The last time Criterion Games worked on a game for a Nintendo console, it was April of 2003. Burnout 2: Point of Impact for the Nintendo GameCube was considered one of the best non-kart racers for the system. Since then, plenty has changed for the company, including new ownership and the development of several games in the Burnout and Need for Speed franchises. Almost 10 years to the day, Criterion is back on Nintendo soil with Need for Speed: Most Wanted U for the Wii U. As before, this release shows that it's an excellent studio in porting titles and taking advantage of a system's capabilities to pull off some amazing tricks.
Unlike the previous game in the series with this name, there's no plot to this iteration of Most Wanted. You're simply another racer who's driven into Fairhaven, a city that is notorious for a large and seemingly out-of-control racing scene. As a newcomer, your goal is to climb up the ranks and take down the top 10 entries in the city's most wanted list so you can take the top spot.
After an introductory race that also serves as a tutorial, you're let loose into the open world of Fairhaven and asked to carve a path to the top of the Most Wanted board. There is plenty to keep you distracted, such as collectibles in the form of crashing through gates, hitting billboards for longest jump distance, and speed cameras that record your fastest time. At jack spots, you can obtain new cars. Repair spots are littered throughout the city, so you can fix your car and/or change the paint color. Then there are the cops. Ram into one or pass them at high speeds, and they'll give chase and call in reinforcements, roadblocks, and spike strips. They've always been an exciting part of the series, and you'll love it the chases that go through half the city.
The open world has some traditional structure, which is evident once you open the universal menu system, dubbed Easydrive. Each car has five associated races, and the race spots are scattered throughout the city. There are four race types — checkpoint races, lapped races, speed runs and time trials — all of which pit you against similar cars and come with artistic intros. Winning races gives you car upgrades in addition to speed points, the currency that determines when you can go up against a member of the Most Wanted list. You can also earn speed points through activities like cop evasion, driving X number of miles in a certain car, etc. They're like checkpoint races with heavy cop interaction, making the one-on-one challenge even more difficult for first-time racers. Beating your opponent is only half of the battle, as you must take them down to earn their car.
Just like the releases on the other platforms, the online features in the Wii U iteration are plentiful. The single-player game is online at all times, sending and receiving feedback on things like billboard jumps, speed traps, and number of tries per car-specific mission. While those leaderboards aren't global, they are friends-specific, so the more friends you have playing on the Wii U version, the more populated the leaderboards will be. The game notifies you when records are beaten, and the demolished billboards replace the EA-specific ads with the driver's license of the record holder, complete with a Mii headshot. For those who have played the game on other platforms, the Wii U iteration takes the speed points earned there and applies it here, saving you some grinding time in reaching the top of the Most Wanted list.
You can jump into an online game with just a few menu clicks and without backing out to the title screen. Once you're online, you're plopped into the open world. You won't have your cars or upgrades from the single-player mode, but you have your speed points. The ones earned online can be transferred back to the single-player game. There's no set mode to play online, as the whole thing goes off a random playlist. One minute, you may be competing in a standard checkpoint team race, and the next minute, you're competing for the longest drift or the longest jump. The modes come with no loading, and goofing off is highly encouraged, making online more akin to a party mode where anything goes as opposed to something you can play competitively.
While the game got most of the online elements right, it suffers from some less-than-optimal network code. During the online sessions, there were several cases where players warped in spots, saving themselves from a collision or causing one in the process. There were also a few cases of extreme frame rate drop, and while that is preferable to lag, it mars the experience since the other versions didn't have this issue.
Nintendo players have experienced open-world racers before, but the degree to which Criterion executes this open-world racer is new. The amount of available online activities makes the previous games feel a little empty since you only used to world as a giant level hub. Series veterans don't need to be reminded of how good Criterion's formula is, but for newcomers, the open world is so good that going back to a traditional racing setup, outside of karts, would be difficult.
As revolutionary as this is for Nintendo players, the system is flawed in some respects. Though the progression system heavily encourages exploring at your own pace, it feels like a grind once you discover the car you really want to drive. With only five races available for a specific car and a minimal amount of speed points for reaching specific driving milestones per car, you'll need to drive cars you only mildly like and complete their races if you want to advance up the Most Wanted list.
