From a franchise perspective, remaking 2005's Most Wanted is something akin to treading on hallowed ground. The original game was arguably one of the overall best releases that the Need for Speed series has had, and it felt cohesive in its mix of street racing and evading the inevitable police pursuits. Criterion's previous effort into the franchise was Hot Pursuit, which felt like an unstable marriage between its venerable Burnout franchise and the slightly more traditional Need for Speed series. Whatever the reasons for that dissonance in the gameplay, Criterion has certainly gotten a much stronger footing this time around. The reboot of Most Wanted is one of the most enjoyable games that the series has had in a long time.
Oddly, Hot Pursuit's DNA was not completely eschewed in favor of the previous Most Wanted. There really isn't much of a story to the game, other than that you are a new racer in town trying to run against 10 of the city's titular most wanted racers. There are no characters, as every racer is only seen in his car and with nondescript helmets. Even the majority of the car customization has been dropped, with cosmetic changes thrown out completely and performance mods rarely resulting in physical changes to your car's appearance.
This is not a laundry list of shortcomings, though. What Criterion has done is reshaped the game, taking the thematic elements of the original and what worked out of Hot Pursuit and heading in a completely new direction. The game is geared around racing, evading the police, or getting back into doing one of the former as quickly as possible. Rather than soaking the proceedings in the sometimes brooding rebelliousness of the original, the new game is all about being outwardly rowdy with as little downtime as possible.
The game literally and figuratively gives you a running start, putting you behind the wheel of a speeding Aston Martin as your first car. This relatively powerful vehicle is a nice departure from the novice starter car, and that's not the only way the game breaks the traditional mold. Acquiring new cars isn't a matter of ranking up or amassing cash to make a purchase; if you see one sitting in the game world, you drive up to it, push a button, and it's yours. These vehicle locations, called Jackspots, are scattered throughout the game world, with some in plain sight and others hidden in alleyways off the beaten paths.
To switch between cars and access a majority of the game's content, you use EasyDrive, a simplistic menu that can be invoked at nearly any time and shows up in the upper right. In this menu, you can drill down into the available races for your car, tweak your car's upgrades, engage in a most wanted race, and a few other options. This allows you to quickly perform a few tasks without having to pause the game. Just pull over and do what you need. Of course, it isn't always available; you can't switch out upgrades in the middle of the race.
Every car can participate in five races, which are set against a number of the possible courses around the city. Placing first in them grants you 12,000 points toward your next most wanted race, with second and third granting 8,000 and 4,000, respectively. These races can be repeated for a paltry 500-point gain, though if you come in second, you can replay to come in first and get the point difference between the two. Just as importantly, a second-place finish gets you a new upgrade for your car, and a first-place finish gets you that upgrade in addition to one for placing first.
Car upgrades break down into five categories; body, chassis, nitrous, tires and transmission. Each has three or four options counting the stock offering, such as long and short gears for the transmission. Short gears offer more acceleration while long gears grant a higher top speed, and choosing between them can be a strategic choice. However, most upgrades offer nothing but benefit over the stock option. Choosing upgrades often boils down to personal preference, such as picking an impact-resistant chassis if you like to mix it up during a race, or a lightweight chassis if you'd rather avoid the melee and go as fast as possible.
Upgrades can be leveled up, assuming you meet the criteria. Track tires reward you for driving a certain distance in oncoming lanes, rewarding you with the "Pro" version of the upgrade that has the same detriment as the original version but a greater benefit. In the same example, track tires grant higher control but lower off-road capabilities, with the pro version offering even higher control at the same expense. While some upgrades occur during gameplay, others feel like you need to focus on them or switch to a different vehicle long before you upgrade them.
Races and upgrades are specific to a vehicle, so after you've placed first in the car's five races and gained your points, there's usually not a lot of reason to keep racing it. Thus, to continue to progress and gain points, you need to get behind the wheel of a new car. On one hand, this means that you are behind the wheel of a car without any upgrades and must work your way back up through the five races. However, every car nets the same bounties for placing in their races, and the game does a pretty good job of pairing you against racers that match your car; not your career progression.
