When it comes to the golden era of racing games, one need look no further than the early to mid-2000’s for some of the finest examples of groundbreaking racers to shape the future of the genre. From the high-speed, chaotic intensity of the Burnout series to the freeform dazzle of Midnight Club, racing was arguably in a very good space. However, one franchise always seemed to remain a few notches above the competition. EA’s Need For Speed series proved to be the reigning king of the racing genre with the acclaimed Underground series, and hammered that title well into place with its 2005 follow-up, Need For Speed: Most Wanted, a return to what made its staple fugitive racer such a huge hit with Hot Pursuit.

Need For Speed: Most Wanted expands upon the story aspects of the Underground series with well-integrated live-action cutscenes that blend seamlessly into the games graphics. You begin as a relatively well-known racer in Rockport City, donning your notorious BMW M3 that many other street racers have come to know you by. However, after a bout with a rival racer, Razor, leaves you jailed and your car taken as a pinkslip, you re-enter the street racing scene afresh and have to climb your way up the infamous Blacklist of fifteen credible racers. For the first time in the series, Most Wanted presented a refreshingly unique spin on the typical career mode in a racer by implementing a fully fledged story, albeit if its only purpose was to move the player along from one race to the next.

Rockport City, for its time, was massive and dense with activity. Races took the form of many different events, from your usual circuit and sprint races to drags and, most notably, police pursuits. Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit introduced the series to the idea of fugitive racing with police pursuits, but Most Wanted refined it to an insane degree. The pursuits here are heated, intense, and escalate into particularly nasty chaos that calls for quick thinking and even quicker reflexes. Everything from spike strips, SUV’s, armored trucks and even helicopters all play into the pursuit as your evasion time grows along with your destructive tendencies. The result is as exhilarating as it is utterly bombastic.

While Most Wanted didn’t feature as robust customization as Underground 2, the freedom to create your own personalized machine of speed was plentiful. You begin the game in a simple fashion, buying the most basic of vehicles for the lesser tier street races. Each race earns you either upgradable parts or exterior modifications that affects the way the police react to your presence. The faster and flashier the car, the greater chance you have of cops noticing you; a small but clever gameplay mechanic that added great depth and realism to the experience. It does certainly encourage players to opt for the safer route and blend in, but with such a roster of customization options, it’s hard to really resist.

Climbing up the Blacklist is a defining and iconic feature of Most Wanted. Each Blacklist contains a handful of races and a boss, which proves to ultimately be some of the most challenging but downright rewarding events in the game. The difficulty spikes in the boss races are immense if players don’t pay attention to their opponents car and method of driving, forcing them to adapt to the AI. Not many racing titles present this much personality and intimacy in their major races and events, which adds several dimensions to Most Wanted’s progressing narrative. By the end, and with just enough work and determination, your ride can easily outclass the entirety of the Blacklist you once fought hard against, leaving a lasting impression on your skills and abilities as a racer.

Need For Speed: Most Wanted boasts the most unique, distinguishable sense of style and personality in any racer to date, despite occasionally falling victim to its own repetitive cycle of events. The sense of speed is unparalleled and the world feels vibrant, bright and dense as opposed to the neon-lit, dormant night life of Underground 2. Many would argue that Most Wanted was the last truly mesmerizing experience in the series before taking a slump with Carbon, its direct sequel, but that would be an entirely justified claim to make. Most Wanted is simply one of the best racing games of all time and a worthy, standout addition to the mid-2000’s era of great racers.