Criterion shift gears to create an all too familiar driving paradise.
This review is hardest one we’ve had to write all year bar none and the reason for that grandiose statement is quite simple; we love Need for Speed: Most Wanted, yet if we’re honest with ourselves it’s hard to see Criterion’s latest as anything other than a backward step for the franchise. You see almost every new component in this arcade racer has been tweaked from the genre-defining Burnout Paradise, while everything else just falls a bit flat. Let us explain…
At its core Most Wanted is fundamentally a connected, online experience. Offline play involves players driving around an open-world policed by AI and competing against ten ridiculously fast drivers dubbed, The Most Wanted. This setup is identical to 2005′s title of the same name by Black Box, the difference is the modern version has no story setup and makes no attempts to characterise the guys you are tasked with replacing. It’s weird as it almost seems as though Criterion had the premise thrust upon them. This framework forms the basis of you building up your speed rank, gaining more mods, like instant-inflating tyres and nitrous boost, for your set of licensed cars and slowly unlocking opportunities to beat and take down those at the top, but it feels completely disposable. It would be better if this pretext was dropped in alignment with the rest of the single-player experience which prides fun over function. Every licensed car is available to you from the beginning, all you need to do is find it parked up in the open-world and get inside to add it to your growing garage. Whenever you need to use that car again, you can either drive or teleport to that part of the world, but the fact that you can unlock Most Wanted’s best cars like the Bugatti Veyron in a matter of minutes if you know where it’s parked up is a genuine revelation. Prized cars are hidden in very sneaky spots too, forcing you to creep around the world, sweeping the camera around in the hope of finding a parked motor with its logo emblazoned over the top.
The core racing action has been ported across wholesale from Hot Pursuit, with competitors able to bump side-panels to take each other out and the world is punctuated with shortcuts and elaborate jumps to add some style to runthroughs.
The overall feel of Most Wanted is slick if a bit samey, with car, event and mod selection available just by bringing down the in-game menu with the D-Pad. Again this is something that Burnout Paradise did brilliantly and here it works just as well.
Coupled with an improved version of Autolog, almost all player activity is collated and compared with your Origin friends, including event times, shortcuts found, billboards found, cars found, longest drift and any other strange yet encouragable measures of ability. If anything Most Wanted relies on this competitive aspect too much to incentivise events to be run again and again, but it’s still a cool connected feature.
Police chases are the other major single-player component and can be initiated whenever you bang into a cop car, drift or drive into oncoming traffic and they function much like they did in Hot Pursuit. The often homicidal fuzz can bring in road-blocks, spike strips, exotic cars, meat wagons and SUVs to take you down, but unfortunately the helicopter doesn’t return and there isn’t an option to play as cops – even online.
Strangely all of this progression doesn’t matter at all for online play as that curiously has its own entirely separate system. Any cars here need to be unlocked again via a traditional Modern Warfare-esque points accumulation, whereas more mods become available as you clock up more activity in any given car. There is an overarching system between both game-modes, but keeping progression separate seems pointless, other than to artificially lengthen the game. Thankfully online play is saved by the genius implementation of Freeburn. Functioning much like an in-game lobby, multiplayer matches consist of five events which take place in the open-world and require players to race to the location of each event, dubbed meet-ups, before they begin. Activities range from races, point to point time trials, challenges like parking on a key structure for more time than your peers and team races. This intelligently designed mode, optimised for twelve players, makes progression painless and fun with the game itself doing all the hard work of ensuring folks stay in the same part of the world before the action begins.
In their own right both cores of Most Wanted are fine and applying the use of licensed cars to the templated brilliance of Burnout Paradise is absolutely fine, but in many ways this isn’t really a Need for Speed game. There isn’t the Hollywood brilliance or the car evangelism we’ve come to expect. Aside from genuinely unsettling cutscenes prior to events and the briefest of cinematics to introduce each of the fifty licensed cars, this game could involve fictional manufacturers and cars and really there wouldn’t be any difference. Only maybe the crashes would be more devastating.
What EA and Criterion have affectively done is combine two solid racing franchises into one, and as a result the essence of both Need for Speed and Burnout have been a teensy bit compromised. That makes us very concerned for a new entry in the latter series.
Make no mistake Most Wanted is still the finest licensed arcade racing game to be released this year, and its brilliant contact-laden gameplay will keep you entertained for dozens of hours, especially if you have a close group of online friends to encourage healthy competition. We just wish the game’s individual components were something new rather than a slight evolution of what Criterion have accomplished before.
2012’s best production car racing game, but far from a new experience.
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