Thursday, November 8, 2012

Need for Speed: Most Wanted Review

After a few years where Need for Speed was at risk of becoming an irrelevant franchise, EA brought on Burnout developers Criterion Games to create NFS: Hot Pursuit. The identity crisis that had been rife in the series was over as they got back to the high octane arcade roots the series is known for. Last years NFS: The Run was a small dent in the progress Criterion had made, but they are again back with an even more ambitious title than their first effort for the franchise. Any other year this would be the arcade racer to get due to Criterion's name alone. Forza Horizon stepping up to the plate with a stunning title has made the decision tougher for those who need to decide. Is Need for Speed: Most Wanted what we hoped it to be, or has ambition gotten in the way of the true Criterion quality we know they are capable of.


Criterion are no strangers to open world racing games. Burnout Paradise is still a highly regarded game in terms of gameplay and graphical feats to this day and the knowledge has put them in good stead for Most Wanted. The city of Fairhaven is a huge and full of so much detail thats its impossible to not appreciate what has gone into it. The roads are full of cars that can ruin a run if not successfully avoided and there are literally hundreds of short cuts and off-road routes to explore. The industrial setting looks spectacular and a nice degree of variation will let you distinguish different parts of the city. 

You are still able to admire the level of detail put into the world while tearing down streets in excess of 150 miles an hour. Sure, activating the nitrous sends you into a rush of speed that blurs the screen to convey the sense of speed, but the effect of the weather still pulsates through the game. Coming out of a dark tunnel into the blinding light will disorient you, forcing a split second decision to turn once the vision comes back. This isn't a bad thing though, the city is vibrant in the sunlight yet a dark and mysterious vibe surrounds the streets at night. It's hard to fault the experience as you can go from one corner of the map to the other with no loading times and the same high frame rate for the entire journey.

If you have such a beautiful world, why not show it off? Before each race is a nice introductory video that shows off the amazing views and areas on offer in Fairhaven. The great thing about these is that each race has a different one and with over 200 races on offer that is a lot of content being shown off. The video seamlessly leads into the racing action which is fast and intense. The huge crashes of Burnout and Hot Pursuit are back. While your own takedowns aren't slowed down and admired, everytime you crash a nice slow motion cinematic shows the destruction caused to you. The takedown camera was at its pinnacle with Burnout Revenge, but Most Wanted aims to keep you in the action instead of dragging you away every ten seconds.

Having the game completely synchronized with one seamless system is exactly what Criterion Games wants. The menu system is revolutionary and miraculously removes the static menus of practically every game ever made. Modding up your car, choosing races and the majority of all other options that you would usually press start for before wading through menu after menu are now accessed in-game as a little pop-up hud in the top left corner. You can actually modify your cars tyres or chassis while in a race which is really sweet, but not too practical unless you can successfully pull it off while not crashing. Just the fact that I can do everything I need while staying in the car is a huge positive and something more games should apply. RPGs that made a system this easy would have a lifelong fan from myself and others like me who get overawed by too many menus.

While Forza is the indisputable king of realistic car noises, Need for Speed: Most Wanted provides a very good experience none the less. The sounds lack the true grit and beef of Forza, but with the sound system turned up you will still be able to feel the power of each car as it slams through Fairhaven. Crashes sound great and the loud bang of getting t-boned makes you groan with the realisation of what happened. The cars are complemented with a bass heavy mix of music from artists such as Skrillex that blast through the car speakers to provide an additional adrenalin rush. I like the list of tracks in the game and found that they did a great job of getting me into the zone when faced against racers and cops alike.


What good is a pretty setting if the racing is terrible. This is what unravelled NFS: The Run, the stunning landscape across America was coupled with mediocre racing. Luckily that isn't the case here and those who played Hot Pursuit will feel right at home in the meat of the racing. Cars feel fast and handle spectacularly with drifting a big part of being able to successfully navigate your way through the bustling streets. The 41 cars in the game all have their pros and cons, making the races against the Most Wanted list a game of choice between handling of a Mitsubishi Evo or sacrificing that for the acceleration of an Aston Martin Vantage for example.

