If video game franchises could have an identity crisis, Need for Speed would be a good place to look. It started in 2009 with NFS: Shift, a circuit racing game. Then, Criterion Games attempted to bring the franchise back to its roots with NFS: Hot Pursuit a year later. Circuit-racer Shift 2 came out next year, but movie-action-racer EA Black Box was not quite done yet with the franchise, and released NFS: The Run several months later. So the franchise has three identities to sort out. Actually, make that four because it even got its own free-to-play MMO. The confusion won’t let up anytime soon, as Need for Speed: Most Wanted, an open-city police chase racer from Criterion Games, just got released. Is it any good to the franchise? Read more to find out!
The title may say Most Wanted, but this is not a remake of the original Most Wanted that came out in 2005. It is Criterion Games’ attempt to create an experience sort of like the original. ’05 MW had a somewhat lame story with its stylized acting scenes, but it helped emphasize the goal and made the open city somewhat more dynamic. Criterion Most Wanted does not have that. Actually, it does not have a plotline at all. Just make it to the top of the Most Wanted list. The downside is the city feels incredibly static. There are roads, traffic, and buildings. Except for the announcer and police chatter, there is no existence of life, and it really feels like it. The upside is there is no potentially problematic narration to interrupt and stall the driving experience.
A missing plotline does not matter to racing games, but the driving experience matters a huge deal. Many NFS games of old were famous for their high-speed thrills and/or intense police chases. Most Wanted delivers a mildly thrilling experience when in single-player. There is certainly a lot of speed, but so is driving ten miles per hour over the limit on the freeway. There is a bit of excitement, but hardly any adrenaline. Police chases aren’t that great either. ’05 Most Wanted had really hyper-aggressive police chasing you if you really escalated the heat meter, and it was a great rush of excitement. Criterion Most Wanted has police officers that seem to have hung around the donut shop too much. They chase, but hardly nudge, and go about dropping spike strips and making road blocks. The feeling of being a fugitive is hardly there, even at maximum heat.
As a Need for Speed game, you will not find an experience like the pre-2006 games. How about looking at it as just “Most Wanted – A Criterion Game”? The “Criterion” part is quite important because Most Wanted has quite a few elements heavily borrowed from Burnout: Paradise. The first major element is the stiff driving controls. It’s tolerable and drifting is easy, but avoiding collisions require a very early reaction or else the car will plow into traffic and walls. Takedowns also find their way into this game, but the appeal is limited a bit due to rubber-band AI. Exploration of the open city feels like a bunch of connecting mountain roads that have been flattened and have a lot of buildings next to it.
Most Wanted is very easy to learn. It literally is just: gas, brake, steer, boost, handbrake, and the d-pad that controls EasyDrive. They did a very nice job of making sure that getting into the game is quick and easy. Frustration takes a further beating with the EasyDrive menu. It is a very streamlined way of specifying directions to races, accessing the multiplayer, and doing simple car customizations on the fly while driving. Customization options are unlocked for the current vehicle by winning races with the vehicle. Each vehicle has five races; each one of varying difficulty. There could be more variety though, as it is just circuit, point-to-point, run from the police, and a couple objective-based things. They feel very similar to each other. Despite signs of rubber-band AI, Most Wanted’s racing difficulty is pretty much spot on. Most of the races are just about right if you are a competent driver, and they are reasonably short should disaster happen. If anything, Most Wanted’s second greatest strength is not being a punishing and infuriating racing game. Losing a race did not invoke a very negative reaction, and it did entice another couple runs until first place is achieved. Practicing runs also led to getting used to the stiff controls while finding ways to do better. Rewards for winning are somewhat dry, as they give speed points for progress, and either give you a chance at taking down the Most Wanted car or simply unlock the basic upgrade that every other car gets at the same race level.
Steamlining goes a step further as a majority of the cars are available right away at the start of the game. All you need to do is drive and find them first, and then you have access to them. Changing cars is a simple as pulling up the EasyDrive menu and picking the car you want. The other cars are obtained by defeating Most Wanted racers and taking down their cars. The cars list is pretty much standard for a typical person’s dream garage. That means exotics like the Lamborghini Aventador, muscle cars like the Chevrolet Camaro ZL1, and sports cars like the Jaguar XKR. The only oddities are two SUVs.
The multiplayer has emphasis on open-city. You head to a start race location with other players…while enjoying smashing into each other on the way there. The competition between players is to score the most Speed Points across five events, known as SpeedLists. The events themselves feel a bit like Burnout with licensed cars, which isn’t a bad thing. If anything, the multiplayer provides the essential thrills the single-player sorely lacks. It is where nearly all the fun can be found in this game.
The presentation of the game is pretty much average. Visuals are typical for the franchise, with much emphasis on lighting and effects, such as sparks and water spray. Modeling on the cars is quite well, damage modeling is middle-of-the-road, and other areas of the rendering side are average. One area of note is every race begins with a video full of visual pizazz and bizarre effects to get some excitement going. These pre-rendered or rendered scenes don’t add much to the game and feel like a wasted effort.
The car sounds are typical Need for Speed phenomenal. Engine roars and collision sound effects can get mesmerizing. Police voice chatter is a big “meh”, and my personal tastes tell me that the licensed soundtrack is just bad. It’s typical rock and a lot of the electronic/techno/dubstep stuff that is popular these days, but I just don’t like any of the music.
Criterion Games’ attempt at an open-city police-chase racing game meets with a lukewarm opinion. Most Wanted definitely gets the approval for a very well designed interface. They also have done a great with tuning the difficulty, creating a racing game that isn’t punishing or frustrating when failure happens, and creating easy-to-use controls. The multiplayer is where most of the fun is and accomplishes what the single-player could not: providing a thrilling driving experience. At the same time, nearly everything outside the multiplayer lacks satisfaction. There are only slight levels of excitement. In addition, the city feels very lifeless, police chases have a difficult time trying to be exciting, and many of the rewards get dry. There are certainly no major faults overall, but Need for Speed: Most Wanted feels quite insubstantial. What resulted in the end is an okay racing game with an entertaining multiplayer.
Final Score: 7.0/10