How 'Most Wanted' effortlessly destroyed its own history with a single prologue
The Fast & The Furious blockbuster franchise started as a low-stakes street racing movie on the asphalt of Los Angeles, and has since blossomed into an all-encompassing, world-saving series that rivals the gravity of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Dom, Letty, Roman, and Tej are still ostensibly the same ne'er-do-wells they always were. They were not bitten by any radioactive spiders. Their only identifiable superpower is the ability to drive fast cars and process exposition on cue. But now in The Fate of the Furious they have a super secret government lair and they're executing high-tech terrorism at the behest of Charlize Theron.
The giddiness of a new Fast & Furious release doesn't just come from the opportunity to watch Vin Diesel athletically upshift a Bugatti. For me, it's because I get to watch this band of merry nobodies get embedded – again! – in some sort of global conspiracy. It's the sort of thing that reminds you that nothing really matters and that Universal could make a Fast & Furious movie on the moon if they wanted (and let's be honest, they probably will,) which is the exact same appeal of a certain Need For Speed game that effortlessly destroyed its own history with a single prologue.
1994's The Need For Speed was a deliberately straightforward racing game. EA reached out to the gearheads at Road & Track magazine to perfect the handling and tuning of each vehicle. You wheeled Dodge Vipers onto closed-circuit courses and win perfectly lawful, above-board tournaments. There are no helicopter chases or rival race crews – there is no option to project neon light underneath your Ferrari – instead, The Need For Speed was the prototype for latter-day series like Gran Turismo and Forza Motorsport, which is an anachronism that gets funnier every year.
To be fair, EA parted ways with Need For Speed's simulation roots pretty quickly. The 1998 classic Need For Speed III: Hot Pursuit included the standard racecar trappings, but added a new mode that put you on either end of a high-stakes police chase, and Need For Speed: Underground abandoned any remaining semblance of legality and placed you in a street-racing faction on the dingy streets of "Olympic City." But it was 2005''s Black Box-developed Need For Speed: Most Wanted where EA completely lost their minds. It is difficult to articulate the sheer recklessness of Most Wanted's creative vision, so first, watch this 10-second exchange from the final cutscene of the game, clearly a nod to Gary Oldman's signature line from Leon: The Professional.
Need For Speed got cooler and looser as time went on, but it was still one of those alien racing franchises that seemed to be populated by sentient cars rather than human beings. Most Wanted changed that in the most glorious way possible, with a series of bizarrely overacted FMV cutscenes that swerve violently between brilliant satire and complete corporate cluelessness. There's Clarence "Razor" Callahan, (Razor Callahan!) a slimy Marshall Mathers-type who heads an evil faction of street racers who sabotages your BMW and sells you out to the cops. "Another bolt-on wonderboy lookin' tah get smoooked."
Then there's Mia, played by model (and now cosmetics mogul) Josie Maran, who serves as an ethereal racer chick who glides her way through a ton of exposition. Razor's right hand man Ronald McCrea, who wears an amazing beanie/sunglasses combo that makes me laugh every time I see it. Everyone looks like they've been chroma-keyed directly into the game engine. It's incredible, and it was immediately clear that this was EA's attempt to take a bite out of the pulp street-racing surge following the underdog success of the first two Fast & Furious movies – and they could not have failed in a more enthralling way.
The funny thing is that Most Wanted was also a fantastic driving game, and it was also one of the very few reasons to own an Xbox 360 during that console's launch in 2005. Those notorious cutscenes were only around to fill out the story's prologue and conclusion, but they were just outlandish enough to earn a cult following. It was especially mind-blowing if you'd played the previous Need For Speed games. Imagine hearing that "smoooked" line if you first migrated to this series during the Road & Track days. It's the same reaction you'd have if, after watching The Fast & The Furious in 2001, someone told you that in the seventh movie Paul Walker would drive through two Dubai skyscrapers in a row.
Conglomerates like EA earn a reputation for being a little stuffy, so it was easy to forgive Most Wanted's awful writing if it meant encouraging them to keep trying weird stuff. I mean, wheeling in a bunch of D-level commercial actors to play out a miniaturized, low-budget, somehow-even-more-ridiculous version of a Fast & Furious movie seems like a pretty tough sell in a boardroom. But they pulled it off, and the world was given a piece of video game melodrama we will never forget.
The Need For Speed series employed FMV a number of times since Most Wanted. The direct sequel Carbon follows the player-character to a new city with a new seedy underbelly of street-racing goons, and 2008's tepid Undercover upgraded the cast with a bevy of B-listers like Maggie Q and Dawn Olivieri. But later entries have excised that goofiness completely. The 2012 reboot of Most Wanted shares the same name, but there's no Razor Callahan to be found. It was a tacit admission that the era of self-consciously edgy teleplays in video games was over. I mean, they weren't wrong from moving away from FMV, but it was sad to think that EA didn't share a love for their camp that we did.
The 2015 franchise reboot (bluntly titled Need For Speed) did introduce a cast of misfits in questionable fashion on a cheap Hollywood set, however. The game wasn't great, but it made me happy that EA was embracing the things that made us fall in love with Need For Speed. We want great, tactile street racing, we want a guy named Spike in a chain and tilted hat reading painfully bad dialogue. Nothing will ever touch Most Wanted, nothing will ever be that naive or lack such a crucial self-conscious, but I'm glad they're trying.