The Need for Speed franchise has had its fair shares of ups and downs over the years, but during the mid-2000s, it was perhaps at the peak of its powers. The racing series saw the release of a number of excellent instalments, many of which can legitimately be called some of the best racers of their era, if not of all time- and one in particular that holds a special place in the hearts of those who played it to this day is 2005’s Most Wanted. Developed by EA Black Box, the original Most Wanted captured the essence of the Need for Speed franchise better than almost any other game in the series has to date- but what exactly was it that made it so special?
Obviously, the game had more than a few major strengths that made it the bombastic, memorable experience that it was, but there were some areas in particular that elevated it to the heights that it did reach. One of those was the game’s sheer, incredible sense of speed. You’d think that nailing that particular aspect is something that every single racing game would know how to do, but sadly, that’s not always the case. 2005’s Need for Speed: Most Wanted, however, nailed it to absolute perfection. Every single race, every single police chase, even the aimless driving around in the open world went hand in hand with a sense of speed that made every second of the game feel like an absolute thrill ride.
Most Wanted emphasized that aspect of the experience in several ways. Take the Nitrous mechanic, for instance. That is, of course, a staple for most (if not all) racers in today’s day and age, but back in 2005, Most Wanted was only the second Need for Speed game to feature that mechanic, after it was introduced in the original Underground. And one of the ways it made it significantly more crucial to the moment to moment gameplay loop was by having your Nitrous meter refill by itself constantly. The game always encouraged players to let the boost rip, allowing you to tear through the open world city’s streets to your heart’s content. Then there was the Speedbreaker mechanic, which was, in essence, Most Wanted’s take on bullet time, allowing you to slow down time to maneuver around obstacles and other vehicles and even temporarily be able to drift. Using it almost never got old.
Dangerous, speedy driving was encouraged in plenty of other ways as well. Some events, of course, were particularly designed around that, such as Speedtrap races, which challenged players to race through a series of checkpoints at the highest possible speeds and hit each of them before any of your competitors, with your speed at each checkpoint being added up at the finish line to see which racer accumulated the highest total. And then, of course, there was the game’s headlining feature, which defined the very core of what made Most Wanted what it was- the police chases.
Police chases have always been integral to Need for Speed’s identity for pretty much as long as the series has been around, but until 2005 (and perhaps even to this day), no game in the franchise had emphasized them as heavily as Most Wanted did. Completing racing events and Milestone challenges to rise through the ranks of the city’s underground racing scene and defeat each of its Blacklist racers was your main objective in the game, but what truly formed the heart and soul of the entire game was the police chases.
From speeding to crashing into traffic to committing a number of other driving offences, there was no shortage of actions in Need for Speed: Most Wanted that attracted the attention of the law, and once the cops began pursuing you, that’s when things really went down. What really made the police pursuits so special in the game was their sense of escalation- starting out with chases that were relatively low stakes and did not present that much of a challenge, as you racked up the offences and saw your heat level constantly rising, the way the chases escalated was extremely impressive, with the cops constantly ramping up their efforts to bring you down, from faster and sturdier vehicles to things such as spike traps, road blocks, and even helicopters. There was nothing more thrilling than tearing through the city’s streets with an army of police vehicles all trying to bring you to a dead stop, and the swelling satisfaction you got from successfully escaping a chase by destroying cop cars by smacking into them and watching them crumble or crashing through the pillars of a building to bring it down behind you and crumble on top of the pursuing cops was, in a word, immense.
When it came to the races themselves, Most Wanted benefited from a number of other things, prime among them being the variety on offer. From the aforementioned Speedtraps to Tollbooth races, from drag races to sprints, from Milestone challenges to the police pursuits, and, of course, the set piece events known as Blacklist racers, Most Wanted exhibited an impressive variety of racing events. Beyond all that, simply driving around in the open world itself was also an absolute blast, not only thanks to the aforementioned sense of speed and the incredible executing of the game’s fundamental driving mechanics, but also because there was almost always something fun to do in the open world- like crashing through billboards or performing stunt jumps, all of which is pretty cookie cutter in today’s day and age, but set the standards for the genre back when the game first launched.
Then there was the whole garage building aspect of the experience, which has always been an integral part of Need for Speed games. Most Wanted left a little something to be desired where things such as damage mechanics and cosmetic customization options are concerned, but when it came to building up your own sizeable roster of vehicles and upgrading them in a variety of ways to make them faster and stronger, the game was teeming with options. It also helped a great deal that by 2005’s standards, Most Wanted looked absolutely incredible. Not only did its distinct sepia tone and art design give it a very unique look that’s hard to find in racers even to this day, from a pure technical standpoint, the game was an impressive accomplishment.
Time has certainly been kind to Need for Speed: Most Wanted. That does not, of course, mean that the game was not appreciated back when it first came out – it instantly became a fan favourite, enjoyed solid critical reception, and remains one of the highest selling Need for Speed games to this day – but as time has gone on, more and more people have looked back at the 2005 game and recognized its brilliance that much more, to the point where, for many, it ranks as probably one of the series’ best outings ever, and maybe even one of the best racing games ever made. Criterion tried its hand at the Most Wanted name with a 2012 reboot of the same name, and the developer brought its own unique flair and panache to the experience in a number of ways, and while that was a solid game in its own right, it’s fair to say that it couldn’t touch the heights that its predecessor did. And when not even the racing masterminds at Criterion can outdo a game, you know that it was truly special. We can only hope that Need for Speed will accomplish something similar at some point in the future.
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