Need for Speed: Most Wanted is in a curious place. For those who owned a PS2, Xbox or a GameCube, this is a previous-generation game that is being reimagined for the current console generation. For those who owned the Xbox 360 since the beginning, this is a brilliant reimagining of one of the launch titles. The only differentiating factor is the developer, as this is Criterion's project instead of Black Box's. Criterion received lots of acclaim for its last series game, Hot Pursuit, so people expect big things and, in some respects, it hasn't disappointed.
The city of Fairhaven is a hotbed of illegal street racing, and despite the best efforts of the city's police department, 10 racers have ruled the city. Known by the underground community as the "Most Wanted," they've been racing around Fairhaven for years without being captured by the law. As a newcomer to the city, you make it your mission to move up the ranks, taking down its members until you are at the top of the heap.
Unlike the previous incarnation of Most Wanted, there's no plot. There's no tale of revenge, and there aren't cheesy cut scenes of voice-overs advising you of what to do next. This is more reminiscent of the studio's past efforts, where the main objective was to get you to the gameplay as quickly as possible without any filler. On the other hand, there's no reason for you to move up the ranks aside from making it to the top of the list. For those who enjoyed the mini-stories in most of the recent games, the lack of a narrative may be unsettling.
As in Forza Horizon, your introduction to the game mechanics isn't through a menu but a fully interactive tutorial. You're immediately engaged in a one-on-one race that gets some police interference along the way. Finish the race, and you'll earn street points, the currency necessary to challenge members of the Most Wanted. Once the race is complete, you'll drive around the city before being directed toward a new car.
The minute you hop into your new car, your perception of a conventional racing game melts away. Aside from trying to get points and move up in rank, you don't have a formal structure to follow. There's a quick menu to check out the available events and rewards, but they serve as navigation shortcuts rather than a mandatory checklist of things to do. This is a purely open racing world where you do what you want.
The open-world setting gives you a number of things to do, provided you're willing to explore. Speed traps are everywhere to record your fastest times, with several opportunities to beat your own time if you wish. You can also smash through various billboards to track how far you've leapt from that spot, and you can crash through special gates just for fun. There's also the opportunity to attract the attention of the local cops, and you can instigate or escape chases. If you antagonize them enough, an escalating heat system means the cops will bring out SUVs and spike strips. Finally, there are body shops you can drive through for a quick paint change and cosmetic repairs to your vehicle. They'll even take care of tire repairs.
The most surprising thing you can do in this open world is find cars. Unlike most games that have you saving up cash for new vehicles, all you have to do in Most Wanted is drive around and find the car. No prerequisites have to be met, and no areas of the world need to be unlocked, either. As long as you can drive there, the car is yours. Once you find the car, you can pull up a menu to do a swap if you don't want to drive there. For those who want the fastest rides immediately, this system is a godsend, and the inclusion of specific goals to each car provides further incentive for you to find the 130+ vehicles in the game.
Should you want to participate in the structured events, you'll be met with four different event types, depending on your vehicle. Sprint races have you in checkpoint races against up to seven other opponents. Taking shortcuts is encouraged, and hitting speed traps and billboards count toward your open-world tallies. Speed runs are the same, though your top speed matters more than finishing the race in first place. Circuit races have you racing certain sections of the city in laps while Ambush pits you against an armada of cops, with placement determined by how quickly you can shake them off. Aside from the speed points gained from each event, your real prizes are car upgrades. Everything from nitro upgrades to tougher car bodies to self-inflating tires can be won, giving you a much more tuned car.
Once you get enough points, you'll be able to challenge one of the Most Wanted crew members in a one-on-one checkpoint race. The event plays out normally, though you are encouraged to beef up your car before trying to take them on. Once you beat them, you'll be tasked with chasing them down once more and causing them to wreck so you can obtain the car.
What makes all of these events, including the Most Wanted races, so memorable is the inclusion of cops at just about every turn. While the whole thing is mostly scripted in terms of their appearances and tools, the cops turn any race into a battle for survival. Their presence also means more opportunities to mess up your opponents by ramming other cop cars into them or luring them into driving over spike strips or crashing through barricades so you have more space to navigate. Couple that with the existing pedestrian traffic in the events, and you have the equivalent of a mobile destruction derby.
As expected, the controls are extremely responsive. It takes a bit to get used to the drifting system, especially if you've recently come from other racing games, but you'll be able to pick it up in no time. Once you do, the seemingly unfriendly layout of the city becomes easier to navigate. The controls also handle pretty well in this arcade-style system, where going off-road or hugging the rails doesn't slow you down much. In short, it's another well-executed racing experience from a team that knows arcade racing well.
Most Wanted has Kinect functionality, and while it looks useful on paper, it's more problematic than helpful. The only functionality is the voice recognition, which is used to navigate the menu system. There are five basic voice commands, and once you memorize the one-word commands, you can plan the route to your next event without using the d-pad. If you're in the middle of a race, you can also use the commands to navigate the race-specific menu to change your car properties without exiting the race. As long as you're loud enough or your speakers aren't muddling your voice, the navigation is easy. The problem comes from dealing with long lists in this manner. Unlike some games, the Kinect only recognizes the five basic commands but doesn't recognize specific menu entries, despite documentation saying otherwise. As a result, the longer the menu, the more you have to shout to reach the desired command. While voice control makes it convenient for some menu options, options that are buried deeper in the menu system are better served with traditional controls.
