Developer Criterion deserves a whole lot of credit for what it's brought to the table with the PlayStation Vita version of Need for Speed: Most Wanted. It's about as close to the home console version as you're likely to see on a portable platform. Aside from some necessary changes to the multiplayer, like bumping the number of players down from eight to four, and some obvious downgrades in visuals, you're getting a very comparable experience to what you'll see on the Xbox 360 and PS3. It's promising for Vita owners who hope to see more non-kart racing releases on the platform, and it sets a pretty high mark for future developers.
Need for Speed: Most Wanted puts you behind the wheel of a number of real-world cars, rare models, and a handful of concept vehicles. Most major, well-known manufacturers are present, such as American car companies like Chevy and Ford, along with well-known luxury manufacturers like Aston Martin, Lamborghini, Maserati, Porsche, and so on. Each manufacturer has a series of car models to unlock, representing most of the iconic modern cars that you'd expect to see in the Need for Speed series. While the game doesn't have the subtitle of Hot Pursuit — the last Criterion-developed Need for Speed title — there are a few similarities in the gameplay mechanics.
It also retains elements found in the original Most Wanted that debuted early in the life cycle for Xbox 360 and PS3. The goal of this reboot is to rise up in rank until you make it to the top of the Blacklist, a list of notorious drivers and their accompanying vehicles. To get the opportunity to race against these skilled opponents, you'll need to participate in a number of events, which earn points that go toward unlocking the option to race against more Blacklist racers. Win, and you'll get a pretty big boost in points, and you'll also get the opportunity to permanently take down that racer, thus giving you access to his vehicle.
Most Wanted gives you the opportunity to race throughout an open city dubbed Fairhaven. As in Hot Pursuit and Burnout Paradise, another Criterion-developed open-world racer, you can essentially explore the city at will, which pays off for a handful of reasons. You can locate and unlock new cars, represented by over 100 spots on the map labeled, "Jack Points." These cars can often be found parked in out-of-the-way locations, hidden behind structures, on side roads, in alleys, etc. Once you drive up to a car, you'll have the option of pressing Triangle to jump into that vehicle and take it for a spin. Once you've unlocked a vehicle, you can freely switch between cars whenever you want via the helpful EasyDrive feature.
Along with the various cars, there are a number of breakable structures that'll earn you bonus points that go toward the point total needed to unlock access to Blacklist racers. You'll also encounter speed markers that'll upload top speeds to online leaderboards, integrated into the fantastic Autolog system that returns from Hot Pursuit.
The aforementioned EasyDrive feature makes Most Wanted an excellent portable experience. By pressing right on the Vita directional pad, you'll bring up a quick access menu that allows you to switch between cars, enter races, retry previous events, outfit your car with new parts, and more. While you can't automatically jump into a race that you haven't attempted, you can set a waypoint via this menu that'll guide you to your destination. Entering races and other events takes little to no time, and aside from an initial long load when booting up the game for the first time, I found the load times in Most Wanted to be fairly miniscule.
As far as content goes, Most Wanted is filled to the brim. Each unlocked vehicle has a number of specific races that you can participate in, typically consisting of five different events. These range in difficulty from easy to hard and not only dole out points to unlock Black List events but also give you parts to outfit your vehicle — one new part for finishing in first or second place. While the customization options aren't particularly in-depth since this is very much an arcade racer, you'll find some balance between parts, like outfitting off-road tires for off-road events, or outfitting your car with a heavier chassis to decrease maneuverability. Gaining these parts is absolutely necessary for the Blacklist events, which tend to be the most challenging sequences in the game.
There's also a fair amount of variety in the events. Beyond you’re the standard Circuit and Sprint events, which have you racing through city streets complete with public traffic hazards and the occasional encounter with police, you have Pursuit races that give you a timed goal within which you'll need to shake off the Fairhaven P.D., and Speed Runs that have you racing from checkpoint to checkpoint to beat the target time. Contending with pedestrian traffic makes for some harrowing moments, and while you can often take down other racers and the cops by slamming into their sides or bumping up behind them, you're all too fragile when running into traffic or other structures. Crashes can put you behind by a considerable amount, so making ample use of your brake and drift is key to staying ahead.
