By Nicholas Simonovski
When it comes to the Need For Speed franchise, there are two titles in particular that I’d love to see a sequel for -– Underground and Most Wanted. I was therefore elated at the announcement that Criterion were not only behind the next NFS title, but that it was also going to be called Most Wanted too! Despite not knowing what direction the developers were taking the game, but given how successful Hot Pursuit was two years ago, I was confident the title was in safe hands. Now that I’ve had some time to get acquainted with their latest offering however, I wonder if I was perhaps too optimistic...
The begin, it should be mentioned that Criterion’s Most Wanted is not a sequel to the original, nor does it act as a homage. Instead, much like Hot Pursuit, Need For Speed Most Wanted is their take on the 2005 classic. The best way to describe this game would be a combination of Hot Pursuit and Burnout Paradise – and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. As soon as you begin the game you’re thrown into the driver’s seat of an Aston Martin V12 Vantage, and its immediately here that you recognise the familiar physics from their last title.
While cars generally have a more grounded and heavier feel, the ability to come into a corner fast, tap the brake and simply drift around the bend is still very much present and is just as enjoyable as it was two years ago. The handling of each car is still very far from realistic, but Criterion have done well to make each vehicle feel unique -- from the nimble and quick Ariel Atom to the heavy Bugatti Veyron (which, as you’d expect, is stupidly quick in a straight-line but somewhat inept at taking corners).
Need For Speed: Most Wanted features two main types of events – street races and pursuits (multiplayer has a few more which will be discussed later). Much like with Hot Pursuit, street races can sometimes include pursuit chases, but unlike Criterion’s last title, the player can now partake in police pursuits while in free-roam as well. Similar to the original Most Wanted, the goal is to escape the police’s line of sight, find a place to hide and eventually evade the pursuit. Unlike the 2005 game, pursuit chases don’t nearly feel as enjoyable or as engaging as they were seven years ago. While the police still use tactics like roadblocks, spike-strips, SUV ram units and P.I.T. manoeuvres, Criterion have gotten rid of features like pursuit-breakers, cool-down spots and pursuit milestones, all of which gave these chases a purpose (and made them fun) in the original Most Wanted.
While you can still take down police cars they aren’t nearly as easy to immobilise as your opponents are during the street-races for example (nor as easy as it was to take down cops in the 2005 title), so the only thing you do in pursuits is either attempt to speed out of their line of sight, or take enough corners that you shake them off – its neither engaging nor satisfying (think Midnight Club Los Angeles and how boring those pursuits were). It’s a shame that for a Most Wanted title, the pursuits are pointless. I remember being involved in a 30 minute pursuit in the 2005 Most Wanted where I immobilised 50 police units and damaged close to 100 – it was rewarding and it felt like an accomplishment – sadly, you don’t get any of this in this game.
Fortunately though, while the pursuits in Most Wanted aren’t particularly exciting, things are a little different when it comes to racing. The combination of Burnout’s takedown-styled gameplay mixed with the drift-happy physics makes for some exhilarating and immersive street-racing. As it was with Hot Pursuit, pulling off the perfect drift at high speeds never gets old, and there’s something satisfying about taking down your opponents as you make your way to the front of the pack. Having pursuits take place throughout the race is a nice addition and hearing the police chatter over the radio throughout the event really adds to the atmosphere. In addition, every race in the game also has its own unique intro video (the Blacklist races are particularly cool) which adds something different and funky to the start of every event. Admittedly, they do become somewhat boring once you’ve watched them once or twice (you are shown them every time you restart the race) but at least they can be skipped.
Sadly however, as fun as the racing is in this game, the way Criterion have structured these events within Most Wanted can be described as nothing short of ridiculous. To begin with, each vehicle only has five races you use it in. While this might sound acceptable on paper (5 races x 42 vehicles = 210 races), the problem lies in the fact that Most Wanted only features a little over 60 races. If you’re interested in completing all the events in the game, you’ll need to essentially repeat the same events almost four times. What’s worse is that the only way to unlock the upgrades for each car is to finish each of its five races. This means that whether you’re driving the first vehicle you discovered or the last, you’ll need to unlock nitrous, short/long gears, lightweight/toughened chassis and different tires for each one individually. The problem here is, not only do you need to do the same races over and over (which becomes repetitive and boring quickly), but once you’ve finished the five events you’ve essentially got nothing left to do with your car – it’s either finish the races (yet again) to set a fast time, participate in pursuits or drive around in free-roam – but after all this, would you really want to? I don’t understand why I couldn’t use one car to participate in most of the events or unlock nitrous and other upgrades for all my cars at once, such as, I don’t know... every other racing game ever made? I get Criterion is trying to be different but this is just stupid.
Continuing on, another feature of Most Wanted which I had a real problem with were the crash sequences. Taken straight from the Burnout franchise, there is nothing that kills the intensity and immersion of a race more than having to sit for a few seconds twiddling your thumbs, as you watch your car flip and roll whenever you collide with traffic or a wall. Whether its within a race, in a pursuit or just in free-roam, crash sequences are annoying and add nothing to the game but frustration. Having your car reset after a crash and seeing it badly damaged each time isn’t what I like to see from a racing game either (damage is fine, but not when you’re staring at it most of the time).
Despite this though, the catch-up feature in Most Wanted is quite lenient and this means that a single crash or two won’t result in you losing the race. On the flip side though, crashing in a pursuit can often lead to you being busted fairly easily, as the game will often reset your car surrounded by police with the busted meter filled almost entirely, with only a very small window to try and escape from before you are caught. In-short, the crash sequences are a rubbish feature which really shouldn’t belong in any racing game – let alone a Need For Speed title.
