The Need for Speed franchise has certainly had its ups and downs. Over the years EA has attempted to reinvent it with simulation-style racers that eventually spawn their own series and story-driven games that oftentimes fall flat. Probably the best idea they had though was bringing acquired developer Criterion into the mix. The house that spawned Burnout re-imagined the Hot Pursuit series with acclaimed results, and now EA is bringing them back in to do the same for the Most Wanted franchise.
I will admit that it is weird that we are seeing a series rebooted within its own generation. If you remember, the Most Wanted series started with the Xbox 360 launch, and we are already seeing it start over at the end of the cycle. Of course, if anyone can do it, it’s Criterion. These guys simply know racing games, and Most Wanted feels like it brings a lot of that expertise into the mix. I will be honest, this game feels like Burnout Paradise 2 with NfS elements. That is a good thing.
The minute you boot up Most Wanted you know what you are in for. The only menu you get before jumping into a car is one that asks you to press start. After that you are tossed into the world, and introduced to the mechanics the game has to offer. After a short set of lessons, the world opens up, and you are given freedom to handle the game your way. Everything is handled through Easy Drive, a nifty in-game menu you access with the d-pad that lets you set race markers, switch cars and, of course, check stats. This keeps you constantly focused on the driving portion of the game, and delivers a cohesive experience around the world of Fairhaven.
The way the structure works for single player is simple. You have a list of the Most Wanted drivers in the city. As you earn experience points, you can slowly challenge each one to a race. What I like about the way this works is that experience points can be gained a number of ways. You can enter races, smash billboards and gates or simply do things familiar to Burnout fans around the city. Things like takedowns, traffic checking and oncoming traffic are all present. Also thrown into the mix are cops. They will show up if you do anything unlawful, or sometimes during specific races to turn things into a mess.
It is a cool dynamic that keeps races intense. Cops are neither impossible to shake nor a total pushover, making their presence warranted. Races themselves will also earn you specific upgrades for certain cars. These have to be monitored, as not all races offer up their spoils for every car. The world also hosts a number of cars for your taking. These ‘jack spots’ allow you to simply drive up to the cars and obtain them. It is a nice way to handle collectibles outside of the billboards and gates, and you actually want to find these trinkets.
The cars themselves handle much like you would expect from a Criterion racer. Tapping the brake around corners allows you to slide, and mastering this mechanic goes a long way. There is also a large focus on learning the routes during races. Rarely will you see large markers pointing the direction you are supposed to go. This was an issue I had with Paradise, and it is a shame they haven’t found a better way to deal with it in Most Wanted. You will also gain boost eventually that allows you to take corners easily and push ahead of the competition. Rubberband AI is noticeably present, giving you the illusion of more intense and close races. The downside is that, if you miss a turn or get sidetracked during a race, you might as well start over.
One of my biggest gripes about the game is the lack of life in Fairhaven. The game world and its design just feel empty. The actual design of the world doesn’t open itself up to noticeable landmarks and awesome encounters as much as other games. It also feels surprisingly small in scale after a while of driving around it. This is compensated by giving you access to everything from the outset, but it definitely showcases itself after a few hours of play. If you want to power through just the single player stuff you can topple the Most Wanted list in less than ten hours, but the real meat of Most Wanted comes in its online offerings.
Functioning much like Paradise, the online mode basically lets you hop in with friends or strangers and tear through Fairhaven. It is worth noting that there are no cop chases online, but what is here totally makes up for it. Once you have a collection of racers going, the game sets up a series of events known as “speedlists.” These range from challenges to straight up racing, and everything in between. Once a locale has been set you and your opponents race to the marker, the event begins. Everything adds to your XP, including the race to the event. This is what makes it fun, the uncontrolled chaos. Players will smash into each other on the way causing some frantic crashes and just overall fun.
Events, as I mentioned, are broken down between traditional racing and challenges. These can be things like collective drifting or gate smashing, to who can get the most air. The catch is that your opponents can take you down, thus eliminating you from the competition. Bright side? Once taken out you return to the race as a deterrent; smashing other cars and trying to keep them from beating your already locked in score. As you can imagine this gets insane, and is one of the reasons that the online mode in Most Wanted ends up being more fun than the single player portion of the game.
Another thing I want to mention is the game’s use of Origin. We all scoff at the thought of yet another service to log into, but this one actually benefits users in a couple of ways. The first is that it syncs your points across platforms. So, for example, if you play the game on both 360 and PC, your points transfer, giving you access to later races whenever you start the game up on a new system. It also uses your friends lists from multiple consoles, so you can race against other players’ times from PS3 to 360 and so on. It isn’t perfect right now, and even when logged on I couldn’t see everyone, but it is definitely worth mentioning in the grand scheme of things.
Visually the game looks pretty good most of the time. Frame rates are known to dip when the action gets intense, or when a plethora of cop cars are onscreen. Though the world feels a bit empty that doesn’t change the fact that it looks great. Damage modeling could be better. I feel having the NfS license and using real cars likely has something to do with that though.
Need for Speed: Most Wanted is a spiritual successor to Burnout Paradise with the license behind it. This is not a bad thing; in fact it does more good for the game than anything. Criterion knows how to make fun and accessible racers, and MW is no exception. If you enjoy these types of games I cannot recommend the game enough. There is enough content here to keep you coming back for more, plus the online is downright addictive once you understand and accept it. Racing games have been thriving this year and EA can chock another success up to the team at Criterion. Now, if only we could get that new Burnout game.
Review copy of game provided by publisher. Primary play on Xbox 360.