F*** the police
In a lot of ways, Need for Speed: Most Wanted feels like the willful antithesis of the series’ last installment, The Run. Whereas that title chose to steer the franchise towards a cinematic, story-driven experience, Most Wanted ditches all the Hollywood distractions and focuses squarely on the racing itself.
Under the careful tutelage of Criterion Games, that proves to be a winning approach. Much like the studio’s 2010 Hot Pursuit reboot, Most Wanted benefits greatly from their years of experience on the stellar Burnout series. In fact, quite a bit of this game, from the silky smooth handling of the cars to the core drifting, boosting, and shunting mechanics, will feel quite familiar to fans of that franchise. Even the setting, the sprawling city of Fairhaven, is clearly an open world built atop the conceptual ruins of Burnout‘s Paradise City. It’s a refinement, to be sure, but you’ll notice many of the same underlying principles at work here, from the surprisingly varied locales to the dense and delightful potential for off-road hijinks.
That being said, there are still plenty of areas where Most Wanted strikes out for brand new territory, the most dramatic being the manner in which you unlock new vehicles. Rather than subjecting you to the standard grind from compact sedans to high end roadsters, Criterion has effectively decided to upend decades of racing game tradition and allow you to use whatever car you’d like whenever you’d like. The only catch? You have to find it first.
Hidden around the game’s massive, open-world city of Fairhaven are “jack spots” that allow you to add new vehicles to your collection by driving by in close proximity. At first glance, it might seem a bit less convenient than the familiar approach, since there’s no real way to tell where a specific vehicle is located until you’ve found it, but the locations are all in close enough proximity to the roads that you can build up a respectable stable of cars without ever needing to go on the hunt. This is aided significantly by the fact that there are multiple jack spots for every vehicle, so you can unlock everything in the game well before you’ve explored every nook and cranny of the map.
There is, however, one crucial downside to this approach. By necessity, every race needs is tied down to a specific car—it would, after all, be rather silly if you could pit your 911 Carrera S against a pack of Range Rovers—and that detracts from the sense of constant progression in the run of the mill races. Instead of the challenge constantly ramping up as you move through the game, it comes in fits and starts. You work through the handful of increasingly difficult races for each vehicle, unlock its new upgrades, then move on to a new vehicle and start from scratch. Worse still, many of the races are recycled for multiple vehicles, meaning you’ll need to replay the same events over and over again—albeit with a slightly different lineup of opponents—if you’re a sucker for 100% completion. It’s not an out-and-out bad decision, and depending on your tastes, the pros may well outweigh the cons, but it’s certainly something that’ll take a bit of getting used to for longtime racing fans.
That being said, Criterion has managed to keep some sense of progression intact, at least on the broader scale, by throwing in a series of special races that pit you against the best street racers in the city, the titular Most Wanted. These 10 cars are some of the fastest and flashiest in the game, and they’re only attainable through these head to head races. If you want to challenge them, though, you’ll need to earn the right by working your way up the Most Wanted rankings by earning Speed Points (or SP) in the standard races or by completing bonus objectives in the open world. In effect, you’re essentially playing the rest of the game, in any order you choose, so that you can grind your way to these boss battle showdowns.
Of course, that’s easier said that done when you’ve got the Fairhaven PD on your tail looking to put an end to your street racing shenanigans at every turn. As you wheel around the city streets, any cop who spots you speeding or smashing into traffic will throw out an APB and give chase. Keep causing havoc, and your Heat level will increase, causing the police to bring out the big guns. At higher levels, you’re dealing with spike strips, SUVs, and roadblocks. The longer you can stay on the run, the more SP you’ll earn for the chase—provided you can escape.
If you can ditch the cops, you’ll enter Cooldown mode, and your Heat level will gradually decrease for as long as you can stay out of sight. If it gets to 0, you’re off scot free, though that can be a tricky prospect with how often the game dumps more squad cares into the city. Thankfully, there are a handful of things you can do to make the process a bit more palatable. If you drive through one of the many repair stations scattered around town or jack a new vehicle while in Cooldown, you can instantly drop your Heat level. Alternatively, you can just park out of sight and switch off your engine, which will cause your Heat to decline at a much faster rate.
When you actually intend to get into a high speed chase, the pursuit system offers a wonderful risk/reward tradeoff. Do you shunt your way up to Heat level 6 for a chance to rake in some major SP, or do you play it safe and get out before they call in the big guns? Unfortunately, the bulk of your pursuits will likely pop up unintentionally while you’re on the way to a race or just exploring the city. Staying mindful of the speed limit isn’t exactly something that comes naturally in a racing game, and having to head off on a madcap sprint to ditch the cops every five minutes can get frustrating rather quickly.
