Need For Speed Most Wanted Was My Own Fucked Up American Dream
Driving down America’s Interstate Highways, especially I-95, your field of vision is narrowed by the sheer expanse of landscape. The fir trees stand as straight as American school children pledging allegiance to the flag. Flags, jutting like battlements from large colonial farmhouses, flutter and die at the top of their poles. Their size is a measurement of patriotism here; they range in dimensions from somewhere between magic carpet and swimming pool cover.
The drive is as smooth as the voice on the radio as he segues between call-ins and classic rock. Often, the rubber on asphalt feels like water across a bow. When we pull over at a small diner somewhere past Virginia Beach, the tyres press the gravel with a crunch and it’s like waking from a dream.
I don’t think I realised just how good I was at Need For Speed Most Wanted until I stopped racing “CPU blacklist rivals” and started playing full blown adult humans. I wasn’t just good, I was freakishly good: 11-year-old violin prodigy good, Novak Djokovic good, Sebastian Vettel good; and by this I mean the kind of unflinching glacial efficiency good that is impossible for anyone to enjoy. Eventually, I started having to crash head on into traffic to stand any chance of losing. My friends stopped playing with me in the end.
Never, had a game meant so little but connected so cooly into the texture of my life. Its cover, a peeling silver-rimmed tyre of what would become the game’s most iconic car, the BMW M3 E46, with the title tagged in a cheap graffito sashayed underneath the Need for Speed typography. It was just another case, neatly sandwiched between Patrick Viera on the cover of FIFA 2005 and the lemon yellow artwork for Boy In Da Corner. The graphics, regardless of the developer’s sophistication, appeared like neon polygons on a 12” screen cut out by Sidewalk, Oz and BBS stickers. It slotted into the atmosphere of my life incrementally, as though it were the missing extension to some ponderous socket that had long been forgotten about.
The gameplay, however, pulled the handbrake on the Max Power milieu (an aura that threatened to suffocate any female presence from my room besides the omnipresent, forever-tidying, Mum). It was unabashedly American, besides the glaring omission of a Fiat Punto as an option for your first in-game ride — a remarkably similar choice to that which friends had made IRL.
The plot reveals itself empirically, populated by an array of characters you would expect to turn up in an after-dark storyline from an episode of The O.C. It begins in the M3. An innocuous street race, motivated by the intelligence and promise of the game’s great female protagonist, Mia Townsend, ends in the loss of the M3’s pink slip and sets up a journey through the heart of Rockport City’s street racing scene in a bid to win it back. That M3, though, it was worth the clamour to get it back. A car that would become one of the game’s iconic rides, it embodied, if not in the decals and the blue racing stripe, the ideals of everything my british identity was geared to desire. And yet, it handled like a shoebox on a skateboard.
In the game the engine tuning packages are duly applied as you progress, but it was the body motivated modifications that kept the career cars interesting and the racing gameplay a treat on the eye. On the highways, drives and avenues of the American thoroughfare, there is a sense too that this is what driving a car is really about. Chargers and Firebirds appear at the passenger window like supporting characters, sometimes staying side by side for an hour or more, in a world where speed limits apply.
On the Interstate, as in Rockport, the slight tips of the wheel are the only nuance required to move between traffic, regardless of whether it’s timber trucks or an idling soccer mom you’re passing by. As an experience of driving — the simplicity of it — the game’s fluidity metastasized within me like a benign parasite. When I stepped from the GMC van we’d borrowed to drive down from Dulles to Carolina that feeling was reawakened, and it struck me with the ferocity and tremendum of an acid flashback.
In Most Wanted there were no necessary amount of toggle flicks required to initiate a drift, and there were no complicated braking techniques that needed to be honed as you began the game. In fact, as I drove into the bleeding heart of the American South I drew comparisons with the ease at which I could navigate more and more with the simple majesty of the game.
At the diner, my brother and father head in, I stay by the car caught in the throng of the flashback. The freedom of living the game and commanding the american road; the american dream. A dog turns up. Its tongue wagging happily in the dumb grin that make retrievers popular companions. It has a bandana instead of a collar.
A man beckons over from a nearby outdoor picnic shelter. Overflow for the Diner’s summer crowd, I supposed. He asks me to take a photo of him with the retriever, which turns out to be his dog. He carries a knife in a sheath clipped to the hoop of his camouflage combat pants. Thrash metal plays from a bluetooth speaker in the belly pocket of his hoody. He throws a knotted length of rope and we watch as the retriever belts after it. The feeling of elation and nostalgia wear off and I want to get to the diner to eat but the man won’t let me leave. He grabs my arm and tells me how he had been kicked out of the nearby petrol station for not keeping his dog on a lead. He made plain his reasons for going home and coming back with his gun.
The mirage of the American road were shattered by the margins I’d struck aground. Eventually I got away and made my way into the diner. When we came out the man and his dog were gone. He didn’t quite leave me, though. He stayed with me. A man frustrated and pushed to the boundaries by the simple institutions he came across. It was as though the promise the road had held had collapsed. I took driving much more seriously. I concentrated. I didn’t hang about. I didn’t proselytise or fawn from memory. When I handed over the keys a week later, I didn’t look back.
I haven’t played Need For Speed since, either.