If you look at my Gamerscore on Xbox 360 you’ll see something interesting – several years of games, but only one with a full 1000/1000 points earned. That title standing singular above the others is the original Need for Speed Most Wanted. Nitrous-fueled break-neck racing was delivered courtesy of EA Black Box, wrapped neatly around a storyline casting you as undercover cop sent to bust 16 street racers. The game released in 2005 and was universally well received. Since that time, Criterion Games has since taken up the mantle of building the series, and they’ve seen fit to head back to where it began for players of this console generation – they are rebuilding Need for Speed Most Wanted. Taking advantage of 7 years worth of technology and knowledge in between releases, Criteron has done the impossible – they’ve made one of my favorite games better. Let’s see what’s under the hood.
The first thing you’ll notice is an incredible difference in graphical quality. What EA Blackbox pulled off was impressive, but Criterion’s freshly-rebuilt Chameleon engine brings the world of Fairhaven to life. The day and night cycle with high dynamic range lighting, the beautiful vistas of the open world (which is 3x as large as Paradise), the dingy industrial area, and the high-rise buildings are all rendered with stunning detail. The vehicles have been carefully reproduced with every line and curve meticulously recreated. Every paintjob is shiny and beautiful (for about 30 seconds until I put it into a guardrail anyway, and frequent gas stations will change your paint and make you pretty again), sunsets burn the sky with orange, yellow, and red, while rain clouds darken the sky with the threat of rain. I saw a side-by-side comparison between the Xbox 360 and PC version of the game, and I have to say that there isn’t as much difference as you might expect. That isn’t to say the PC version isn’t gorgeous, it’s more saying how fantastic the 360 version looks.
[singlepic id=8165 w=320 h=240 float=left]The storyline from the first title is gone (we miss you Josie!) and a far simpler one is put in its place – you are a new racer in Fairhaven and you’ll have to earn your way up to challenge the top 10 racers for their vehicles. No cop subplot, no betrayal and escape at the end, just simple racing. To that end, after a short introduction, you’ll be dropped into the driver’s seat of your first car without a single loading screen.
After finding your first car you’ll be treated to a quick cut of the logo across the screen as you switch cars. When you spin your tires to take your first race you’ll get a cool in-engine intro for it. These are often very cinematic, occasionally bizarre (floating cop cars that swoop together in the air and then explode out?!), frequently slow motion to show off the vast amount of detail, or some combination of the above. One sequence with four cop cars spinning around in a tight ballet-style drifting circle as they spun the tires in slow motion comes immediately to mind. Every one of the Most Wanted cars gets a fantastic introduction that simply has to be seen.
Criterion tackled Most Wanted with a specific mantra in mind – if you can find it, you can drive it. With that in mind they’ve licensed over 120 Supercars (and even some trucks!) from brands you’ll immediately recognize. The Lexus LFA, a Alfa Romeo 4C Concept, a Shelby COBRA 427, the brand new Aventador from Lamborghini, and even a Ford Focus RS500 are in the game, and each of them serve a very specific niche when racing. Other notables include the hideous Lancia Delta HF Integrate, the Tesla Roadster Sort, Marussia B2, Bentley Supersports ISR, BAC Mono, and even the Ariel Atom 500 V8. The Range Rover Evoque is great for more offroad racing lanes, whereas the Aston Martin V12 Vantage puts the pedal down on the tarmac. In multiplayer you’ll have some races that require a specific vehicle type (Muscle, Sports, Everyday, Exotic, Grand Tourer, SUV, or Race), so you’ll have to get good at driving all types of vehicles, not just your favorites.[singlepic id=8166 w=320 h=240 float=right]
The structure for racing is fairly free form as this is an entirely open world from the second you put your foot to the gas pedal. The way it works is simplicity itself – it’s all contained in your Easy Drive. Easy Drive is brought up by tapping right on your D-Pad and it gives you access to a quick list of information. You can swap in unlocked items (all cars come stock – you race to get your upgrades) like run-flat tires, nitrous, lightweight chassis, and more from here. Since many of the races are semi-unique to each vehicle, you’ll also select the 5 or so races for that particular car from here. You’ll also see what the Autolog system recommends you tackle next. This ties nicely into the persistent multiplayer aspects of the game.
