Like most newly-launched consoles, a lot of the Wii U’s early library consists of ports, and as usual their quality can be a bit spotty. I’m not pointing any fingers, but some have been good and others have been obviously rushed, poorly optimized and badly implemented, just to make it to the console’s launch on time. This is why when a spectacular port for the Wii U is released, gamers should, within reason, show their enthusiasm for a job well done. Such is the case for EA and Criterion’s Need for Speed Most Wanted U. The game hit all major platforms late last October, but is finally arriving on Wii U this week.
Like the PS3, Vita and 360
versions, NFSMWU takes place in the open-world city of Fairhaven. The city has a decent variety of locales, with New York-reminiscent bridges and parks, skyscraper districts a lot like LA, beautiful scenic and wooded areas that take equal inspiration from the southwest and New England, and even some areas that actually reminded me of downtown Columbus. Within this expansive amalgamation of American urban landscapes are three types of races, scattered at different points within the city and unlocked in groups as you beat each one.
Sprint Races are simple point A to point B rushes, a single mad dash against opponents where you try to be the first across the finish line. Circuit Races are more traditional multi-lap affairs, where you learn the pattern of a course, suss out shortcuts and try to finish high enough for a good score; naturally, knowing the layout of Fairhaven will grant you more of an advantage on these races. Placing first or second in these events unlocks upgrades that can be instantly applied to the car you won the race with, be it off-road tires or a more potent nitrous boost. Finally you have Speed Runs, where you run a course trying to maintain the most blisteringly high speed average possible, without wiping out or smashing spectacularly into obstacles at breakneck speed.
Tossed into the mix are also Ambush and Blacklist races. Ambush starts you off running from a pack of the game’s annoyingly persistent cop cars. In a mechanic very similar to GTA4, you must escape a flashing circular radius and lose the sight of the cops. As your “heat” meter increases by ramming cop cruisers and doing other highly illegal things it becomes harder and harder to shake the law, until finally the cops pen you in and arrest you. Obviously the goal of Ambush is to get away as quickly and stylishly as possible, with extra points awarded for disabling or evading the cops but also for gaining and quickly losing a high heat level.
There are only ten Blacklist races in the game and for a good reason: the “blacklist” is a roster of rival speed demons. If you beat one of these rivals in a one-on-one race—usually with plenty of police in hot pursuit—you’ll unlock this rival’s car. You’ll really need to bring your A-game, and your fastest, nimblest car, to beat these guys. The first time I tried to beat a rival he left me in the dust within seconds, and I lagged behind for the entire race dealing with the nagging cops before quitting the race in frustration. Seriously, don’t challenge any rivals when you are still new at the game—learn your roster of cars and really know what you’re doing before you go after the blacklist.
Luckily all of your unlocked cars, not to mention races, upgrades, customization, multiplayer and other options are available from the in-game Easydrive menu. Controlled with the D-pad, Easydrive makes NFSMWU incredibly accessible with just a few inputs. From here you can repair your car, change its color and manage unlocked upgrades for each vehicle. You also have access to your entire car roster at a glance, which is updated on the fly with any new cars you unlock. You can also check new races, their difficulty and rewards, and set each one as an individual goal on your overmap, all with the D-pad.
This really cuts down on the frustration and lets you compare and contrast the advantages of each car minute to minute. Lose hard in a race? Maybe the answer is a different car you haven’t tried yet. The game’s roster can certainly keep you busy comparing. You can drive everything from the relatively mundane Mitsubishi Evolution X to the beastly Pagani Zonda R, and even a freaking Tesla, with an Aston Martin Vantage, Audi A1 and Maserati in there for good measure. Just joyriding around Fairhaven, getting a feel for all the cars is a blast, especially considering you can smash into things without any real penalty and fix your car instantly, either from Easydrive or at one of the many mechanics dotting the map.
The problem is that a lot of this single player progress—mods, paint jobs, various performance-boosting unlocks—doesn’t transfer over to multiplayer, which is clearly the real main event of the game. You’ll have to unlock most of your upgrades over again in ranked matches. In multiplayer you can drop into a random game pretty quickly which puts you on a playlist of five eight-player events. These are similar to the solo races—sprints, circuits races—but also include stunt trick competitions, and brief races as you drive from one event to the next.
At the end of a playlist you’ll get a tally of everything you scored and unlocked, and a chance to catch your breath and customize before the next random playlist starts. If you’d prefer a more personal touch, you can also design your own custom playlist from any events you’ve unlocked. The Autolog feature keeps track of it all, pasting leaderboards literally everywhere for you to size up your friends. This is particularly amusing in the game’s ubiquitous billboards, which track your speed and distance as you smash through them, and the next time you come across it your friends’ Miis are prominently displayed with their stats, daring you to literally smash their records.