Thankfully, the police are much less of a nuisance whenever they pop up during the events themselves. They don’t make an appearance in every race, but when they do—usually as a scripted addition to the fray midway through—they’re provide a delightfully unpredictable shakeup of the status quo. Maybe the guy in first will be T-boned by a police SUV, giving you that crucial chance to slip into the lead, or maybe one of your fellow racers will nudge you into a spike strip and ruin your otherwise flawless run. It’s an excellent way to keep you from being complacent during races that might otherwise descend into a comfortable, boring slump. This shines through best of all in the later Most Wanted races, which start you off with a high Heat level and don’t let up for the entire sprint. Given your AI opponents’ almost inhuman reflexes, you’ll need to get mighty good at dodging spike strips and roadblocks if you’re going to prevail.
The final major component of Most Wanted‘s single-player experience is Autolog, Need for Speed‘s dedicated social networking feature that made its debut back in Hot Pursuit. Criterion has really utilized the concept to its full potential here, cramming the service’s leaderboards, or Speed Walls, into just about every corner of the game. In addition to the expected uses—displaying your friends’ times for every event you play, ranking them by SP on the Most Wanted list—they’ve also integrated the service into every last one of the diversions scattered around the city. Every time you drive past a speed camera, the game will inform you of whether or not you’re the fastest at that location. Every time you smash through a hidden security gate or locate a new jack spot, it’ll tell you how many your friends have discovered. Best of all, every billboard is adorned with the avatar of the person who smashed through it with the farthest jump, taunting you to best their effort. It’s an absolutely brilliant touch, one that can turn even the most basic A to B travel into hours of one-upmanship.
If only the dedicated multiplayer component were so competitive. While the core concept—using the open world as the lobby for racers, making everyone drive to a meetup point to start events—is compelling, the execution winds up being a gigantic clusterf***. For starters, there’s far too much waiting around for stragglers before events can start. Yes, the game will eventually teleport them to the meetup point, but the timeout for that is on the order of minutes, and that leads to a lot of boring downtime. The events themselves aren’t bad, and there’s quite a bit of variety, with standard races, team races, and challenges that require everyone to work together to accomplish a specific task—jumping over a certain number of cars or drifting together for so many seconds, for example. Still, they’re just not on par with the single-player offerings when it comes to demanding precise, skillful driving, and that’s a real shame. Even the standard races manage to muck things up by doing away with organized starting lines. Instead, the games just counts down to the start, then displays the first checkpoint on your map. It’s disorienting, not to mention frustrating, as properly guessing the direction of race can give you a massive head start over the competition.
If you go in expecting the sort of skill-driven experience you find in most racing games, where things like driving ability have more of a bearing on your performance than, say, which direction you were facing when the race started, you’re going to be sorely disappointed. There’s definitely an undeniable charm in rolling around the city together and plowing into one another. The unrelenting chaos adds a layer of fun that you just don’t find in most other games like this, but you really need to mentally approach it the same way you would Mario Party—enjoy the ride and do your best to win, but don’t be surprised if some last-minute bulls*** spoils your chances at victory.
Ultimately, though, whatever shortcomings Most Wanted may have are far outweighed by the things it does spectacularly well. There’s nothing that can quite match the thrill of racing around the streets of Fairhaven in your hard-earned Bugatti Veyron with a trail of cops behind you twenty deep. That sense of scale and depth is empowering and addictive in a way you don’t usually see in many racing games. More than anything else, the game excels at makes you feel like the city’s most wanted street racer, and that’s an absolute triumph.
SUMMARY: While the overeager police presence can be a bit of a pain and the online multiplayer is a bit too hectic for its own good, there’s no denying that Criterion has brought their expert touch to the Need for Speed franchise yet again, delivering one of the tightest open-world racing games in recent memory.
- THE GOOD: Exquisite handling, an open world city that’s an absolute joy to drive.
- THE BAD: Multiplayer that’s too much of a clusterf*** to be truly competitive.
- THE UGLY: Getting busted after 20 minutes on the lam and losing all that hard-earned SP.
Need for Speed: Most Wanted is available on the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC, with a Wii U version slated to arrive in 2013. Primary version reviewed was on Xbox 360.