Everything you do in the game earns you SP – the currency of Most Wanted. Reaching a certain SP amount grants you the right to challenge the next Most Wanted vehicle in their own special race, but it also is granted by whipping past cameras with the fastest speed, breaking down fencing, or more elaborate things like driving 10,000 yards into oncoming traffic with the “long gears” mod equipped. Some of the challenges are more organic like simply putting 50 miles on the odometer to unlock something like short gears for faster shifting.
[singlepic id=8168 w=320 h=240 float=left]Getting to the top of the Most Wanted list takes several hundred thousand Speed Points, and to get that many points you’ll need a lot of cars. Since each car has 5 races, each worth 12,000 SP, you can see that you’ll have to have a stable of favorites built up to go far. You’ll eventually settle on a favorite (an early one for me was the COBRA) and you can always pop into those Most Wanted races with any car you’d like. Granted, each car has a strength and weakness (some are heavier, some are better on dirt, etc.) so it might take you a few swipes at some of the races to win, but there are literally no restrictions in the game. I personally used the COBRA to take down more than half of the list, but with over 100 cars in the mix you’ll likely choose something different.
Wrecking half million dollar cars with friends
Need for Speed Most Wanted is billed as the most social racing game of all time, and with good reason. When you are signed into Live and have punched in the multiplayer pass code (getting pretty common these days) you’ll see the top 5 racers from your friends list next to every camera. This gives you a chance to try to beat their top speed. Similarly, you’ll find billboards to smash which puts your gamertag and face on that billboard until somebody rips through it and covers more distance than you. There is nothing more cool than seeing your billboard in a prominent location while your friends struggle to take it down. This also ties into the Autolog as it will put a challenge in your Easydrive when your friends beat your times on a particular race. Beating your friends nets you an easy 500 SP, as well as bragging rights.
Multiplayer in racing games has always been a bit stale, but Criterion has decided to change all that. Tossing the usual ‘load a race, run a race, rinse, repeat’ formula out the window, they’ve taken a more multi pronged approach. When you join multiplayer you’ll be allowed to continue to drive around the world and play while you wait for your friends to jump in. When everyone is aboard you’ll be assigned 5 random events. These events fall into several categories – challenge, race, team race, and speedtest. Races and Team Races are pretty obvious, pushing players to drive as hard as possible. Speedtest gives players 90 seconds and a challenge to complete – drift, speed, or jump through a speed trap for distance or speed. It’s in the Challenges that the multiplayer really shines. Criterion put over 500 unique challenges in the game to push players to do things they wouldn’t normally do in a racer. This can be speeding to the top of an obstacle and then trying to hold it, King of the Hill style, or it could be trying to jump through a giant set of rings at high speed. Given that there are 500 of them, the first portion of these challenges is often trying to figure out how the challenge works, followed by a frantic mad dash to complete it. Once a challenge is won or lost you’ll rocket to the next race spot to join the next activity. Whether you come in first or last place you’ll earn SP that carries over to the single-player game. You’ll also earn license plates, car variants, and other customization options based on how you perform. Fixing your car gets you a plate named “I hear you knocking” while hitting a certain speed nets you the “Running in” plate. Think of these as medals or dogtags in other EA titles and you have the right idea. After you’ve hit Speed Level 71, there is a whole separate mode called “Concours” but we’ll have to see what that is when we’ve all had more multiplayer time. Regardless of what it is, it’s icing on an already very-filling cake.[singlepic id=8172 w=320 h=240 float=right]
After five events, all winners are tallied and the scores are handed out. You’ll also pick up tickets for your efforts. Rager for the most takedowns in a row, Frontrunner for spending the most time in 1st, Drift King for longest drift, Survivor for taking the least amount of damage, as examples The list of plates and tickets is shockingly long, so the game really stretches its legs here.
I did run into one issue in multiplayer that, I’m sure, is there to ensure a stable framerate – disappearing NPC cars. Occasionally you’ll see a vehicle crest a hill only to vanish into thin air as you rocket past. Obviously this is a cosmetic issue, not a gameplay-impacting one, but nevertheless you’ll likely notice when it happens.
Drifting in Dubstep
Shifting gears, let’s talk about the audio in the game. With such incredible eye for detail on the vehicles, it’s no shock that Criterion has put an equal level of detail into the engine sounds. Each vehicle sounds like their real-world counterpart, if my limited exposure to supercars and years of Top Gear are to be believed. The Porsche has a specific sound during shifting that goes along with a sort of rumble that rattles your skull as you slow down. The Lexus LSA is a quiet beast, delivering incredible power while remaining at a luxury car decibel level. The Ford F-150 SVT Raptor sounds like could pull stumps out of the ground with its raw power. If only the soundtrack was as consistent.