NFSMWU’s multiplayer succeeds in the most important aspect of any modern multiplayer game—it replicates that elusive party atmosphere online, fostering rivalries and cooperation in turn, as you’ll be neck-and-neck during a circuit race one minute and trying to organize some crazy rooftop stunt the next. It’s great to have this kind of multiplayer experience on the Wii U so early in its lifespan, and I’m eager to see the Mii plaza light up in the coming weeks. It’s just a shame that you need to sign up for Origin to take advantage of features like Autolog and multiplayer—EA’s online service got off to a shaky, shady start, I know a lot of people who still flat refuse to sign up for it, and frankly I can’t blame them.
The Wii U version adds some welcome new features at least. The game allows for off-screen play on the GamePad, a feature that I hope becomes more or less standard for games where the GamePad isn’t absolutely integral to their gameplay, like ZombiU. More significant is the cooperative Co-driver mode, which lets a second player affect gameplay using the GamePad while player one drives using a Wii remote or Wii U Pro Controller. This mode gives player two a number of options for helping out, such as disabling pursuing cops, swapping between day and night, removing traffic from the roads, changing cars on the fly or navigating with the touch screen map.
This feature can be fun for a while but it left me a bit lukewarm. To be honest the extra features on offer for the Co-driver felt more like debug options that were tossed in at the last minute, just for the sake of Wii U functionality in the port. Don’t get me wrong, any extra features are welcome, I just hope Criterion expands on the idea in any sequels. The Wii U version also offers motion controls, utilizing the GamePad’s internal accelerometers and gyroscopes, but to be honest if you never liked motion controls in Mario Kart (hint: I hated them) you’ll probably like them a whole lot less in a racer as bleedingly fast and precise as NFSMWU.
Presentation-wise, NFSMWU is one of the prettiest, most artful titles on the Wii U bar none. Fairhaven positively shimmers with indulgent sun-halos, reflections and effects, and the world itself is impeccably modeled and textured. It’s the cars, however, that really stand out—the term auto erotica takes on a whole new meaning here as each vehicle, even the Ford pickups, has been rendered in loving detail with some truly jaw-dropping reflections and specular mapping. Of special note are the event intros, which range from range from lurid, almost hedonistic pan n’ scans of the cars to what can only be described as arthouse fare. It’s both funny and welcome to see some creative cutscenes in a racing game.
Even more impressive, in my time with the game I never encountered a single framerate hiccup or annoying loading screen—the whole experience was smooth as silk. Considering the Wii U has been plagued with some pretty awful lag, draw distance and framerate issues in almost every port so far, I have to wonder what magic sauce Criterion is using to make such a fast, audaciously gorgeous game run so smoothly on Wii U…or rather, what everyone else is doing wrong.
The sound design is just as good as the visuals. The game’s soundtrack does a decent job at pleasing everyone, with an eclectic selection including The Who, Muse, Deadmau5, Icona Pop and even Green Day. It helps that you can shuffle through the songs with a tap of the left bumper, so if that Skrillex track you hate comes on you don’t have to suffer through it. The sound effects are where the audio portion really shines, and as you’d expect Criterion got each car’s signature sounds perfect, from the eerily silent purr of the Tesla to the powerful yet dignified British growl of the Aston Martin.
In the end Criterion has brought NFSMW to Wii U apparently effortlessly, although I’m sure a great deal of effort actually went into the transition. The game looks and plays better than the previous home console versions, standing shoulder to shoulder with the PC version in terms of graphics, and the added Wii features just sweeten the pot. While many launch window ports on Wii have felt rushed and overall shaky, NFSMWU screams like a V12 roadster doing 160 on the interstate. Whatever Criterion has done, I hope other developers learn how to coax this much raw performance out of the Wii U, and soon.
Of note, however, is that the Wii U version comes with the Ultimate Speed Pack DLC right out of the box. This pack added five new cars to the base game back in December, including the Lamborghini Aventador J and Bugatti Veyron Vitesse. This is a nice addition, but a bittersweet one because EA just announced they won’t be releasing any more DLC for the Wii U version. I’m baffled why they’d put the first DLC pack on the disc and then cut Wii U owners off, but it shows a lack of confidence in the platform going forward. If they’re going to be that cold it makes me wonder why they bothered porting the game to Wii U in the first place, and doing such an excellent job of it too. Hopefully if the game sells well they’ll reconsider.
Regardless, if you’re a Wii U owner and a racing fan you can’t do much better than NFSMWU. It’s one of the console’s few ports that is, for now, superior to most of the other versions, and a master class in how to bring a multiplatform release over to Wii U with both elegance and power. Don’t hesitate to put the key in the ignition on this one.