I’m just guessing, not to the point of degrading the work of the talented teams over at Criterion, that Need for Speed games start off in an Electronic Arts board room. A man in a suit stands amongst his peers while a PowerPoint hangs on a wall. He proudly exclaims ‘We Need More Need For Speed-Based Product This Year’. It’s not a cheery, optimistic vision of how I think game development happens at EA’s highest echelons, but playing the series’ latest installment, I couldn’t help but feel I’ve already done so much of this before in previous EA racing games. It’s a feeling made worse by the fact that CEO John Riccitello was supposed to save EA from this kind of manipulative Larry Probst business, and yet here we are.
That Same Ol’ Lovin’ Feelin’. Sorta.
When developer Criterion released their Hot Pursuit remake two years back, having been granted the keys to the NFS license after working tirelessly on Burnout games, I know that many of my peers and I believed it was a fantastic move. Criterion has the technical and artistic chops to make fun games (although not all the time), but what came out of 2010′s Hot Pursuit wasn’t really anything that I’d wanted out of a remake. Oh, sure, it had a sturdy engine running the game, it looked beautiful, it definitely had cops, but this wasn’t the arcade game I’d fallen in love with twelve years prior on the PC, this was some sort of strange project that just happened to have the Hot Pursuit branding on it. It was a different game entirely. I gave up on the game relatively early. I didn’t own any of the Need for Speed games between the two Hot Pursuits (although I’d played plenty) and so when Criterion was tasked with the Most Wanted remake, I had no expectations to speak of. Well, scratch that, I certainly did.
I’d just gotten off playing the mind-blowing Forza Horizon.
It didn’t take ten minutes of playing Need for Speed: Most Wanted before I realized I wasn’t going to have the rip-roaring blast that I’d had with Forza, but Most Wanted has two halves: a Jeckyll and a Hyde.
If you’re buying Need for Speed: Most Wanted for its single player, don’t. Or rather, wait until it gets much cheaper. It’s rubbish. If I hadn’t dove into the multi-player, I would’ve written the game off for good effort, but no cigar. You are a car (well, the person inside it, but you’re given no introduction) in search of other cars to add to your roster in an open world. Each car has its own set of races and you upgrade your vehicle based on how well you perform. All of this is rather pointless. The races feel meaningless, the events feel meaningless, your progression feels meaningless. There’s no narrative or much of a spine to the game that encourages you to keep playing, although you’re treated to stylish cutscenes before each race that don’t amount to anything. You are a car in a city with roads, so have at it. I guess.
The fictional city you play in as small-ish and reminiscent of most every Need for Speed game I’ve played with most of the play area consisting of urban areas blending into industrial centers framed by a highway running through wooded hills. I had flashbacks to Carbon, but thankfully you have a day/night cycle here. The game is (mostly) pretty, but it’s obvious that EA’s art director made sure Criterion didn’t stray too far from spec when designing it. Every single road – every single one – is always coated in water, as if it had just rained. It doesn’t seem to affect your handling, but it’s seriously like lens flare for roads and it’s everywhere. And then there’s the interface, which I’ll talk about below. Playing on the Xbox 360, the game couldn’t hold its liquor at times as having multiple vehicles on screen, or having a catastrophic crash happen near you, sinks the frame rate. Texture pop in and jagged aliasing were frequent and constantly in view, since they usually happen on the distant horizon that you’re staring at, hoping not to hit anything.
The game is more than happy to throw as much information as possible at you in small windows along the edge of your screen. Unlike other racing titles, you’re not given helpful information very easily, so I often ignored most of what was going on in the interface. Then there’s quirky things, like how in the single-player, your race placement is on the left side, but in multi-player it’s on the right. Did I mention everything is small? The GPS is also of the oldest school: you get a top-down map in the corner that must be babysat to ensure you don’t miss turns, and you will miss turns because the GPS makes no audible cues to guide you. That it also sends you through wrong-ways and up exit ramps in its best effort to get you places is actually kinda fun if you remember to dodge the traffic. The game “progresses” through your EasyDrive(TM) menu system in which you use the D-pad to sort your events, which then highlight on your GPS. Fun Fact: don’t use the game’s Kinect support, it feels tacked on and you’ll hate it. After using its elegant implementation in Forza Horizon, using it in Most Wanted is a chore since you’re not asking for individual options on these menu trees, you’re using your voice as a cursor:
“Easy Drive.” *wait* “Races.” *wait* “Next. Next. Next. Next. Yes.” *wait* “Yes.” *wait* “Next. Yes.”
Even without the burden of talking down your Kinect to get through the menus, they’re still a pain to use at times. Having a bad race and didn’t hit that pause button right before you finished for a quick restart? Too bad. You’ll have to wait until the static conclusion screen vanishes, keep rolling along in your car at full speed, and wait for the menus to load again. When they do come up, you can’t just select “Retry Last Event” with the A button, you have to drill down into the option with the D-pad. It is annoying as hell.
Before I get into the driving portion, which is in fact quite good, I’ll mention the fragments of Burnout left in the game. The best part of those games was wrecking people out by bashing them against walls and off courses. It makes sense that you wouldn’t get an action cam when knocking out opponents in multi-player, but why wouldn’t you in single-player? That was honestly one of the best parts of Burnout. On the flip side, crashes – which are already a pain in the butt – are exacerbated by multi-angle crash cams that linger for a second or two before returning you to the action. There is no way to turn these off and they are perhaps the most annoying thing in Most Wanted, far and away. If they patch the game to remove them, I will seriously give the game another point. Your move, Criterion.
But if you can get over the game’s numerous quirks and pointless single-player, you may find yourself with an enjoyable racing game. The mere act of driving is fantastic and Criterion has this down pat. E-braking allows for some miraculous turns and the feel of just taking a car and driving around, whether in a race or not, is fantastic.
The real star of Need for Speed: Most Wanted is the multi-player, which isn’t something that I’ll be engaging a lot of, but is something that redeemed much of the game’s flaws. With friends or randoms, you’ll hop into the city, guided through a series of five random events, be they races, speed traps, big jumps, or otherwise. This is where you really get to see Criterion’s genius in play and much of the point of having an open world in the first place. No, you’re not going to be doing any crazy Saints Row stuff here, but the events are largely fulfilling. The game commands you to reach a meet up spot, granting you points if you arrive first, so without needing to be in an event, you’re already up for some competition. You can switch vehicles at any time from a variety of classes, some events mandating specific ones for particular events, and upgrade them as you progress. You’ll get points for takedowns and for simply playing the rounds. In many ways, it’s very evocative of how Midtown Madness 3 handled its multiplayer on the original Xbox, but it’s not quite as goofy as that. If the setting weren’t so derivative and small-ish, I’d probably dump far more time into it.
Dr. And Mr.
Most Wanted is thankfully beyond being a tub of Need for Speed-based product, but only in ways I wouldn’t normally engage a game. I’m not a competitive guy and playing online and climbing ladders and earning smaller and smaller numbers on a scoreboard doesn’t entice me. If I hadn’t hopped in the online modes just to see if Most Wanted had more to it, I would’ve simply given up and written the game off. I can see how this game will have longer legs for some than even Forza Horizon, but the core experience simply isn’t there. Maybe if they’d had another six months, they could’ve done something much grander and fulfilling, but we get what’s on the disc. In the factor that matters most, having actual fun, Need for Speed: Most Wanted came up way short.