Criterion Games was, and still is, hailed as one of the best arcade racing developers on the planet, and with their recent move to the Need for Speed franchise, it has only benefited the United Kingdom-based team. With fans still clamouring for another open world racer, can Criterion follow-up on a potential spiritual successor to Burnout Paradise, or is this just an unfortunate hit and run?
With any racing game, it’s the driving mechanics that matters most. Thankfully, due to a high volume of automobiles that are simulated perfectly to fit every scenario, Most Wanted is at the top of its game. There’s no vehicle that drives the same, both in performance and audio queues. While it’s possible to trick-out a ride with upgrades based on what place you finished in a race, the handling on each vehicle feels unique and will allow players to pick and choose their favorite cars to cruise Fairhaven City with. Trucks feel weighty and take a lot of punishment, but are not as fast, while an Aston Martin is a faster ride but doesn’t do well off road. It’s all about sacrificing something based on what kind of event is available.
The world of Most Wanted feels rich and open, establishing a multitude of areas and terrains to burn rubber in. Instead of generating unique event markers around the world, each race or getaway is distinct to the car you drive, encouraging players to test out and upgrade the unlockable rides scattered across the city. With this, though, there can be a bit of repetition in events as you will find yourself racing down the same path as you did with another vehicle. Thankfully, these are far and far between and the psychedelic aesthetic to most affairs will keep things interesting. Seeing pursuing police officers driving on the walls and ceiling of a building is trippy.
Speaking in regards to Fairhaven City, there are some issues regarding the map navigation. While the city certainly is large and will take a while to track through, there isn’t a good navigation system that allows you get where you want to go. The problem here is that markers can only be set to events and special items in the world (such as billboards or cameras), so when you want to go to a location that isn’t unique or hasn’t been found yet, pulling up the map at ever intersection will be the only option – and it definitely doesn’t help that it requires a longer than usual loading screen each time. Car swapping is something new to the series, but doesn’t necessarily flow well with the game. After finding a car abandoned in the middle of nowhere, it feels natural to just jump in and speed off. Unfortunately, whenever you want to jump back into that car after taking another set of wheels, you’ll either have to find it or teleport to where it spawns. There’s no garage function, so you may be transported across the entire map to a location furthest away from your initial destination.
Host Pursuit’s auto-log makes its gracious return, and while it only includes minor adjustments, it still remains a high point in online capabilities. You can browse the city with your posse, or go into competitive matches, such as takedown competitions or races, to determine who the best driver is. There’s no doubt that the online modes are what make Need for Speed Most Wanted one of the best multiplayer games this year, and even without it, it’s a game worth diving into for its addicting challenges and enjoyable driving mechanics. Now all we need is this easily accessible function to become a standard in most games.
Like many racing games today, Need for Speed Most Wanted is not without rubber-banding issues. While it does help in capture a tense and heart-racing chase sequence when battling one of the ten most wanted individuals, having to restart a three to five minute long race because you accidentally piled into house on the home stretch is not fun – especially considering the opponent magically appears closer to you around every turn. While this mainly only applies to the ten most wanted individuals, along with medium and hard difficulty challenges, it also affects the police force, making even a level two heat ranking a challenge to evade. But with that said, with more challenging high speed chases, outrunning the cops feels gratifying and will give a sense of accomplishment when you gain 50,000 points on a sixth heat rating.
Criterion Games have once again proved that they’re the pinnacle development team at Electronic Arts and will lead the Need for Speed franchise into a brighter future. While there are some shortcomings, such as poor map navigation and some rubber-banding issues, Most Wanted is an adrenaline-pumping racer that will leave you with sweaty palms. Mix in the great soundtrack and the constant online experience and you have a game just begging to be adored.
Version Reviewed: Xbox 360