Another issue with Most Wanted is the way the HUD has been designed. Starting with the EasyDrive system -- what should have been a great feature that allows players to select races, customise their vehicles and switch to other cars on the fly -- is essentially made useless with the fact that its borderline impossible to navigate while driving. Due to the fact that it blocks most of the screen, you simply cannot select options from within EasyDrive and concentrate on what’s going on in-front of you as well. While you can select races and vehicles from the main map, it seems a little strange that EasyDrive wasn’t made accessible from within the main menu, so most of the time you either need to slow down to a halt or risk crashing while you try to select an option. The game also lacks seemingly simple features, such as billboards and speed-cameras being shown on the mini-map once you discover them, no split-times between yourself and the other opponents in a race and no radar to indicate when a police car is nearby (such as in the original Most Wanted).
Moving on, another problem that I’ve noticed with this game is that it seems to lack substance. A major selling point behind Need For Speed: Most Wanted was the way AutoLog combined social interaction and competition in a way we’ve never really seen before. For example, everything in the game is tracked and earns the player speed points -- finishing races, beating AutoLog recommendations, taking down opponents in races, smashing billboards, etc. These speed points then go towards a player’s Speed Level – the more points, the higher the level and in-turn, the higher you rank amongst your friends in the Blacklist (the goal of course is topping the Blacklist to become the ‘Most Wanted’). While this sounds like a great idea, it seems this entire push to make the game more social has left the game feeling flat.
While this game features a Blacklist like the original Most Wanted, it hasn’t nearly been implemented as well. Unlike in the 2005 game, beating a Blacklist racer felt an accomplishment -- the races were difficult and there was this genuine feeling like you were progressing up the ladder to become to most notorious racer. In Criterion’s Most Wanted, there's absolutely no story (apart from a 5 minute introduction at the beginning of the game) and not even a name or face put on your rivals, so you never really connect with the game or care about becoming the ‘Most Wanted’. Unlocking a new race against a member of the Blacklist simply requires you to earn enough speed points, but this isn’t very difficult at all. To make things worse, the Blacklist races are almost too easy and taking them down to earn their vehicle requires minimal effort too. I understand that the game is centred around competing with friends, but when the single-player experience is so dull and unrewarding, there’s not a lot that keeps me coming back to the game – and certainly not enough to make me care about how I fare against my friends.
I must also be honest and admit that I found the multiplayer in Most Wanted to be just as un-engaging as the single-player. For those who haven’t played, online sessions revolve around ‘Speed Lists,' which are a set of five events where the player who has earned the most speed points by the end of the final race wins. Events can range from your traditional circuit and sprint races, to longest-jump, drift and speed-trap. Unfortunately, despite this variety, I didn’t really find any of them that enjoyable. Circuit races were fun but I started to find them boring when I’d raced them so many times in the single-player mode, while events like drift and speed-trap see players just doing donuts or driving between two points continuously, respectively – rather than having an actual course to drift around or a sprint race with speed cameras placed throughout. While the game introduces a new feature that allows you to drive to each race start and meet-up, much like many things in this game, it just gets boring quickly. While you can spend time smashing billboards and taking down your opponents as you wait for other players to arrive at the race start, I found it soon became monotonous. I really enjoyed the multiplayer in Hot Pursuit and it easily ranks as one of the best games to have play online – it’s just a shame that this didn’t carry over to Most Wanted.
All this said though, despite the faults I’ve found with the game, the one thing Criterion deserves recognition for is their amazing attention to detail. I’ve spoken about great damage models in other racing games, but it wasn’t until I saw the engine bay of my Ford GT shake about at speeds after a crash that I realised just how perfect it is in Most Wanted. Where most games usually have the entire bumper fall off after an accident, Most Wanted shows holes in the body with the bumpers still dangling on. It’s here that I’m thankful that the game doesn’t feature an in-car view, just so you’re able to appreciate things like this. The engine sounds are also the best I’ve heard in a game bar none - absolutely nothing compares to the bellow of the Masterati Gran Turismo MC Stradale as you blast through a tunnel (it gave me what some call, an ‘eargasm’).
The world of Fairhaven also looks spectacular, and it’s those small features like steam rising from the manholes, water spraying from behind the tires as you drive on wet roads and dirt splashing on your screen as you drive off-road that make Most Wanted an absolutely gorgeous game. Everything from the cars to the world itself does look amazing. Hell, Criterion have even gone so far as to ensuring that your tyres will blow out should you hold a burnout for long enough!
I know that I’ve been fairly critical of Most Wanted, and while that’s not to say that this is a bad game, it is to say that it sadly isn’t a great one. Criterion was up against a real challenge in re-inventing what still is a favourite title for a lot of Need For Speed fans, and despite the great potential it had, the end result just doesn’t compare to not only recent racing games, but certainly not to the excellence that was the original Most Wanted. While the game tries to eliminate grinding by allowing you to unlock all the cars from the beginning of the game, it do a complete 180 in forcing you to play through the same races to unlock the same upgrades for each of your cars! Sadly, implementation is Most Wanted’s greatest problem, with a lacklustre and purposeless single-player combined with a multiplayer mode that is surpassed by the last Criterion game. Simply put, Need For Speed: Most Wanted is akin to the car Homer Simpson created – yes, it has a lot of cool features, but unfortunately, the end result leaves much to be desired.