Controls are about what you'd expect from a typical arcade racer. There's an emphasis on drifting through corners, and you rarely need to take your finger off the accelerator. Holding it down and tapping the brake to drift is enough to start sliding ever so slightly, and most of your control comes from your ability to tilt the left analog stick just enough to control that drift around the curve. It certainly feels like the cars have some weight, so you're not sliding all over place, but at the same time, no one is going to classify this as a sim.
Criterion hasn't gone overboard when implementing Vita-specific functions, offering up some optional touch-screen controls for the map and waypoint system. The only use of the rear touchpad is as a track selector for in-game music, which also smartly requires swipes instead of presses to cycle through tracks, so you won't accidentally change the music based on how you hold the system.
Need for Speed: Most Wanted also features a decent online component, which feels pretty similar to Burnout Paradise. When you jump into online mode, you'll still have full access to Fairhaven with up to four racers, and you can still search for billboards, cars, and drive around town as much as you would offline. When you get enough racers together, you can drive to waypoints and participate in events, similar to the events you'll find in the single-player portion. Participating in and winning events also nets you coveted points that tie into your single-player progress. It puts you closer to your Blacklist goals when you revert back to the offline mode, so nothing feels wasted. Connecting online is a breeze, as it's also accessible through EasyDrive, and there were little to no issues with lag when I played online.
Most Wanted isn't without a couple of flaws, but in the end, I felt they were fairly minor. I had some issues with the user interface, specifically the message pop-ups that occurred when you're trying to evade the police. Small messages let you know when your heat level is going up or down, based on your actions and how aggressive you are against pursuers. These messages tend to obscure the middle of the screen, sometimes making it difficult to see what's coming your way. This becomes more annoying during races, and it has certainly caused a crash or two that otherwise wouldn't have happened.
Another issue I had was with the camera options, which are surprisingly limited. There are really only two views that I could find, one of which is behind the car, like the default option found in most racing games, and the second is a bumper-cam view. I tend to play my racing games via bumper cam, but I found the angle in Most Wanted sat a little too low to the ground for my taste, forcing me to adjust to the behind-the-car angle, which took a little bit of time.
My last complaint stems from the durability of the vehicles, which feel a little too fragile for this type of racer. Again, this is clearly meant to be an arcade racer, and for similar games, that usually means you can rub up against and occasionally collide against inanimate objects and other racers and bounce back without much trouble. In Most Wanted, unless your impact is strictly against the cops and other racers, you're going to cause a wreck if you run into just about anything.
There's little room for grazing against pedestrian traffic, and even if you attempt to slam on the brakes prior to hitting a concrete divide, you'll crash if you connect with any sort of force. It feels a little too touchy in this area, and it's not what I'd expect from the developer given the other racing games in its repertoire. This would be less of an issue if it didn't result in a seconds-long sequence that takes you out of the action every time, but combine that with the frequency and ease of demolishing your car, and it can be a tad frustrating.
In the overall scheme of things, these complaints are relatively minor. They certainly didn't do much to dampen the fun I've had — and continue to have — with Need for Speed: Most Wanted. It's a commendable effort to port a current-generation console game to a handheld system and keep it pretty much intact, with little lost in terms of gameplay and content. It really is a well-realized effort and serves as a suitable replacement to the home experience. I'd highly suggest checking it out; it's certainly high on my list of Vita games that are worth owning.
Editor's Note: Be sure to follow the WorthPlaying Twitter feed today (December 7, 2012) as we're giving away codes for Need for Speed: Most Wanted on the PS Vita for #FreeCodeFriday!
More articles about Need for Speed: Most Wanted