I’m 36 and I have as diverse a music collection as you can probably get. Rush, Testament, The Cure, Bassnectar, Kito and Reija Lee, The Who, Daft Punk, The Vapors, The Prodigy, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Static-X, Slipknot, and Stone Temple Pilots all come up on a quick shuffle of the mp3s in my phone. Somehow, even with that diverse a playlist, I can honestly say that most of the tracks in Need for Speed Most Wanted just turned me off. While I enjoyed Galvanize from Chemical Brothers, absolutely NOBODY asked for the Cato remix of Won’t Get Fooled Again from The Who, with the Baba O’Riley remix being somehow worse. Other tracks include Crosses from Telepathy, This City from Madeon, Butterflies and Hurricanes from Muse, Contact from Foreign Beggars, The Power from DJ Fresh, Zoom from Last Dinosaurs, Cast Away from Strange Talk, Channel 42 from Deadmau5, I Love It from Icona Pop, Spellbound from Silent Code, We’ll be Coming Back from Calvin Harris, and Feel the Love from Rudimental. You can judge for yourself whether these tracks rev your engine or not.
[singlepic id=8174 w=320 h=240 float=left]There is one other audio thing to point out – a random issue that wasn’t present just a few weeks ago when I played the game on debug. In a seemingly random way, occasionally the audio will simply pop or stutter a bit, causing a slight hitch in the action. I’m not sure if it’s a hiccup in the graphic engine or one in the sound engine, I just know that it happened enough to be noticeable.
Need for Speed Most Wanted has Kinect integration. Before you get the idea of you holding your hands in front of you and suffering horrible input lag on a game with no tolerance for it, that’s not how it is used. To use Easydrive you really need to stop and thumb through the options or you’ll be risking running your beautiful ride into something solid. With the Kinect you are able to navigate through the Easydrive without the need to stop. This allows you to call out the menu options and selecting races mid-flight. In practice it works pretty well and certainly a lot better than trying to navigate menu options at over 150mph. You can check out this video for how it works:
It’s the Fuzz!!
If there is one thing distinguishing this game from being Burnout Paradise 2, it’s the police. Frequently during races, or even randomly when you are caught speeding (or crashing) in the open world you’ll attract unwanted police attention. They’ll begin to chase you, raising the heat level as the pursuit wears on. When you’ve pissed them off enough, they’ll start putting up car blockades, laying down spike strips, dropping spike strips from Corvettes, stacking up impassable Rhino blockades, and much more. Getting out of visual range for a while will let the heat die down until eventually the cops will give up their pursuit. If you are busted there is no penalty beyond being respawned back where you found the car in the first place. You won’t lose SP, just a little time.
The police in the original Need for Speed Most Wanted could be described as suicidal, willing to kill themselves just to take you down. This go around we have a more temperate police force that’ll try to pit you, keep just behind you until backup arrives, and generally try to take you down without becoming completely ridiculous. (though it is hilarious to watch them chase you right off the edge of a cliff!) It makes for a more enjoyable experience overall, even if the nearly-patented car-catchup AI is still alive and well. You’ll still occasionally see racers catch up after being impossibly behind, and you’ll see cop cars teleport on your minimap while searching around. It’s not rampant and doesn’t really impact the game negatively, but it is certainly present.[singlepic id=8179 w=320 h=240 float=right]
1st Place Finish
Criterion has done the impossible – they’ve taken what is, arguably, the best race-and-chase game made for this generation and somehow made it so much better. The social components of the game are folded into every aspect of the game, both single player and multiplayer. Everything you do carries across between the two modes, and the challenges in multiplayer carry the game far beyond the Most Wanted list. Tack on the shockingly long list of plates and tickets you can earn and you’ll be put into completionist overload. The open world breaks the linearity of the previous title and sheds the hammy story in favor of a far more slick presentation. The little audio/pause hiccups that somehow made it into the game in the last few weeks should be something that can be patched out, and beyond that I really don’t have anything to complain about. It’s somewhat fitting that this generation of consoles launched with Need for Speed Most Wanted, and as we inevitably move to the next generation we close with it as well. Need for Speed Most Wanted is a must-have for this holiday season, and is easily the top arcade racer of this year…maybe even ever.