Fans of the racing genre certainly know all about Criterion Games. After all, the developer is responsible for designing such mega hits as the Burnout franchise and Electronic Arts’ Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit revamp. Needless to say, there’s a lot of talent to be found within its ranks, which is why gamers have come to expect the best from those who represent the brand. As a result, it’s no surprise that Need For Speed: Most Wanted, the studio’s second crack at rebooting popular entries in the long-running series, has released to a lot of buzz.
Released on previous generation hardware, as well as the Xbox 360, the first Need For Speed: Most Wanted title was a major hit. To many, it’s one of the series’ best, if not its absolute best, meaning that its popularity certainly hasn’t lessened over the years. That’s something which Criterion got to take advantage of when designing this new take, and its designers had the advantage of going in with the knowledge that a fan base already existed. Thankfully, the game lives up to most of its hype, although it’s not the be all, end all racer that it could’ve been.
Unlike its predecessor, this iteration doesn’t worry about story. Instead, the Most Wanted list is used as reason to progress. To explain, that important list happens to include ten incredible cars which represent the top tier of Fairhaven City’s illegal racing community. Those who hope to become the king of its varied roads need to test their mettle against those speed machines and their talented drivers if they’re to get anywhere. Of course, doing so requires a lot of skill, lightning fast reflexes and some luck, as moving up the list isn’t an easy thing to do. In fact, things are difficult from the beginning on.
As expected, this is an arcade experience, which doesn’t possess many realistic qualities. The cars are built for speed, and they’re there to have fun with, though one must take into account that driving like a maniac will usually end with the fuzz being on their tail. Cops play a huge role in things, attempting to stop unlawful racers from competing in high speed events, and their presence gets more intense as things go along. If you evade the cars with red and blue flashing lights for a little while, then their cronies will set up roadblocks and deploy spike strips. If that doesn’t work, heavy duty SWAT SUVs end up replacing the majority of the sports car-driving police officers, creating intense pursuits which are very tough to get away from.
Some events don’t include cops, but quite a few do. They love to put an end to races, but solo speed tests tend not to have any interference outside of traffic, which also plays a huge role in Need For Speed: Most Wanted. Players will need to constantly watch out for civillian drivers, because it’s easy to crash into their vehicles and the environment surrounding them. In fact, it’s a bit too easy, and the downside of that design is that hard fought races against difficult catch-up A.I. can be jeopardized by one unfortunate crash right before the finish line. It makes sense, but the speed at which opponents can fly through the city is slightly unfair, meaning that large margin victories aren’t common, especially against the premiere drivers.
Now that we’ve discussed what is one of interactive racing’s most popular set ups, it’s time to go into more detail about how things work. You see, everything the player needs is available through a system called EasyDrive. If you need directions to the next race, it has them, and the same goes for car swap locations, technique milestones and the all important Most Wanted list. Of course, it can’t help one win races, which come with difficulty ratings, though even easy events can be a challenge. Unfortunately, the developers seemed to value difficulty over accessibility, because the challenge level is so high that a lot of casual gamers will become frustrated. Heck, I even became frustrated with the game on more than one occasion, partially because its driving mechanics are somewhat floaty and take a while to get used to.
Using EasyDrive, one can find the aforementioned races, which happen to be split between the many cars that can be found within Fairhaven City. Each one comes with a list of several different ventures, with all of them promising experience point rewards, as well as some upgrades. What’s interesting is the fact that the upgrades don’t transfer between vehicles, and neither do the race opportunities, meaning you’re forced to switch things up regularly. It’s a pretty good idea, though favourites still factor into things. After all, you won’t want to take on the best without your premiere car at your interactive disposal, right?
As the player increases his experience point total by doing well against stiff competition, Most Wanted list opportunities open up. The ten tiers all have point plateaus at which they unlock, allowing for one-on-one duels against the elite. However, one must do more than win to knock the competition back a peg. That’s because, once the player has won a particular duel, he must find the vehicle within the city and take it down. Following the completion of that important maneuver, which plays a big role in races, the car becomes available for use. If this all reminds you of Burnout, it’s because these visceral and realistic sounding crashes pay homage to that series, though they also factored into the original Need For Speed: Most Wanted title.
The single player experience is the focus of this release, though that doesn’t mean it’s without multiplayer and Autolog functionality. Both factor into things in interesting ways, with multiplayer free roaming leading to player created event playlists, and the latter social feature allowing friends to challenge each other. As with other EA racers, recommendations pop up during gameplay, as do challenges that one can choose to complete in order to get bragging rights over a pal. Another way to do so is by crashing through specific billboards found throughout Fairhaven, which will then display your icon and username, in order to let other racers know that you mean business.
Presentation-wise, this outing is a hit, presenting a busy, diverse and interesting city to explore. Its visual fidelity is impressive, as are its digitally rendered cars, which can take quite a bit of damage. Going further, the included sound effects are great, especially when it comes to crashes. However, while those positives definitely outweigh the tiny list of cons, the latter issues must be mentioned. First off, the soundtrack isn’t much to write home about, as it doesn’t include enough of a variety. Then, last but definitely not least, is the fact that the game suffers from some brief frame rate hang ups. Those usually factor in during high speed races with multiple opponents, or whenever the player flies through a speed trap. They don’t mar the experience too much, but can throw things off a bit.
With its rendition of Need For Speed: Most Wanted, Criterion has done its source justice, and has also developed a game that feels like one of its original creations. There’s quite a bit to like about what is a rather well-made experience, though its unnecessarily high challenge level leads to frustration, and may put some players off. As a result, it’s tough to recommend this release to absolutely every racing fanatic out there, which is unfortunate. However, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t a quality game, though I personally prefer the original release over this revamp.
This review is based on an XBOX 360 copy of the game that was provided to us.