What would happen if you crossed classic Need for Speed racing with the open-world, arcade-styled racing of Burnout Paradise? You'd probably end up with something just like the new Need for Speed: Most Wanted. No, it's not a sequel or a remake of the 2005 game of the same name. Most Wanted is an all-new street racing game that eschews story and heavy customization in favor of high-speed racing and stunt driving.
Most Wanted is set in the city of Fairhaven, but the plot is pretty bare. There is an underground racing group known as the Most Wanted. You want to be the best of the best, and the only way to do so is to beat each Most Wanted member in a one-on-one race. Before you can do that, though, you'll need to earn enough experience by completing other objectives throughout the city.
As you might expect, the fun comes in completing these objectives. Since it's an open-world environment, you're free to explore Fairhaven at will. Events all happen right on the existing roads, and new cars are scattered around the city. To claim a new car, all you have to do is find it. Once you know a car's location, drive up to it, hop in and turn the key.
When you first acquire a new car, it will be a standard edition. In order to unlock performance mods, you need to complete a basic set of challenges. This goes for every car and even includes the basics, such as nitro. Some of the later challenges are nearly impossible to complete without the right performance mods, so these challenges are essentially required.
It's an interesting choice from a gameplay perspective because it has the potential to make players think twice about taking control of a new car. Going at it in the high-level races is part of the fun, but if you have to repeat the low-level stuff for every vehicle, it might start to feel a little repetitive. Then again, it might be a stroke of brilliance, as it could encourage players to focus on the specific cars they enjoy the most rather than dabbling throughout the entire game.
Once unlocked, performance mods can be swapped out at any time. This is useful when configuring a car for a specific event, but it should also be noted that these mods don't visually change the look of your car. Customization is limited to the fixed set of mods offered in-game, and none of them are visual. Most Wanted focuses on the racing aspect and not the tuning aspect of street racing.
Events come in a variety of forms. There are lap races, point-to-point races, speed events, stunt events and more. Selecting an event requires you to drive to the start point unless you've been there before. If so, a fast-travel option allows you to quickly warp to the start point without the need to drive.
As expected, Most Wanted's handling leans toward the arcade side of the fence, but at the same time, the difference in car handling is impressive. Switching between cars in-game truly feels different in terms of performance. Certain cars will hug the corners like nobody's business. Others are ideal for drifting, while other models are needed if you want to max out your straight line speed. Learning where each car type excels is helpful in the single-player game, and doubly so if you plan on going online.
After spending a few hours in the world, Criterion's penchant for level design becomes increasingly apparent. Not only is the city of Fairhaven impressive to look at, but moving through each of its regions also happens seamlessly, both from a performance standpoint as well as visually. Locations are placed logically, so as you move from downtown to the freeway or over to the docks, nothing feels out of place. Rather, it seems like you're racing through an actual city.
Hidden within the main courses are shortcuts, ramps and alternate paths that often lead to bonus objectives. These aren't necessary for the majority of events, but they do come in handy if you find yourself wanted by the police. When it comes to a high-speed chase, the Fairhaven Fuzz are relentless.
While it is technically possible to outrun the police, your chances of doing so aren't that great. More likely than not, you'll have to escape by losing them through skillful maneuvering. Once out of sight, the police will search for you methodically, so it pays to keep off the main roads. They will venture out to the side streets, but if you're sufficiently out of the way it's possible to stay out of sight. Turning off your engine makes your wanted level drop faster, so hiding becomes an even more attractive option.
Because very little of Fairhaven is designed in a straight line (it is a city after all), learning how to use the brakes is a required part of Most Wanted. Whether it's drifting through a corner or simply managing your speed through a series of turns, this is a game that requires the use of both pedals in the car.
Over the years, the team at Criterion has come to realize that competition is what keeps players coming back. The best way to provide that competition is to put it front and center. Most Wanted does just that by featuring Autolog 2.0. This updated version of Autolog integrates the high scores of your friends directly into the game. Whenever you complete a task, it'll show how you rank against everyone else.
For example, if you blow by a speed camera, the game shows how quickly your friends went by the same camera. When you select a race, you can see your friends' times. These numbers are an insidiously good way to encourage replay because it provides instant bragging rights. But Criterion didn't stop there.
One of the events in Most Wanted involves jumping through in-game billboards and going for distance. If you set the record, your face (pulled from your linked Origin account) is placed on the billboard, both in your game and in the game of everyone on your friends list. If one of your friends does it, their face appears in your game. It takes taunting to a whole new level.
In addition to the Autolog 2.0 features, Most Wanted also offers up a full multiplayer mode. We played a few rounds with eight players in a game to see how it felt. What stood out the most was the way in which events were handled in the world.
Instead of a traditional lobby system, Most Wanted keeps all the players in the same world. In between events, free roam is enabled, and you can do as you choose. When an event is ready to go, all players must first meet up at the event starting line before the competition can begin. Multiplayer events that require a specific car will automatically provide said car, even if it is not in your inventory.
Events in multiplayer covered the same bases as those in the single-player mode. One stunt challenge had us racing to see who could jump the farthest. Some races were simply first to the finish line. A few were team-based, and one was a multi-part competition, which ended when one player could manage to stay parked in a certain area for a specific amount of time. Think "king of the hill," except with cars.
Over the course of the two-day preview event, we got the chance to play both the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 versions of the game. The most notable thing about the two was that it was impossible to tell the difference. Visually, both versions of the game looked good. Frame rate was solid, and the cars were all sharply rendered. Aliasing appeared in a few places, though that seemed to be the only hitch in the otherwise beautiful vistas.
Sound was also notable, specifically the soundtrack. Criterion and EA have always done an impressive job when it comes to choosing licensed music, and Most Wanted knocks it out of the park once again. Song selection is varied, offering up tracks that cross genres and time periods. Depending on personal preference, there will likely be a few tracks you don't like, but every player should appreciate a majority of the selection. Sadly, there is no option to customize the provided playlist.
Having spent a good deal of time with Need for Speed: Most Wanted, it's safe to say that the game appears to deliver on its promise of high-speed hijinks. We still need to dive in for an extended amount of time to see how it holds up over the long haul, but as far as first impressions are concerned, so long as you don't care about the lack of tuning options, it looks like a safe bet. Between this and the upcoming Forza Horizon, it should be a good month for racing fans.
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