the opportunity for more entertaining methods of outrunning patrol cars: props and obstacles, like scaffolding and water towers, can be nudged to drop into the path of pursuers and literally stop them in their tracks.

Radio chatter gives you a heads-up on what tactics the police are planning to employ - such as rolling road blocks - giving you the opportunity to take evasive action to avoid capture.

If the auto-authorities do manage to apprehend you they mark a strike against your car. And if they catch you in the same vehicle three times then your ride takes a trip to the impound, where it sits until a wedge of cash is handed over to liberate it.

LaPierre points out that, as well as introducing a potential 'game over' scenario (no money + no car = no racing), the constant threat of having your ride banged up will encourage players to keep a selection of souped-up alternatives in the garage - something that hasn't been essential in previous versions.

"We're trying to coach people towards customising multiple cars. If you invest too much in one car and the heat level gets too high for it then it can be really difficult to progress through the game. And there're so many cool cars, why not try to motivate people to switch around a bit?"

And while we didn't get a chance to visit any of the custom shops (which, thankfully, won't be hidden and will all be close to one another), we're anticipating a much improved vehicle modding system, with body kits being specifically designed for the game.

Available races appear in the game's world and on the map as icons, but can also be accessed through a menu system. Outrun races make a return, but - to our dismay - drift races have been dropped.

Content-wise Most Wanted appears incredibly polished, but there's still some buffing to be done in other areas. The frame rate seems a little juddery while, graphically, there are still some rough edges that need smoothing over.

The game's slow-down gimmick - the 'speedbreaker' - currently seems far too plentiful in supply, and replaces a healthy reliance on skill, as an almost ever-ready driving aid that can get even the most incompetent drivers safely through the tightest of spots.

Overall, Most Wanted looks set to keep the series ticking over nicely with greater race variety and a much-improved open-world environment. And, if the odd spots of rust can be eradicated, it promises to satisfy our need for speed with a bounty of arcade-style motoring sustenance.

Need for Speed Most Wanted will be released for PS2, Xbox, Gamecube, Xbox 360, PC, PSP, GBA and DS in winter 2005