A long, long time ago I used to edit the tracks in Road & Track Presents: The Need for Speed so they were entirely downhill without any corners, just so I could switch to bumper-cam and make the cars go ridiculously fast. Even though there was virtually no challenge to the game once I did that, I still played anyway, chasing that feeling of exhilaration mixed with the sheer terror of going close to terminal velocity in something I could barely steer. Yes, it was just a game, and yes, the framerate was horrible, but it still got my heart racing.
Few racing games have recaptured that feeling for me. Other than F-Zero GX, the only other game I’ve found that has truly given the sense of going at incredible speeds has been Criterion Games’ Burnout (and all its sequels). The arcade physics, the nitrous system and the over-the-top crashes made for a special type of madcap gameplay. I excitedly picked up the most recent Burnout game – Burnout Paradise – upon release, and while on the whole the open-world gameplay was fun and the sense of speed was there, I found myself constantly frustrated due to shortcomings with the navigation system.
Why am I going on about Burnout in a Need for Speed review? Well, as is plastered all over the packaging, Need for Speed: Most Wanted is made by Criterion Games. These guys have been making the Burnout series since the start (they’re up to 8 games now), and after spending 10 seconds in the game you’ll find that Most Wanted is essentially Burnout Paradise with licensed cars and a decent map system (and, for possibly the first time, the ability to use the metric system!).
This is a good thing. As I mentioned before, the one overwhelming gripe I had with Burnout Paradise was that there was no on-screen GPS or indicators where turns were, meaning that I’d repeatedly find myself taking wrong turns during races and having to start over. In Most Wanted, the bottom-left hand corner has a map showing where you’re meant to be headed, as well as giant green arrows superimposed on the track in in potentially confusing parts of races, along with checkpoints marked off in the distance. It works well to solve the “I was winning yet suddenly I’m 3km off the track” problem that plagued Burnout Paradise.
When you initially start the game, there’s a short tutorial given by an over-the-top voiceover (whom I can only describe as “hey there big boy, let’s go for a long hard and fast drive and thrust that gearstick”) then you’re left on your own in the big open-world city of Fairhaven. With the exception of the ten Most Wanted cars that make up the game title, every vehicle is available from the start, provided you can find them. There are 31 cars of all shapes and sizes scattered around 123 locations on the map, ranging from the Ford Focus to the Tesla Roadster, along with every shape and size vehicle inbetween. While mostly similar, each car has a certain “feel” to the handling, although I’m pretty sure they don’t correspond to anything in real life (I highly doubt doing 280km/h through a city is even physically possible) – this is Need for Speed, not Gran Turismo after all.
Each car comes with 5 events – 1 easy, 2 medium and 2 hard. There’s 61 events in total, so some overlap. Passing various milestones and finishing well in each race will unlock various mods for the car: impact protection, reinflatable tyres, the ability to use all the nitrous at once, and many more.
Most races are 4 types:
- Sprint and Circuit – beat all the other cars to the finish line.
- Ambush – lose the cops that are chasing you.
- Speedrun – maintain a certain average speed throughout the course.
The titular “Most Wanted” cars are locked, to be won by beating them in a race and then causing them to crash. Most Wanted races are unlocked by accumulating Speed Points, which can be done by winning races, drifting, driving into oncoming traffic, getting ridiculous air, evading the cops and generally doing anything that would cause you to instantly lose your license or endanger the lives of others.
If you crash into or speed past a cop, a chase is initiated. These work in a similar way to the police chases in Grand Theft Auto – the longer the chase goes on the higher the heat meter will go, and more extreme measures will be taken to stop you. It can be frustrating to find yourself shunted into a wall by one of them during the latter stages of a race, but that’s life in Most Wanted. At one point, constant car chases became a problem for me, but once I found some faster cars and got better at steering and navigating, outrunning them wasn’t usually too hard. There’s a lack of variety in the cop radio samples – I was ready to throw my controller at the screen when the “these guys aren’t joyriders” sample played for the billionth time. If you do find yourself out of sight of the cops while they’re chasing you, stop the car and switch it off with the left analogue stick – it causes the heat meter to drop far quicker.
The multiplayer component of Most Wanted involves driving to a “meet-up” area and then taking part in a playlist of events. While the aim is to keep you on the road as much as possible instead of in menus, I found it a bit clunky. There seemed to be a random amount of downtime between events, where everyone would just aimlessly drive around unsure what was going on until an event suddenly began. Once events start though, everything functions as you’d expect it to online – it’s fast, lag is minimal, cars teleporting is rare, and 12 year olds will be yelling uncreative abuse through their headsets. The joys of multiplayer. Winning races, events, or just crashing into people give you Speed Points, which go towards the online levelling system (SpeedLevel) – the higher you level up, the more car colours and other minor perks you unlock.
I had a several strange drop-outs and crashes while playing online, leaving me stuck with a frozen screen yet able to voice chat still – hopefully there’ll be a patch out soon enough to fix these problems. The crashes were rare compared to the amount of time I spent online however, and they don’t really take much away from the whole multiplayer experience.
Autolog, the friends-tracking system that was introduced in Criterion’s previous game, Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit, returns here. If you have any other friends that are playing Most Wanted, Autolog will keep track of how they’re doing in comparison to you, so everything that is possible to have a score or time applied to it (races, speed cameras, jumps and so on) will show how you’ve done compared to your friends. Having all this information instantly available caused me to obsessively take “just one more” crack at a race because someone’s top time looked beatable. The way Autolog is integrated into everything is very slick, and adds another level of replayability to the game. All your Autolog activity is also available on the Need for Speed website, where you can also upload photos of yourself to plaster all over the billboards in your friends’ games. I was expecting the website to not be much more than an afterthought, but it’s surprisingly comprehensive.
The framerate in Most Wanted is buttery smooth and the graphics are gorgeous, as is the whole presentation of the game. Virtually everything has been polished to perfection. Aside from the repetitive police samples, audio is fine – there’s DTS support and the usual mix of licensed tracks (Icona Pop’s I Love It is now my song-of-the-moment), while each car has a distinct sound to their engines. Criterion has done an excellent job, and I’m not sure how they’re going to improve on this – maybe completely destructable environments and real-life cities? It’ll be interesting to see what they come up with next.
Need for Speed: Most Wanted is the the current pinnacle of non-simulation racing games. The Burnout Paradise formula has transferred perfectly and there’s never a dull moment. I find myself impatiently typing up this review so I can get back to playing it. If you like going fast, get this game.