It was only when the car leapt from the starting line, the engine roaring fiercely and the tyres squealing and smoking on the asphalt, that I finally understood the thrill of motor racing. Not that I was ever truly skeptical. But as someone who lives his life chained to the bright red buses of London town, there's no better way to rekindle ones faith in driving than a 100 MPH, stomach churning thrill ride around the sweeping corners of a German racetrack.
Of course, that's a privilege few will experience. And as I was driven around the circuit, chased by a mocked-up police car that drifted around each and every one of the tight, hard corners, I couldn't help but wonder--in between my girlish screams--what exactly l, a non-driving, entirely skint games journalist was even doing there.
For those not familiar with the inner workings of "the press trip", there's an unwritten rule that states any gathering of journalists--large or small--must be treated to some odd activity loosely connected with the product, service, or person they're actually there to see. Presumably it's all part of an effort to grease the wheels of editorial coverage, or--at the very least--justify a three-day trip to the ass-end of nowhere, when a cosy hour or two with an Xbox in the office would suffice.
In the case of Need For Speed: Most Wanted, a trip to the Porsche factory in Leipzig, Germany seemed apt for a game that features, uhh, Porsches. But then, it features other cars too. Fords, Aston Martins, Lamborghinis; hell, even the wonderful--and British made--Ariel Atom. Perhaps a trip to the Ariel Atom factory in sunny Somerset wasn't quite the experience EA were looking for.
And this was "an experience" after all, one that EA were keen to compare to the virtual world of Most Wanted at every opportunity.
"How does being driving around in the Porsche feel?"
"Yes, but how does it compare to the game?"
"Well, it's real life. There are G-Forces, and physics at work that make the whole damn exciting--different to the game."
"So, as exciting as driving around the awesome virtual racing playground that is the city of Fairhaven?"
"Uhh, well, no…I suppose you could…"
"Just as good then, GREAT."
Let's be clear--just in case there's any confusion--pushing buttons on a controller is not as exciting as being driven around in a top sports car at high speeds by a professional racing driver.
The thing is, Need For Speed: Most Wanted is pretty exciting in its own right. Hell, it's damn good--so long as you're not looking for a proper reboot to the original 2005 release. Gone is the narrative, replaced with--well--nothing. But there are missions, and lots of them. The open-world city of Fairhaven is beautifully detailed, if not that large, and populated with heaps of different races for you to compete in. And they all have one thing in common: Burnout.
Most Wanted is far more weighted towards the Burnout series than it is Need For Speed. There are gloriously destructive slow-motion takedowns, and green mission markers, and the freedom to take whichever route you want to complete a mission--so long as you don't miss a checkpoint. Missions include speed runs, first-past-the-post races, and eliminators, but none of the more exciting stunt and takedown missions from Burnout--at least not that I saw in the time I had with the single-player.
That's a shame, because after a while those racing missions do get a bit tedious, which I promptly discovered upon entering my third hour of play and began gnawing my own arm off. The constant presence of the police--who you must outrun by escaping their circles of vision-- and Autolog did help break up the action, though. Various speed cameras, jumps, and destructible signs were scattered across the city, which flashed up with my friends' (fellow journalists') times and scores as I drove past. That's neat, and a great way to create rivalries, if not entirely enough to distract from the endless racing missions.
There's another mission type on offer in the form of 10 Most Wanted vehicles, with your aim being to steal them all--by which I mean race against them, win, and then takedown the car. It's not an easy thing to do, and frustratingly so sometimes, particularly as I levelled up and unlocked tougher opponents. I did like how, once I'd stolen their car, or one of the many others parked around the city, that I could leap into any of them, at any moment, with just a few button presses and without needing to drive to some lame virtual garage.
But really, the most fun and excitement came from the multiplayer. There I assembled into with seven others into teams and took on playlists of familiar challenges such as catching the most air over ramps, and taking down as many opponents as possible. But it wasn't so much the events themselves as it was the subsequent griefing that took place during them that made them so joyous, and so brilliantly frustrating.
Lining up a perfect run up to a ramp, hoping to catch some serious air only to be sideswiped by a competitor is a wonderful, wonderful thing. Not if you're on the receiving end of it, but so funny when it's you doing the griefing and hear the expletive-filled screams of frustration over your headet. And then the whole thing turns into chaos. Rivalries are created, egos are taken down a notch, and cars are turned in steaming wrecks every few seconds--absolute bliss.
Sure, that's not the same kind of bliss you get from a joyride in a Porsche, or a BMW, or even a clapped out banger on a council estate. But Most Wanted is safer. And cheaper. And doesn't require a midlife crisis. And--above all--it's still a hell of a lot of fun.