Need for Speed Most Wanted Preview, and Ron drifts a Porsche

I’ve been a gamer all of my life, but I’ve only been a member of the press for a shade over 13 years.  In that time I’ve gotten to go to some amazing events, but it will be nearly impossible to top the one I’ve been to most recently: to take Need For Speed Most Wanted for a spin.  After a grueling 19 hour day travelling through airports, I found myself in beautiful Leipzig, Germany at the Porsche Proving Grounds, controller in hand, and pulse still racing from the events of earlier that morning.  Normally I don’t elaborate greatly on the spectacles preceding hands-on time with a title, but in this case there is absolutely no way that I cannot tell you how I managed to check off a real-life achievement – I’ve drifted a Porsche.

Our day opened at 9am, the crisp morning air giving way to a cloudless sky that poured rain just 12 hours prior.  After some quick formalities and introductions in the Porsche “Diamond” building (our driver’s license and assumption of a 5000 Euro liability should the unfortunate happen) we were walked outside and presented with a rather large line of beautiful Porsche.  911s, Carreras, Boxters, and several varieties therein sat ready for us to drive, keys sitting perched on their dash.   Lead by a professional Porsche instructor, we quickly found ourselves paired off with another member of the press and behind the wheel of one of these magnificent vehicles on the Proving Ground track.   With just 6 of us driving and our instructor leading as pace car, we spirited our way around the track at as high a speed as we wished – proper distancing between us being our only guide.  After two laps we switched drivers, giving our co-pilot a chance to experience the road.   After another two laps we switched vehicles, ensuring we got to experience not just the power of Porsche, but the differences between the product lines.

After a few more laps we found our instructor urging us on by reminding us that we aren’t driving a Volkwagon.  It was at that point, two corners before the pit lane, that I decided I was going to see what I could really do in this vehicle.  Pulling tight to the edge of the turn I kicked the back end of the powerful car around using a combination of braking and acceleration, laughing the entire time as my co-pilot gripped the dash and door remarking “holy shit!!” in response.  Emboldened by this first corner, it was now my goal to see if I could fully drift the long corner just outside the long straightaway.   I got the tires to break away from the pavement for a brief moment and the vehicle responded by immediately snapping me back to reality and regaining perfect traction to finish the curve – I needed more speed.

The second lap around the track for this circuit gave me half a dozen more opportunities and I found myself pushing the vehicle harder each time.  It was when my speedometer hit 171 km/hr that I managed to slide the rear of my 911 Turbo through the roughly 50 feet of blacktop.   Both myself and my co-pilot Steven cheered loud enough to be heard over the roar of the engine – there are absolutely no words to describe just how incredible a feeling that is.

After a quick break for a fantastic catered lunch we got to go on a “Taxi ride”.   Setting the tone, we saw a Porsche interceptor (cop car) and another set forth as a chase car roar up to the pit.  Our instructor and a professional racer took us out in pairs to show us how it’s really done.  My driver drifted every corner, rocketed through straightaways and then broke hard through S-Curves the tires screeching as the engine roars.  The beasts finally unleashed, we got to see the true power behind these wonderful machines.  Though you cannot imagine how this experience had me holding on for dear life, I can at least share a short video of the experience.   Behold my terror and glee – I earned two achievements on this one.

Our nerves fully rattled, we were brought into a room to view a video that outlines exactly what we could expect from the game, as well as a short Q&A with Craig Sullivan, Creative Director at Criteron Games.   Several times Craig advised that our questions were best answered by playing the game, so after a short elevator ride to our playtest area, we did exactly that.

Remaking Need for Speed Most Wanted

The game opens with a look over the fictional city of Fairhaven (a city made as a composite of some of the best places to drive in the United States) just after dawn.  As the city comes to life with its morning commute, your purpose becomes clear – you’ll need to earn the right to join the top 15 – Fairhaven’s most wanted drivers.  To do that, you’ll need cars – lots of cars.  Spread out over the city are some of the hottest cars ever made – if you can find it, you can drive it.  The game starts immediately after the short intro by dropping you into the driver’s seat, and directing you to find your first “jack spot” (these are marked with the company emblem, or “badge” above each car).

You’ll start in an Aston Martin Vanquish, but your first car is a shiny yellow Porsche 911 Carrera S.   Each car has their own set of races in addition to a few common races shared between them.   Using EasyDrive (the game’s central navigation system) I set the path to my first race.   Coming in first, I earned the ability to upgrade my nitrous and tires.  Other races can unlock the ability to upgrade your chassis, body, or transmission, each having multiple levels of utility.  As an example, offroad tires are great for races that have a component that leaves the tarmac, but runflat tires are great if you get nailed by a spike strip during a pursuit.

