Developer: Criterion Games / Publisher: EA / Played on: Xbox 360 / Price: $59.99 / ESRB: Everyone 10+ [Alcohol Reference, Comic Mischief, Violence]
Playing Need for Speed: Most Wanted is like playing Russian Roulette: when you play with other people, it’s exciting, thrilling, and full of surprises and assholes; play alone, however, and you’re going to be hanging your head and wondering what could have been.
First off, this NFS really captures the artistry of its subject matter. Criterion, masters of the open-world racing genre (at least up to this point), have crafted a beautiful playground: the city of Fairhaven. This urban environment is your stylish other-half that makes cruising around the game enjoyable. It’s got its share of danger and serene vistas, and varied weather types that provide a textured backdrop to the high-speed action. You’ll drink in the sights when the road is slightly wet from a recent rain, or when the sun is setting behind the shipyards next to the sea. The winding mountain passes in the city outskirts provide a breakneck drag strip that winds its way through forested escarpment. Simply put, being in Fairhaven is a joy in itself; the lighting engine, in particular, is glorious.
The other half of this relationship is the suite of cars themselves, the gleaming, growling beasts you pilot through your time in Fairhaven. Criterion clearly understands cars, and they understand the sculpted majesty behind them, that ineffable magic that makes people’s eyes light up when they lay them on an Aston Martin V12 Vantage. You won’t be behind the wheel of a 1979 Volkswagen here; instead, you have almost immediate access to some of the princes of the road. Name a high performance car brand, and it’s probably in here, including some lesser known manufacturers and vehicles like Ariel and Caterham.
Each race you participate in features a lovingly rendered environmental cinematic that range from artistic and abstract (like a car being peeled out of metal bars) to comical (like a scene reminiscent of Coruscant, with cars flying through the sky).
In short, Most Wanted is a joy to look at and explore. It’s just a shame that this level of class couldn’t be employed in the gameplay.
If you’ve played Burnout Paradise, you’ll immediately understand Most Wanted. It’s an open world, find-your-the-car-of-your-dreams, jump-100-feet-and-keep-driving arcade racer. All the cars in the game are found somewhere in the world, and once found, you can jump into your vehicle of choice at any time to find races, earn upgrades to performance, and ultimately challenge the Most Wanted List to a race, a group of 10 of the fastest cars in the game.
Gran Turismo this is not. You hurl your car around the city with reckless abandon as you pass, bump, and crash your way to victory (or defeat). And defeat is going to happen a lot, because the competition AI is downright sketchy. Opposing cars were apparently manufactured on the end of a bungie cord, because they will rubber-band their way to victory at every opportunity. It’s a rare occurrence when you blow by a computer controlled car and stay ahead; they like to mysteriously find turbo switches and blast past you, no matter how fast you seem to be going. Find yourself way behind? The AI will conveniently slow down for you to catch up.
I can kind of see why Criterion implemented this strategy (to keep races exciting the entire way), but more often than not I felt my skill as a driver was being mitigated as far as the ratio of skill to race victories was concerned. Many times a car that I had left in the dust would catch up right at the finish line and beat me, forcing me to restart and race again if I wanted to get the upgrade the race rewarded. Not cool.
And speaking of skill, most races don’t require much: hold down the gas to full speed, try your best not to hit anything, and occasionally drift around corners. It’s immediately accessible, but I can’t help shake the feeling that there’s a bit of wasted potential here for making the game deeper mechanically while still maintaining accessibility by forcing you to at least use some moderation with the throttle every now and again. I’m not asking it to be a sim, but there ceases to be any depth to the game once you unlock a car’s full allotment of upgrades.
And speaking of upgrades, it’s also frustrating that the nitro boost upgrade for all the cars is locked behind an initial race, meaning in order to level the playing field with the AI, you need to struggle through some real frustrating competition until you can eek out a victory. With every single car. All vehicle upgrades are unique to each vehicle, so even if you earn nitro with a Mitsubishi Lancer, you need to do it again with a Subaru Impreza, or any other car. And because car classes share a lot of the same races, you retread a lot of familiar ground early on.
Then there’s the cops. Oh the cops, those rat bastards. Perhaps the worst element of the game, the cops will ruin your fun at every turn. If they so much as see you doing 80 in a 65 zone, they flip on the sirens and lights and apparently summon every officer in the city of Fairhaven to annoy the crap out of you. You can try outrunning the police, but even their basic vehicles will stick to your bumper and not let you go, all the while trying to ram you off the road so they can bust you. And if you accidentally take one down while you’re trying to run away? That’s more cops! I have literally had police chases that took me upwards of five minutes to get out of, simply because the cops would not stop harassing me for speeding. I had to look at the cover of the box to make sure it said Need for Speed on it.
And once you do escape, expect to sit in a hiding spot that the cops hopefully won’t find so you can go about your business. When all you want to do is get to the next race, being interrupted by the cops on your way only to have to drive miles out of the way to escape becomes so frustrating. Eventually, I just started to let them bust me because 1) there was no penalty for doing so, and 2) it was quicker to get me to my destination without incident.
Now that’s not to say the police aspect is all bad: I actually do enjoy the cops showing up in a race as a scripted event, mostly because they (curiously) only go after the person in first place, so you can use them to stop the AI from cheating. On the downside, if you run over one of their spike strips, your race is shot if there’s no repair station nearby, because even if you do crash, the game will respawn you on the track with popped tires unless you have the reinflate tires upgrade (which is not easy to attain). Lame.
Criterion is a proven commodity when it comes to sound design, and Most Wanted is no exception. The throaty roar of the engine as you scream through a tunnel is invigorating like no other noise in life. The squeal of tires and shattering of glass bring a visceral, painful punctuation to every crash. Even the music selection that comprises the robust log of tunes that highlight the action are all appropriate driving songs, pounding and high energy.
There’s a certain layer that well-designed sound brings to the racing genre. It’s a layer that separates the ho-hum act of driving with the white-knuckle insanity that is careening through populated streets at 100 mph. The audioscape here is as well-realized as I’ve ever heard in the genre, rivaling some of competitor Codemasters’ best efforts.
The gameplay redeems itself mostly through its unique multiplayer. You enter a lobby that plops you into a district of the city, and then you make your way through a gauntlet of various competitive and team-based races, destruction derbies, and speed challenges. What’s really genius about this system is that you constantly engage in a point-earning potpourri of speed. Between events, the game has everyone race to a pre-defined meetup point that serves as the starting line. On the way you can perform takedowns on your opponent to earn more points, and once the playlist of events is complete, whoever has the most points in the “winner”. I use quotes because playing online in Most Wanted is not about winning or losing: it’s about sharing the mayhem with friends and having a blast. Truly if you want to get the most out of the game, multiplayer is the place to be, and as I move forward with the game, I will more than likely swear off the single-player for good, mostly because other human players can’t cheat.
Ultimately, this Need for Speed is an example of style over substance, but that’s not to say there isn’t fun here. If you stick to the online mode, have a good group of friends to share the road with, and love fast, sexy cars, you’ll probably enjoy the game. It’s not incredibly deep, so look elsewhere to scratch that driving itch, but it works for a quick, pulse-pounding hit of action and adrenaline.
It’s a shame the poor design that plagues the offline mode is so ingrained into the fundamental fabric of the gameplay, but if you’re already a Criterion fan, you’ll know what you’re getting here. I can’t give Most Wanted my unconditional recommendation, but you will find pieces to enjoy if you want to take the chance.
+ Beautiful cars, city, lighting, and art
- Single player AI cheats bad
- Police need to go
7.5 / 10