Welcome to a new paradise…
What do you want from a driving game? Seriously, think about it for a second. Ask yourself, really ask yourself, what is the most important thing that prompts you want to plonk down £40 on a new driving game. Is it for the thrill of piloting the world’s most absurdly fast four-wheeled machines or is it the much simpler and purer pursuit of just having fun by racing as recklessly as you can? Unsurprisingly Need for Speed: Most Wanted ticks both those boxes in a manner which lovingly panders to the player and it’s actually very hard to find faults wit this experience.
Do you want all cars available in the open-world from the off? No problem. How about a progression system which rewards you for performing drifts, exploring the world and ploughing bonnet first into police cars? Simples, and there’s no need to worry about busting up that McLaren SLR. We can have a new one ready for you in a heart beat, called in via a handy ‘Easy Drive’ menu sprung out with the d-pad.
The thing is this philosophy will sound familiar to anyone who’s played a Criterion game before; their obsession of fun over function, while offering handling models which require split second reflexes and a surprising amount of finesse, is clearer here than perhaps it ever has been before. Previously we’ve talked about how similar Most Wanted is to Burnout Paradise, but after spending an hour and a half with Criterion’s latest we’re pleased to report that these similarities are really just half the story.
Most Wanted is still a Need for Speed game though, that’s pointed out most fervently by the game’s opening ten minutes. After pressing the start button, you’re placed directly in the world with a seductive voice over introducing the driving paradise before you. Muse’s epically empowering ‘Butterflies and Hurricanes’ provides the audio drama to supplement the intro cinematic showing multiple exotic cars sweeping underneath bridges, jump precariously over bridges and bash side panels in a giant city bursting with potential.
Post flashy cinematic players are introduced to the game’s progression structure; SpeedPoints. These credits are offered for winning races, finding shortcuts, driving through auspiciously placed billboards, and running from the cops (the longer the last the more points accumulated). This structure is, in effect, just an XP system which is used to buy access to races against the cities’ top ten Blacklist racers, or the ‘Most Wanted‘, if you will. This structure is similar to EA Black Box’s 2005 original, but this time there aren’t any hammy cutscenes starring D-class actors to raise a wry smile. Instead everything in Criterion’s work is there to serve the gameplay, not the Hollywood pretext that has been behind a lot of the previous efforts in this series.
After the lengthy process of introducing exactly what you can do in the new urban playground of Fairhaven, you’re placed in the seat of a Porche 911 Carrera S and asked to go explore and have fun. It’s a strange moment when an open-world game lets you off the hook, especially a racing game, but from the menu we set a checkpoint for the nearest race and away we went. The thing is Steelport isn’t a place short of attractions as after we took two turns, we spotted an Ariel Atom 500 V8 located in a empty parking lot, just waiting to be jacked. This is how you unlock cars in Most Wanted, you can win the more expensive cars from the Blacklist races but with the rest, you simply locatate them in the open-world, park next to them, press the enter button and drive away after a few seconds long cinematic showing the manufacturer’s badge. Shortening this process sums up Criterion’s games design philosophy magnificently; no hurdles – just fun.
Where the competition aspect comes in are the races, police chases and online leaderboards. The Autolog functionality which permeated throughout Hot Pursuit is even deeper here, with speed camera top speeds, event performance, miles clocked, police chase tallys and fastest road times all gathered, collated and ordered in innumerable online leaderboards. Want to find out how quick somebody can race down 5th street? Autolog 2.0 will let you know in real-time while you’re racing down the congested thoroughfare. All times are pooled from your friends list, so you aren’t battling with unknowns, although you can view your overall work ranking in any of the aforementioned criteria if you wish.
Police chasers are the other big gameplay component. Like in the last Most Wanted and Hot Pursuit tangling with the law functions like an extremely destructive palate cleanser. At any time, even during events, driving recklessly within eye sight of the cops initiates a chase with six different levels of ‘aggro’ determining behaviour. On the first level you just get a handful of cops snapping at your tail, but as your notoriety increases you’ll face roadblocks, spike-rips, black hefty SUVs, and even cops possessing super cars decked out in police liveries to take you down. The chases are more dramatic than before with your car now accumulating damage, and tyre pops via spike rips don’t immediately wreck your car, so you can struggle on down the road albeit at a slower speed and worse turn-in. Players only get arrested when fenced in by the police for a handful of seconds or so, which is indicated by a handy metre at the bottom of the screen, but it’s relatively easy to keep the chase going for long amounts of time.
Once you lose the cops you need to wait for the six tiered attention level to drop before you can carry on your merry way, which is easiest to manage by using cooldown points located under overpasses in or areas hard to spot spread liberally throughout Fairhaven. Running from the law is fun regardless of the circumstances, in games we mean, but here it felt a little bit too easy. When you end up crashing due to police cars hitting you into scenery or just general takedowns you aren’t immediately apprehended, instead you just respawn, albeit with your car suffering a bit more visual damage. That sounds like a compromise to accessibility too far for us, but that harshness would compromise the pick-up and playability that this Need for Speed prides itself on.
Despite for playing only sixty minutes, we’d earned enough SpeedPoints to gain access to the first racer on the Blacklist and unlocked access to a lovely Masarati MC 12, Fort Mustang GT, BMW M Coupé , Alfa Romeo 4C concept, Mercedes AMG SLS, Ariel Atom 500 V8, and the starter car, the Porsche 911 Carrera S merely by exploring the world and finding cars. That sort of fast progression shouldn’t be sniffed at, and despite taking part in multiple car chases and events racing around never felt like a grind.
For the final thirty minutes of our hands-on we were plonked into a multiplayer session with half a dozen other players and that’s where we were really reminded of Criterion’s lineage. Like Burnout Paradise, players are grouped together, told to go to specific points of the map and carry out specific activities; both competitive and co-operative. The goals are very regimented ranging from point-to-point races to each player contributing to a collective jump target. Incentivising players to jump through hoops together is managed by a steady steam of objectives and dangling Speedpoints to those who complete objectives first is meant to keep things going, but all in all multiplayer still feels a bit too regimented for us. Online play is almost the antithesis of the single-player campaign which is all about doing what you want instead of following the status quo. All objectives are timed, and players will be removed from public games if they don’t play ball. It an odd concession to make, but with Fairhaven being so massive, there needs to be some kind of mechanic to funnel players into the same area constantly, otherwise you aren’t really playing together.
From top to bottom it seems that Most Wanted is an intelligently designed game with player fun pushed to the forefront of every mechanic and that’s something which should be praised. There are some issues with regards to length, as we got through a lot of content fairly quickly but knowing Criterion we’re sure plenty of surprises await as you explore the city further.
Need for Speed: Most Wanted is out in Europe on November 2nd for PC, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. Expect a review later this week…
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