This impact is noteworthy. You can tool around in your Bugatti Veryon and fully upgrade it as you complete all of its races, then hop into a much slower Ford F-150 and have just as much fun. The racers will be slower, as will be your competition, but they always manage to strike a competitive balance. After races of white-knuckle 240 MPH action, sometimes it is nice to hop into something with more modest offerings that you haven't driven before, but the rewards for progressing with it are the same as if you had chosen a faster, high-intensity car.
You'll do a lot more than trade paint during races, as Most Wanted borrows liberally from Hot Pursuit in how cars can slam into each other to cause the receiving vehicle to temporarily lose control. Causing a racer to crash not only gains you some additional points but also fills your nitrous bar. Your vehicle weight versus the target's weight plays a big role in how successful these attacks are; a small car hitting a big one can usually cause a bit of a wobble, while the reverse can cause the small car to wreck on impact. With that said, small cars can still have an offensive game, especially with upgrades, but it's a lot more situational than with a larger vehicle.
Police involvement happens at preset occasions during the races, with some races not involving any and others composed of a police chase right from the start. Police vehicles come in many forms, from the standard cruiser and faster highway units up to SUVs and the even larger Rhino units. Once again, tangling with the police is often a matter of the larger vehicle winning, but just about everyone needs to be careful against the larger police vehicles. You have a heat level that fills up as you continue to be engaged in pursuit, which only depletes once you have gotten far away enough to break line of sight. The pursuit ends once the heat goes back down to zero, and higher heat levels mean a wider variety and number of police pursuers. Gone are police helicopters, though; pursuits are purely a matter of your car versus all of theirs.
This fundamental extends further, and gone are all of the gimmicky weapon systems that permeated Hot Pursuit. You only have access to your car, its nitrous if you have one, and your wits. Some police vehicles have the ability to deploy spike strips behind them as they drive, but their vehicles are otherwise just as normal as yours. This makes pursuits feel much more like the original in the sense that it is all about outmaneuvering and outwitting the police to get away, but on the flip side, getting caught doesn't have much of a penalty. The only downside of getting caught is that you don't get the point bonus of evading the pursuit, which scales based on the length of the pursuit and a few other factors.
All of the points you gain ultimately mean that you get the chance to take down the next most wanted person on the list. These furious races come complete with heavy police involvement as you duel against the other racer in a sprint to the specified destination. The standard methods of combat and racing still apply, and all that matters is who finishes first. However, once you come out on top, the action is not over. In order to claim their car, you first need to take them down. In these post-race chases, there are no routes; you need to go wherever the racer is going as they try to lose you. If you get too far behind, the racer disappears from your minimap, though they show up again if you drive around the city and happen upon them.
There are few cut scenes in the game that don't revolve around cars weaving through traffic before the race begins, but some of them are certainly memorable. The start of every most wanted race comes complete with a cut scene in a unique visual style showcasing their ride, such as debuting a Lamborghini like some sort of sci-fi spaceship, or another car that seems invisible as it's encased in what appears to be wire-thin strips of metal. The cut scenes that kick off the ambush races where you must escape a sudden police pursuit are the most memorable.
You'd think it would just be you evading a few cars before the start, and you'd be wrong. Instead, you'll see cop cars raining from the sky, sometimes arranged in a giant pyramid five levels high, and other times as a whirling tornado of law enforcement metal. The rest of the race is normal, as if the cut scene had never happened. I'm not sure if the development team members responsible for these either need a raise or need to have their desks checked for LSD. Probably both.
There are a few noteworthy flaws. The vehicle handling and physics come straight from Hot Pursuit, with little — if any — modifications apparent. Power slides are still overly sensitive with most vehicles, and at times tapping the handbrake barely has an effect while just a slightly longer push spins your vehicle and slams you into a wall. Crashes are often inconsistently handled, as you just as often slam into a concrete wall and glance off of it as you brush up against traffic and go into a full-on crash sequence. There isn't much rubber-banding that is readily apparent, and though it does exist, it seems limited to not letting you or the other racers fall too far behind or get too far ahead.
Most Wanted's biggest strength is that it feels like a cohesive whole, rather than some amalgamation of a reboot tacked on to another game's engine. The gameplay emphasizes as little downtime as possible, which is a good thing as it's an absolute blast whether or not cops are involved. It's not a reboot as much as it is a reimagining of the original game, taking the bits that worked and wrapping them in a completely new package. Surprisingly enough, it does so in a way that works, and the new Most Wanted ranks up there with the original.
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