Everything you do in the game is controlled by Easydrive, though it is not your only path to races.  Either by hitting right on the D-Pad, or by simply driving around the open world, you can access races for your current vehicle.  For the Xbox 360 owners, you’ll notice that the box shows “Better with Kinect” in the corner.  To use Easydrive you really need to stop and thumb through the options or you’ll be risking running your beautiful ride into a guardrail.  With the Kinect you’ll be able to navigate through the Easydrive without the need to stop, calling out the menu options and selecting races mid-flight.  Popping open my race menu I saw that I had four races that could give me 500 SP (think of it as XP that gates your next race, and eventually your access to the Most Wanted car chases) all the way up to 12000 SP.  These are mapped out as easy, medium, and hard for difficulty, but there is actually depth beyond these names.  While you are free to run a race with any vehicle you wish, there are certainly advantages to bringing the right tool for the job.

As I finished my last race, Autolog popped up and let me know that another press member had beaten my time on a previous run.  I popped back to the race (Easydrive lets you teleport directly to any race you’ve already run) and pulled my time from 1:56 down to 1:14, netting me bragging rights and another 500 SP.

Grabbing a Lamborghini Countach I spotted during a race, I looked over the stock vehicle and found it bereft of upgrades.   To unlock nitrous again I’d have to re-run the Sprint Eastward race and finish in 1st place to unlock this mod.   Each car arrives stock, so you’ll see some of these shorter beginner races a few times to fully upgrade your vehicle.  The Sprint Eastward race was marked as a hard race – it was not going to be easy, despite the power of the Countach.  Using some shortcuts, some aggressive racing, and more than a few takedowns, I managed to eek out a first place, unlocking the “Powershot” tank – it uses my full tank of nitrous for a massive boost.

For a new race type, I hit up a Speed Race.   This race asks you to keep your average mph above a certain amount to win.  While there are no other racers on the road, there is pedestrian traffic as well as the occasional cop car to spur you along your path.  In addition to Speed Race and Circuit Race there is a Speed Run (a race that doesn’t have laps, but instead a longer path) and my personal favorite – Ambush.   In Ambush you’ll find yourself surrounded by police and you’ll have to escape within a certain amount of time.

Inevitably, I eventually found myself surrounded and busted.  While the team did have penalties in the game at a previous point, this was removed for a less frustrating system that simply resets you back to the car’s spawn point – any SP you’ve gained during the race, lost.

Eventually, through combined efforts of races, increasingly rapid passes against speed cameras, blowing through billboards, and various other activities I earned enough SP to reveal one of the 15 Most Wanted – a beautiful Alpha Romero 4C Concept.  After a very cool graphical intro to the vehicle (each of the Most Wanted vehicles get a special welcome before their race) it was time to test my skills.  A rather difficult race behind me, I had only one task left to claim this beast for myself – shutting it down.   After completing the race and shaking the police, I found myself chasing the beast with purpose of dashing him against something solid.  My foe defeated, I now had the Alpha Romero at my fingertips. The Alpha Romero, a Shelby Cobra 427, Dodge Challenger SRT8, Maserati GT MC Stradhle, and even a souped up Ford Focus RS joined the cast list as we finished out our first day.   The tally left me at 224,880 SP, placing me squarely at the top of the more than 30 press members in attendance.

It was a good day for racing, both virtual and real, but let me pause for a moment and tell you about the second part of my hands-on driving experience that day. After our time on the track it was time to take a Porsche someplace you might not expect – offroad.  For that purpose we jumped into one of the Cayennes that were lined up and ready to go.  Heading out into a decommissioned ex-Soviet bunker area, we found our first challenge – climbing an incredible 85 degree incline.  With careful instruction on speed from our instructor we set out to do exactly that.   With absolutely no effort (and only the slightest bit of terror as you can only see the sky at that angle) we pushed up the hill – what came next was equally awesome.  Again guided by our instructor over the radio we were advised to take our foot off of the gas and the brake and simply let the Porsche do what it was designed to do.  Without so much as a hitch it slowly descended the incredible incline, automatically braking and adjusting until we were safely at the bottom.   With all of the drivers safely past this first challenge, we moved onto our next obstacle – a jagged rocky incline.

With the suspension slightly raised (the Cayenne can raise up to 11” to help clear obstacles) we saw the same climbing technology tackle a less severe incline that was infinitely more treacherous.  With the suspension working in overtime, the Cayenne made short work of the climb and subsequent descent.   This continued nicely through a deep-rutted incline filled with soft mud and sand – the Cayenne never struggled.

With the suspension still raised we took the Cayanne through 2’ of water – an amazing feat for any vehicle, and even more impressive for a luxury SUV Crossover.  The vehicle easily cut through the water, it’s underside clearly sealed from the elements below.   With this last impressive feat it was time to take them back to the parking lot.  I knew driving my Mazda CX5 would never be the same after this…

Multiplayer – Climbing Cranes and Jumping from Landmarks

Our second day at the Porsche Diamond building gave us access to the multiplayer components of the game.   Certainly there is always a multiplayer aspect running in the game as your friends beat your race times and camera speeds, but this is more direct.  Getting there is as easy as selecting “Multiplayer” from your Easydrive.   From here you can select the option to join a private or public game, or even host your own.  As your friends join you can still drive around and earn SP instead of sitting and waiting in a lobby, though you cannot run races.

