Is it just us or is being 'bad' far less fun than it used to be? Back in the olden days, bad guys were either misunderstood outsiders or unhinged moustache-twiddling madmen. Even the ones that weren't cool, rebellious types were at least anarchic nutcases who never played by the rules. Nowadays it seems that if you want to be a rebel you not only have to have a cause, you have to have a clothing line and a record contract as well. Being 'bad' on your own terms just isn't enough; you have to be a particular type of nasty within a prescribed larger scheme of evilness to be considered worthy.
Take the supposedly shady world of Need for Speed: Underground, for instance. Within this illegal street racing circuit, there's hotbed of rebellious youths with a more rigid and structured hierarchy than you'd even find in an average branch of Barclays. Your aspirations as a reckless racer are not simply to cause trouble, outrun the cops or do donuts for kicks round the car park, but rather to win races, invest the returns in customising your car (or buying new models) and gradually work your way up the slippery slope, sorry, blacklist, of notoriety defeating 15 other candidates, sorry, racers, en route to seizing the top spot.
Fortunately, when you actually get out onto the road, the racing itself is far from mundane. For starters, the whole game looks fabulous with detailed cars showing off their custom paint jobs (you can tart-up just about every element of the car from alloys to spray jobs), plenty of trackside detail and a typically rocking line-up of music as a backdrop to your automotive antics. Crucially, this visual realism is backed up in the cars' handling, too, with the realistic enough performance to pose a stiff challenge and ensure you'll lose control more than once as you tear around the undulating tracks. Thankfully it's forgiving enough to let you really enjoy the exhilaration of pushing your motor to the limit, especially when you start to upgrade the power. Indeed, the enjoyment derived from redlining your vehicle around a track, with the screen blurring to emphasise the speed, slipping effortlessly through corners and narrowly missing oncoming traffic is almost reason enough to buy Most Wanted, or at least borrow it.
In truth, though, you're unlikely to be allowed to enjoy such high-speed nirvana undisturbed for long. In addition to fending off your competing street racers and the (admittedly quite sparse) 'civilian' traffic, you'll also have to contend with an increasingly attentive, not to mention aggressive, police presence which keeps close tabs on the recklessness of your driving. Every time you accelerate past the legal limit, barge opponents out of the way or narrowly miss oncoming vehicles, an annoyed police broadcast message will sound over your police scanner and an extra notch is chalked up on your wanted list. Reach a certain level and the first jam jar will be summoned to pursue you; push it further and you'll be faced with road-blocks and faster, tougher, more aggressive cops who clearly haven't been reading the same manuals as the guys on Police, Camera, Action, favouring a decidedly direct approach to taking you off the streets.
Needless to say, this tussling adds a whole new tactile dimension as well as a random element to the basic racing thrills, as altercations with the law can cost precious seconds or crucial places in the overall race. If you're caught, you forfeit the event completely. Whilst these interventions could (and occasionally do) seem unnecessarily harsh or unfair, the scales are balanced firstly by the fact that other vehicles are just as susceptible to untimely collisions as you are, especially given a little (ahem) assistance and, secondly, by the presence of two driving aids. Whilst the nitro boost is a racing game standard these days, giving you a little extra punch just when you need it, the 'speed breaker' option is a little more interesting, providing a few seconds of Matrix-style 'bullet-time' to put the action into slow-motion and manoeuvre out of a tricky situation. Although, in truth, this can make life slightly too easy in the earlier challenges, especially as your allotted time repeatedly recharges, you'll be glad of it later on when a rabid pack of cops is trying to steer you over a spike-trap.
Pocket gamers that come to this from the best-selling PS2 version will undoubtedly be disappointed by the lack of the free-roaming cityscape and limited storyline. For everyone else, however, the variety of racing challenges (tournaments, time trials, eliminators, etc) and ability to keep upgrading your motor should prove addictive enough to keep you coming back for more. We got so attached to our little resprayed V-Dub, with it's neat spoiler and beefy alloys, that we didn't want to trade it in for a faster model! There's even the opportunity to turn the tables and take your turn as a cop chasing down the street-racers, plus the usual raft of wireless multiplayer opportunities enabling you to pit your souped-up vehicle against those of your mates.
While it never quite matches the exhilaration and reckless exuberance of the fabulous Burnout Legends, nor the power-sliding pace of Ridge Racer, Need for Speed: Most Wanted 5-1-0 certainly offers a pleasant and scenic diversion from the usual racing fare.Need for Speed: Most Wanted is on sale now.