After exploring every nook and cranny of Fairhaven you can launch into the true guts of the game. Most Wanted consists of 215 races in total, 5 for each of the cars in the game and the ten Most Wanted races that really test your skill. Each car has an unique set of races suited towards it and they range from easy to hard in difficulty. Winning races with a car unlocks modifications that improve its stats and give it the edge in certain terrain such as off road portions of races. The types of races available at circuit races, sprint races and speed runs. The first two are your standard races against other competitors and quite often the intervention of the police to make it just that little bit harder. Speed runs are effectively checkpoint races where you must get from point to point averaging a specific speed to get the gold medal. This requires precision and the smallest crash or running into spikes dropped by the cops can ruin a solid run. 

Most things you do in the game will earn you skill points. Placing in races will earn you a fair amount, as will getting in cop chases and successfully evading their pursuits. Police pursuits raise your heat level and the more damage caused by yourself, the higher your heat level. The police will use more force to try and bring you down with armoured SWAT vans being the cream of the crop at the top heat level. Escaping from these pursuits earns you a huge swag of points while being busted lets you walk away free, but without points. Once you earn so many skill points a Most Wanted race will become available and you can challenge one of the top 10 racers in Fairhaven. Beating them lets you own their car and move up on the rankings board.

The seamless nature of the menu system isn't all Criterion Games tried to integrate into NFS Most Wanted. Social connectivity and access to the world are all present in ways never before seen in video games. First off, most open world racing games will put you in a crappy car and have you racing against other crappy cars until you earn enough cash to progress onto a higher class. This is the principle behind Forza's series effectively. Criterion Games have gone, 'you know what, lets make the entire game available from the very beginning.' There are no slow cars and they are all accessible from the very second you hope into the game. Apart from the Most Wanted's cars you can race around in the quickest car possible, as long as you find it. All the cars in the world are hidden in alleyways and other areas around Fairhaven and coming across one of these jackspots lets you pull up and simply hop in. While the sense of progression diminishes here, the incentive to actually explore the world to see what kind of cars you can find definitely counteracts it. 

Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit introduced us to the Autolog system that can become the staple of the series going forward. Other racing games are implementing similar systems but they don't come close in comparison to Most Wanted's effort. Short cuts in the world are hidden by signs on the side of the road and there are over 60 speed traps scattered over Fairhaven. Jumping through a sign will lead to your face appearing on that sign for all your friends. If someone jumps through it and beats the distance you landed then their face will replace yours. The same level of competition appears with the speed traps and all 215 races showing the times of you and friends. Everything about the game is connected together to encourage friends to challenge each other. Need for Speed: Most Wanted is also connected to the game on other platforms. Skill points I earned on the Xbox 360 carried across to the game on my iPhone and vice versa. I found myself levelling up faster than normal and being able to challenge Most Wanted drivers after only a handful of races since I'd put in a fair bit of time with the iOS version. I'm not sure if this is a good thing or not, sure its good but I could technically skip out the meat of the console version because I had earned all the skill points necessary in the simplified handheld version.


Need for Speed: Most Wanted may not technically be the sequel to Burnout Paradise but it may as well be. What it lacks in simulation and pure technical polish of Forza Horizon it definitely makes up for with intense racing and the pure enjoyment that comes with being able to take out cars or flying through the air after jumping over an old highway. They aren't trying to compete with the simulation experience and that is a good thing since it sticks to Criterion's strengths. Some people may not like the open nature of the game, but it makes it accessible to those who don't want to grind for hours just to get 'that car'. A game best enjoyed with friends who also own the game, this is the ultimate social experience. I can't compare this to Forza Horizon saying which one is better because the simple fact is you need to own them both.

Graphics - 9.5/10 
Sound - 9/10 
Gameplay - 9/10 
Overall - 9/10