The rubberband AI is out in full force, so unless you're racing in the most tricked-out car, it'll only take a crash or two before you lose the lead. While crashing due to the slightest ding has been reduced, it still occurs more often than you'd like. Finally, getting caught by the cops always results in you losing the bonus speed points you would have gained from a successful evasion, but there's no other penalty.
The game has quite a few features that are unique to the Wii U edition. You can play it completely on the GamePad, leaving the TV with the spectator view, which is the same view, minus the HUD. When you're not playing on the GamePad, the screen can be used as a map, complete with the ability to jump to the locations of billboards, jack spots and races. It can let you switch cars and re-inflate tires on your car as well as stuff that would act as cheats, such as messing with cops, manipulating the traffic, and switching between day and night. The only drawback is in switching cars, as you can choose the make of your car from the menu but not the model, so if you want to drive a particular Ford, you keep pressing the Ford button until it shows up. You can now dynamically switch cars on the Easydrive lists instead of going to the specific jack spot. Also, you can conveniently enter events from this screen instead of driving there.
The exclusive mode for this game is co-op play. You can have one person race with the regular controller while the co-pilot mans the GamePad. One person can drive while the other can cause cop disruptions and/or plan the next route. The GamePad player can also take over for the other player on more complicated sections before relinquishing control. This is only helpful if you have novice players who want to play but not get frustrated, but it also shows off the unique ways that Nintendo wants players to use their system, and it's a good bullet point for those with little ones.
Like most of the Wii U re-releases, the game comes with some extra content. In particular, the first DLC pack, the Ultimate Speed Pack, is included and adds some content to a sizeable game. The pack includes five vehicles and their associated races, a few new billboards, new license plate designs, and a new Most Wanted race. Interestingly, the core game isn't balanced against the DLC cars.
The additional DLC is great but the word is that the game will not receive more DLC in the future. This means that the unlock DLC won't be there, a relief for those worried about players paying their way through the game, but it also means that they won't get the cars, challenges and rewards from the Movie Legends and Heroes packs. What's worse is that they'll also be missing out on the Terminal pack, which adds a new area to the city, so the Wii U game will feel incomplete when compared to the other versions. With any luck, EA will change its mind about this.
Graphically, the game is better than one would expect from a port. The cars, environments and particle effects look great. The frame rate is also the same, but the performance is improved in that there are fewer hitches during the gameplay. The real improvement comes at the texture level. The use of the high-definition textures from the PC version really makes this title pop, especially at a native 1080p resolution. There are still a few issues here, with a few objects popping in and a lack of anti-aliasing, but this version is second only to the PC version when it comes to graphical fidelity.
The game supports a myriad of control schemes, some with very mixed results. The Wii Remote can be used by itself in a Wii Wheel configuration, though that's only good as a last resort since the game's high speeds and sudden turns don't favor motion controls. The Wii Remote in conjunction with the Nunchuk works just as well as it did in the Wii racing games that supported the configuration, and it's a good choice if you're comfortable with that scheme. The Wii U Pro controller mimics the traditional pads from the Xbox 360 and PS3 well enough, as long as you don't mind losing the rumble feature. The Wii U GamePad has the rumble along with the somewhat familiar scheme and touch-screen, and it also has optional motion controls. Due to the hardware, none of the schemes feature analog acceleration and braking, and while that may be fine for those who only played racing games on the Wii, players who have gotten used to the current generation of consoles will find it tough to adjust to a control scheme that was last prevalent in the PSone/N64 era.
In the original review of the Xbox 360 version of the game, the complaint with the audio was that the default volume of the music was loud enough to drown out the dialogue. That isn't the case this time around, as the music is set at a low enough volume so that the voices can be heard loud and clear. You'll still need to customize the sound levels after initially booting up the game to get the most out of the sound. Car crashes, tire squeals, and the scraping of metal all come in clearly, with some wince-inducing sounds thrown in after particularly bad wrecks. The narrator's voice comes in just fine, while the police chatter is enhanced since it plays through the TV's speakers and the GamePad's speakers.
Need for Speed: Most Wanted U is a must-have racing game for those who only own the Wii U. The polish rivals that of its other console cousins with content that is similar in scope. The racing is fast, and the open world setting is as engaging as ever. The Wii U-specific features are excellent for all players, but the lack of analog controls, no future plans for releasing available DLC and occasional network hitches take away any of its advantages, putting it on par with the other versions. For those who have only stuck with Nintendo consoles, the gameplay feels almost revolutionary, making it a racer that is worth owning.
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