Once all of our crew joined the game we saw the layout of the multiplayer events displayed at the top of the screen.   It shows things like challenge, team race, and whatever type of race is up next.  Challenges are often the most interesting, and it was revealed that there are over 500 of them throughout the open world.  These can be items like jumping off an obstacle and onto a nearby parking garage, leaping onto a crane platform and holding it for a certain amount of time, make a series of high-speed jumps over a certain amount of cars, or drifting a certain distance. Some races require specific vehicles such as muscle cars, SUVs, or the incredibly dangerous looking Atom 500 V8.  Once a challenge is won or lost you’ll race 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 rushing a certain speed nets you the “Running in” plate.

After five events, all winners are tallied and the scores are handed out.  Using an Ariel Atom 500 V8, I managed to barely squeak out a first place victory, netting me an additional 26,650SP as well as unlocking four new plates and four mods for the Atom as well as a new orange paint job.  I also picked up four tickets – Rager for the most takedowns-in-a-row, Frontrunner for spending the most time in 1st, Drift King for longest drift, and Survivor for taking the least amount of damage.   Though my second round didn’t fare nearly as well, it did unveil that the game keeps track of everything from which events you’ve played, won, most wanted cars shut down, jack spots found, billboards smashed, speed cameras triggered, security gates smashed, total time played, and total game completion. The list of plates and tickets still locked at the end of the day was shockingly long, so this mode does have legs for completionists.

Our journey to Porsche Leipzig would not be complete without a tour of the factory, so let’s pause and talk about how these beautiful machines are made. Ushered in by one of the Porsche PR team, Dajana Sheibe, and with clear instruction that there was to be no photography or videography while inside, we began our factory tour.  The first thing we as gamers noticed were the factory staff, dressed in red coveralls and white polo shirts with white gloves, not unlike a certain famous plumber.  The second thing noticed was that this floor was so clean you could eat from it.  The partially-assembled bodies of several cars lay in front of us, flanked by workers and very little in the way of tools or parts.  You see, each station is set up with a “Just in time” system that follows AGILE car manufacturing principals.  This means that if you are putting in a dash assembly you’ll have two dashes at your station – the one you are using, and the one for the next vehicle.  This ensures that each vehicle (since they are all custom made) has only the parts needed – there is no confusion.  Similarly, bolts, assemblies, and other various pieces are delivered by handtrucks and forklifts, ensuring there are no ‘spares’ or extraneous tools that shouldn’t be needed for assembly.  Even tires don’t get stacked – they are delivered just 4 at a time with no spares nearby as they shouldn’t be needed. Each worker tracks progress and can halt production courtesy of touchscreens at each station.   It is that this moment that we noticed just how stress-free this environment seems to be.

Each vehicle, while being assembled, moves along an automated track that sits atop pressurized hardwood flooring.  This floor is far better than concrete for a worker’s feet over long periods of time.  Similarly, the vehicle shells are only overhead for short periods of time.  U-Shaped clamps will spin the vehicle sideways when extended periods of undercarriage work is needed.  A worker is free to stop the line at any time to identify any defect found during production, either flagging it for later resolution or solving it immediately under guidance of their team lead.  I also noted that no workers were wearing any sort of eye or ear protection as it simply isn’t needed.  No impact wrenches were assaulting the senses, and smaller impact wrenches were no louder than a light whir.  Even when tires were placed on the vehicle it was done with mechanical  assistance to lift, place, and bolt it in.  A member of the press noted the absence of automation in the factory behind devices used to assist workers.  Dajana stated that it is Porsche’s stance that “Anything that can be done by humans should be done by humans”, pointing out the one automated task in the factory – placing and sealing the windshields into the vehicle.

Dajana refers often to the vehicles being built using terms synonymous with the delivery of a child, revealing a deep pride for these vehicles.    “This is where the marriage happens”, “Here is the conception”, “Here is the birth of the car”, and other phrases clearly indicated that they believe each car to be their babies.  Every single car is driven for 15 kilometers and taken on the proving ground mentioned above (and offroad for the Cayenne) before they are shipped out.  Dajana mentioned that each Porsche is custom made and that there are over 2.2 million combinations.  In other words, if you are buying a ‘stock’ Porsche off the lot, you are losing out.

I don’t wanna go home!

At the end of two days we saw the inevitable end of our adventure.  The gracious hosts at Porsche blew us away, and it was flanked by an awesome game.  As I sit and write this I’m sipping tea out of a Burnout glass – I’ve been a fan of Criterion for a very long time, and they are bringing us the best Need for Speed title we’ve likely seen since the instant-classic by the same name.   The holiday season may be full to bursting, but you’d better make room on your shelf and in your wallet for Need for Speed Most Wanted.  Drop back in on Monday to see the video of my real-life Porsche driving and a quick Q&A with developer Criterion – look for our continued coverage as we eagerly await the November 2nd release date.  In the mean time, enjoy this awesome trailer and pictures from the event. VROOOM!

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