Thanks to a resume that includes the likes of Burnout Paradise
and 2010's Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit
, there's real reason to be excited about a brand new release from Criterion Games. Their games are the driving game equivalent of an action movie, full of explosions, crashes and huge jumps. And while many have tried, nobody has been able to match the intense experience of Burnout. Criterion's newest game, Need for Speed: Most Wanted, tries to relive studio's former glory, only to come up a little short.
Race fans will immediately recognize the set-up. There's a list floating around of the ten most wanted drivers in Fairhaven. Not content to let these ten drivers and their expensive rides hog all the glory, you want on that list. To do that you'll need to work your way up by competing in street races for SP points. Earn enough cash and you'll have a chance to go one-on-one against these most wanted drivers, which may just result in you winning their car.
Right off the bat you're dropped into Fairhaven with no direction outside of earning points. You can use the car you're given or drive around looking for a better ride. You won't need to buy cars, as they are just waiting to be found around the city. Usually they'll be parked off to the side, marked with a large arrow featuring the maker. You'll find sporty rides from most of the top manufacturers, including Alfa Romeo, BMW, Ford, Lamborghini, Chevrolet, Porsche, Nissan, Mitsubishi, Mercedes-Benz and many more.
Each car has its own set of five races to complete. Coming in first or second will score you valuable upgrades, while a third place finish will net you 4,000 SP. The upgrades can only be used on that specific vehicle and are always unlocked in the same order. Your first goal is to unlock the nitrous, which will give you a fighting chance to get back in the race after a devastating head-on collision. From there you'll upgrade the tires, body, chassis and transmission.
This process does feel a little repetitive after a while. Even though each car's first stage is often a pushover, it's annoying that I'm forced to earn the same turbo boost over and over. It's also jarring when you discover that not all cars have their own unique races. It's easy to accidentally replay the same events multiple times with a number of new cars, which can sometimes make the game feel a little light on content. There are 61 races 51 regular races and 10 Most Wanted races)
in all, down significantly from the 120 events in Burnout Paradise.
To its credit, Most Wanted does offer some truly amazing racing action. Even though the content has essentially been halved, the races here are more memorable. Part of this is because you are racing to a number of checkpoints, creating a much stricter path than the more laissez faire approach of Burnout Paradise. Thankfully it's not too strict, as racers will have plenty of chances to speed through shortcuts and alternate paths. Criterion does a good job of showing off how dynamic Fairhaven is in these 61 events.
Unlike Burnout Paradise, there are cops patrolling the streets in Most Wanted. It doesn't take much for a race to fly completely out of hand with the police on your tail. Suddenly this starts to resemble Hot Pursuit, with the police dropping spike strips and doing everything in their power to push you off the street. Thankfully not all races involve the police, but they are an unpredictable variable that normally makes the action more exciting.
Not all of the events are races. Sometimes you'll be asked to drive a speed run, which clocks the average speed you drive over a set course. There is also the ambush mode, which requires players to escape the police in under two minutes and thirty seconds. I enjoyed the speed run more than ambush. In fact, after a while I started to actively avoid the monotonous ambush stages.
The world of Fairhaven is interesting and varied, even if we've seen it all before in one form or another. The urban sections resemble New York City, while the mountainous terrain looks like it was transplanted from the Pacific Northwest. You'll drive through a nuclear energy plant and beachfront property. There's a little of everything in Fairhaven, which is what you need in this kind of open world game.
Topography aside, this has a much darker atmosphere to it. Part of that is the day/night cycle, which wasn't added to Burnout Paradise until months later. You'll also run into different types of weather, including rain storms and foggy mornings. Everything is a little grungier here; it's not as bright and cheery as Paradise City. At the same time, Fairhaven isn't nearly as interesting.
Generally speaking, I approve of a lot of the design choices Criterion has made in the single-player campaign. The "EasyDrive" menu is quick and easy to use, allowing players to quickly change cars. It's so easy that you can even change your vehicle's parts in the middle of a race without missing a single beat. This system makes changing cars and finding new events a snap, which is what I want from a streamlined racing game.
On the other hand, I'm not a huge fan of the police in this game. Normally this wouldn't be a problem, but it becomes annoying for a number of reasons. For one thing, the police are wildly inconsistent. Sometimes they'll chase me for speeding, sometimes they won't. That on its own wouldn't be a bad thing, but it's annoying when it keeps me from starting the next race. It's frustrating to drive halfway across Fairhaven only to get pursued in the final moments. Trying to escape them will drive me away from the race and getting busted means I have to drive all the way back again. It's a no-win situation that I shouldn't be in.
This is even more annoying when a race ends. The police chase from your last race carries over into the open world. Here again you're forced to choose between getting busted and outrunning the cops. I'm the kind of person that wants to relax after a race, not get chased needlessly by the police.
Fans of Burnout will recognize many of the game's other problems. The computer's AI wants to keep things tight, no matter how far ahead or behind you are. This leads to moments that feel inconsequential to the rest of the race. Some events can feel like the first 90% was just getting you to the important 10%. The rubber band AI feels like a relic of the past and I hope that Criterion moves beyond it when the next generation consoles hit.
As it turns out, Need for Speed: Most Wanted is at its best when played online. Suddenly the game is everything I hoped from the single-player campaign. Instead of being just another lobby where races cycle in order, Criterion has crafted a clever system where events are always changing and the action is constantly fresh.
Each cycle is split up into five different events, which include everything from racing to completing challenges. You may start out with a quick team race, in which the players are split into two teams and earn points towards victory. When that's over you'll be whisked away to an individual challenge, which has you trying to make the longest jump of anybody in the room. From there it's off to another race, but this time you're on your own. And then it's a speed run, where you try to get the fastest time on a set marker. And finally, just to wrap things up, you'll have to work as a team to destroy a certain amount of billboards or drift for a set amount of time.
Once the room has completed all five events, the points are added up and a winner is crowned. At that point you're given a three minute break before coming back for another set of random racing fun. The event changes each time, so you never know what kind of activities the room will be asked to complete. Sometimes you'll need to use special types of vehicles and other times it's a free-for-all. There are some smart ideas here that will keep my interest long after this review has been published.
Most Wanted is yet another great looking game from Criterion. Even though they don't use the dramatic takedown cam, the action is as explosive as ever. It's disappointing that the frame rate isn't as consistent as it could be. Beyond the technical performance, Need for Speed features an impressive collection of unique, often strange race introductions. Sometimes cars will explode onto the screen, while other times we'll see the action upside down for a few moments. These cinemas play with art styles, visual effects, filters and more. Even if they are there to mask load times, they are a joy to watch.
It's hard not to be a little disappointed that Most Wanted isn't as large and robust as Burnout Paradise. But maybe that's an unfair bar to hit. Criterion's 2008 racer is a masterpiece that is hard to equal. This does a good job of capturing the magic, but there isn't nearly enough to this game. With a few more race types, this could have been something special. As it is, Need for Speed: Most Wanted is a good game that doesn't fully live up to its potential.