Do you remember where I left my car?
Imagine having a collection of more than 100 cars, but forgetting where you parked them. This is what awaits you in the open-world city of Fairhaven, the setting for Criterion’s Need for Speed: Most Wanted. It has to be emphasised that this entry into EA’s Need for Speed series has been created by Criterion, not that there is any doubt once you start playing and the similarities with Burnout Paradise become apparent, because this is not the first Most Wanted game released for this generation of consoles. Don’t get me wrong, the previous Most Wanted was an enjoyable Need for Speed game, back in the days before Autolog and the such. But Criterion’s vision is a whole different beast. So be warned, sending granny down to your local game store may result in disappointment.
There is a huge amount of freedom within the city of Fairhaven. The sort of freedom that can easily lead to spending hours of gaming time just cruising the streets and getting up to mischief. But even wasting away the hours exploring the city brings with it rewards, in the form of Speed Points. These are obtained by simply driving dangerously, no matter what else you happen to be doing, and allow the player to progress through the games’ take it or leave it story line.
The story, for what it’s worth, involves the player rising through the ranks of the local street racing underground to take on, and take out, the city’s top 10 most wanted. Gain enough Speed Points and challenge the next racer on the list. Beat them and then smash them off the road and you get their car. Good times.
But the story is not always enough to pull the player away from the multiple other things that can be done in Fairhaven. Even the prospect of winning a new car becomes slightly less meaningful when the player already has access to a whole showroom of vehicles that they can use as and when they want. As long as they can find them, that is.
You see, rather than earning money to buy a nice car and then winning races for more money to improve the car, most of the cars in the game are already available to the player. They are parked throughout the city and to use them the player has only to find them and jump in. Whilst this is exciting to begin with, it almost completely removes any sense of pride in having a certain car and any bond with them. The cars feel disposable and not as desirable.
Each car has five races that are linked with it, and winning these races not only provides the player with more Speed Points, but also unlocks upgrades for that car. This means that being successful in all five races for a given car will max out the upgrades and allow the player to discard the car in favour of something better. Sure, some cars will become favorites, but many of the races that are not linked with cars can be won simply by finding the right car, rather than struggling to upgrade them. It reduces the importance of the car linked races.
But it follows the games’ “do what you want” attitude. Fairhaven is a playground for arcade street racers, and Criterion have done their utmost to ensure their are no boundaries. The game will constantly throw suggestions at the player, many of which revolve around the brilliant Autolog and whatever the players’ friends have been up to, but there is never any urgency to take up these suggestions. Indeed, just cruising the city, baiting the police or finding the hidden secrets are as much fun as getting a new car or taking on the next boss. It is all great fun, but the lack of structure just left me feeling lost at times.
The multiplayer offerings also carry this laid back attitude, with players able to meet up for individual races, team races or even specific challenges. The player still earns Speed Points for whatever they do in multiplayer, and they can do pretty much whatever they want.
The handling in Most Wanted doesn’t try to be anything more than arcade perfect, leaving the more simulation handling to other big name racing brands. This works well on the busy streets of Fairhaven, where more precise handling would have dampened the experience as players struggle to drift around tight corners into oncoming traffic. There is enough variety between the different cars to make some more suited to certain types of racing than others, and overall the game feels very easy to play.
It is a difficult one. Fairhaven is every petrol-head’s dream playground, littered as it is with highly desirable cars that just yearn to be driven. The game looks lovely, plays well and is packed to the brim with stuff to do. But the lack of structure and personal investment left the experience feeling somewhat sterile.
Need for Speed: Most Wanted may lack personality, but that doesn’t prevent it from being an exciting racing experience. If a high-speed playtime is what you are looking for, then this may well be the racer for you.