Need for Speed has been through a lot in previous years. It went from pretty much the only off-the-walls racing experience, to non-relevant, to relevant again. Now in 2012, we’re contemplating whether or not the newest iteration will surprise everyone and take back racing games: thankfully Criterion is there to back up EA.
With the crew from Burnout Paradise in tow, the sky is the limit for Need for Speed Most Wanted, as it seeks to topple Paradise‘s open world crown.
Open world racing games can be hit or miss sometimes, but I more often than not find them a pretty easy recipe for success. There’s something remarkable about the ability to be able to just drive anywhere at high speeds, without having to slowly traverse a world map on foot. Most Wanted delivers on that promise, given that you can drive anywhere, randomly find a car, get into it, and permanently acquire it. It’s a neat idea that will most likely lead a ton of people to just roam around for hours on end, looking for every hidden car. Personally, I found the Porsche 911 Carerra early and stuck with it for a long while — everything else is up to you.
So how is the open world itself? Well, Fairview is pretty diverse, but ultimately, it’s not as charming as Paradise City. There was just something about the Guns N’ Roses intro that got me going in Burnout Paradise that was missing here, but that doesn’t mean Fairview is boring — it’s quite the opposite. Most Wanted features a ton of different areas, from construction sites to beautiful highway mountaintop vistas — you’ll find yourself wanting to explore it fully for sure.
Once you pick the car of your choice, you can earn mods by placing (usually 1st) in races. Mods can range from a hard chassis for barreling through road blocks, or re-inflating tires to counter spike tracks. Swapping mods on the fly is easier with the 360 version of the game (which is what my review is based on) thanks to Kinect. Like most Kinect add-ons, the functionality isn’t Earth shattering, but it works, and adds a tiny bit to the experience.
Speaking of roadblocks and spike traps, it wouldn’t be a Need for Speed game without cops, right? Well, while they’re normally a welcome addition to the franchise, and mix things up, I could do without these ones. For starters, they’ll go all out to try and cut your head off and ensure that you’ll never drive again. I’ve seen cops literally fly off a cliff in an attempt to ram me just a little bit, even at a very, very low “wanted” rate, when I did something as menial as running a red light.
When the cops do get on you, prepare for a chase, as even a simple traffic violation can result in a 15-20 minute excursion. Although you can cut your engine off after hiding somewhere to lower your wanted meter at a faster rate, the real trick is getting out of their view altogether.
The “story” is fairly simple in nature, and isn’t really a story at all. That’s a good thing mind you, as it frees you up to basically just do whatever you want rather than find yourself shackled to a hokey campaign.
Most Wanted‘s main draw is to gain SP (Speed Points, which are XP essentially) to take on the ten “most wanted” cars in Fairhaven, eventually making your way to the top, and taking the crown of the most badass driver in town. This is a neat idea in theory, but it’s marred by a few odd design choices that make the actual challenges less fun.
For one, cops are always present during these races, and they make them that much more frustrating. These cops are even more insane than the ones on the world map, and when you’re racing a very fast exotic car on top of it, it leads to a lot of cheap deaths/failures. For some races, I retried them at least 10 times before I was able to conquer them. So if you enjoy challenges, have at it, but just know that the experience isn’t wholly fun.
When all is said and done, you can probably finish every Most Wanted race in 10-15 hours, but I spent more than that exploring every nook and cranny of the game’s environment.
In addition to the cop AI, there’s also some noticeable rubber-banding during NPC races — specifically during Most Wanted segments. It gets pretty frustrating to smash repeatedly into an opponent and leave them in the dust only to have them slingshot back into first with a decidedly superior car.
Because of all this, you’ll probably want to take a break from the campaign for a while and start experiencing the rest of the game. Autolog, a feature found in the franchise previously, makes a return, and it brings a number of improvements with it. Depending on the person, leaderboards will often motivate people to play a game more to top their friends, but Autolog is downright evil with its methodologies (in a good way).
There’s a motivation meta-game, and it’s present in every single race and every single challenge — I dare you to look at your friend’s score, a mere few seconds over yours, and not use Autolog to tackle it. Ok so Autolog goes above and beyond the call of duty, but what about multiplayer?
Just like Red Dead Redemption, a lot of your time is going to be spent in “free mode,” roaming around while you wait for the game to queue up challenges. While you’re waiting, you can crash into each other, explore the world, or try to smash any number of billboards/gates/challenges.
Once a challenge actually starts, a marker is put on the map, and the first person there gets extra points. It’s little things like this that make multiplayer more enjoyable, as you’ll find yourself racing quickly to these checkpoints, creating mini-challenges of your own.
The actual challenges themselves are extremely varied, and range from “King of the Hill” smash-fests to good ol’ fashioned races. Everyone is ranked after each race, and an overall leaderboard tracks progress through a set number of challenges, to declare a winner for that particular round.
All the while, you’re earning XP that can be applied to your single player game, which makes it very, very easy to get sucked into playing with other people.
Most Wanted pulled me in more than nearly any racing game this generation, despite the shoddy AI and issues elsewhere. If it feels like you’re willing to put up with the negatives above, you’ll most likely get a lot of mileage out of Need for Speed Most Wanted.
This review is based on a physical copy of Need for Speed: Most Wanted for the Xbox 360.