Kinect issues aside, a few other things don't sit well with me. Head-on collisions at any speed with civilian cars almost always result in a cinematic wreck, and barely nicking something, like a porch, does the same thing. You'll hate these wrecks due to the rubber-band AI, which almost guarantees that one crash puts you behind several spots. Police chases are pretty benign. Whereas the previous Most Wanted and Hot Pursuit made these chases exciting, the encounters aren't that memorable here since you don't put much effort into evading them. While you can find any car you want at any time, it becomes very tedious that you have to work from the very bottom to build up the parts you want. If you already have your favorite car maxxed out for the Most Wanted races, you still have to slog through other cars to build them up with nitrous, lighter bodies, and better tires to get the required speed points to move up the ladder. It's a catch-22, and it means you'll often have to motivate yourself to complete the campaign.
Where the game opens up is in the multiplayer, both in the asynchronous and traditional online versions. Autolog, a feature that debuted in Hot Pursuit, returns and is just as addicting as before — provided your friends also play the game. Events display the completion times by each friend, and you'll be updated when a friend beats your time, giving you some incentive to race the event again. All of the speed traps have leaderboards via Autolog, as do the vehicles in terms of pursuits evaded, miles driven, etc. Perhaps the more interesting Autolog challenges come from the billboard jumps, which not only judge who has jumped the furthest from the billboard but also plaster that user's Gamerpic on the billboard. It's a great way to throw yourself into your friend's world, and you'll work hard to ensure your Gamerpic is the only one in your game world.
Despite calling it a traditional online mode, it's anything but. If you were a fan of Burnout Paradise, it'll be very familiar, but in case you never played that game, you'll see the same open-world setting as the single-player mode, but it's now populated with up to seven other racers. For the most part, the world is treated like a giant lobby where you can communicate, crash and drive to your heart's content. Every few minutes, the game prompts everyone to get to a spot in preparation for an event. Once everyone gets there, the game doles out a random event with a random configuration. It could be a team-based sprint, a free-for-all drifting event, or seeing who can jump the farthest while going through a suspended pipe. Just like the solo game, everything you do here nets you speed points, and all of that progress is carried to the single-player game, giving you a perfect reason to try out everything and find every car and its upgrades.
The freedom in multiplayer encourages you to have fun. You get a sense of competition, but there's more of a desire to mess with the world at your own pace with a few like-minded people in tow. The last game that was so casual in multiplayer was Burnout Paradise, and this title has the same vibe. Considering how few games give you this much freedom in multiplayer, you can expect this mode to be the major reason to play the game.
Graphically, Most Wanted is excellent. The environment is a nice urban sprawl that mixes the natural beauty of the mountains with the grit of the old business zones and everything in between. Every inch of asphalt and dirt is well rendered despite the lack of anti-aliasing, and the ocean spray when you're near the docks is always welcome. Lighting plays a big part in making the title look good, with a complete day and night cycle that makes everything look pretty. Particle effects are everywhere, with dirt clouds and spray from the constantly wet roads, and this is augmented by the use of the game screen as a camera, with water spots and flecks of dirt creating a thin film on the lens. There are a few times when the game pauses for half a second, and going to and from screens and races causes some load times, but this is an otherwise nice-looking title that moves at a blistering pace.
The only real disappointment is the car damage. The presence of mud and dust when going off-road is a very nice touch, as are the scratches on your car body. The glass cracks in several places but you'll never see it shatter, despite seeing glass particles erupt from a collision. Crashes that result in the use of a slow-motion camera never look as bad as you think. This is partially true since you're using licensed cars, and while car companies are comfortable in letting vehicles flip, anything as catastrophic as the Burnout crashes still scares them. Considering how detrimental these crashes are and the lack of a visual payoff, you'll find them more of an annoyance than a consolation prize for poor driving.
The audio excels in some areas and falls behind in others. The effects have always been top-notch, with distinct sounds for each car engine and some particularly gnarly crash sounds despite the lack of visual damage. The musical selection is a good mix of dubstep, electronica, rap and rock, albeit with more of a UK slant. It isn't a very vast selection, but you'll be hard-pressed to find a bad track unless you dislike certain genres. The voice work is quite good, with the police chatter being the real standout. Save for a few slip-ups, such as telling others to watch out for traffic despite none being there, the banter between the officers in the cars and the dispatch center makes the chases exciting, especially when you hear them calling out your vehicle make or they alert each other that you've made a vehicle or color change. However, those voices, as well as the opening tutorial voice, all go to waste because of a lack of balancing. The voice in the opening segments tries to give you basic instructions, but all of that is drowned out by Muse blaring in the background. When you finally get into the options to balance things out, there's no slider to boost voice, forcing you to lower the music volume and hope that the effects don't drown it out. It shouldn't have required player intervention to ensure that you won't miss something important.
As a single-player game, Need for Speed: Most Wanted is simply good. The racing is fast, and once you can get over how easy it is to crash your vehicle and the apparent rubber-band AI, you'll enjoy your offline experience in this very open-ended title. As a connected multiplayer game, however, Most Wanted is fantastic. Being able to compete for records is addicting, and the freeform, relaxing multiplayer world is engrossing. It's a definite rental if you just want solo play, but it's a must-have if you plan on racing with and against others.
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