As you pass beneath the glorious blue sky at an incredible pace you move from beach to sea freighter; bustling city centre to circular bypass and off towards the twists and turns of the ascending mountain, taking in the air as you’re temporarily blinded by the lens flare and rainbow coloured result of refraction thanks to the pounding sun shining forth. As you move from vehicle to vehicle, from your Ford Focus to your Aston Martin, through the McLaren MP4-12C until you find the pinnacle of motoring available - be that the Bugatti Veyron Super Sport or the Koenigsegg, or whatever you deem to be the best - you’ll pass others going about their business, speed cameras, billboards and gates. Police will hunt you and you’ll escape them to race another day. You’ll race others from A to B, or just the speedometer in the chase to get that elusive top speed. Friends and foe alike will traverse this city as well at the same time or others, looking for fun drives and drifting or maybe some timer based action. All of this happens in the same place. Welcome to Fairhaven.
Need For Speed: Most Wanted is Criterion’s second run at EA’s mammoth franchise and third driving game in all this generation. The creators of Burnout have seemingly approached this entry by taking bits of their first two goes this time around, namely Burnout Paradise and Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit. We have an open world like in Paradise with all kinds of fantastical cars and things to hunt for - billboards and security gates return but we also have the speed cameras to ensure the focus on raw speed is always prevalent. Combining this with the cops and Autolog 2.0 updated from Hot Pursuit ensures that Criterion provide perhaps their finest example of pure racing yet, although the package as a whole - despite being incredibly impressive on so many individual accounts - fails to deliver outstanding action consistently throughout.
The game starts up in rip-roaring fashion. It’s a total sensory overload and will at once be utterly glorious and absorbing but also too much to take for most at first. You’ll likely start your journey through Fairhaven in small bursts, building up the play sessions as you get more used to what’s going on. It’s overwhelming with the amount of things you can do - right from the get go. You’re placed in control of a car and a female voice-over slowly explains what this world is all about. Races from A to B via checkpoints, speed runs where the aim is to attain a certain average speed, maybe a chase from police as a result of being ambushed. But in between all this you need to go fast past a speed camera to take the top of that particular Speedwall versus all your digital friends. Find the multiple billboards and security gates, smashing through your PSN or XBLA buddies’ faces in the process. You can change cars once you’ve found them in various scattered Jack Spots across the city - many of the forty-one available are driveable from time zero. You can drive to a race point and hold R2 and L2 to start; retry immediately once finished and if you want to take a breather you can later use Easydrive (more on this later) to spawn immediately back at the start point - wherever you are (Burnout Paradise restart woes be gone).
Whilst you're learning how the game’s structured you have very little choice but to appreciate the near technical perfection that Criterion have executed here. They’re plenty practiced with this generation’s hardware and their game engine and it shows. What they have done here looks and sounds as good as any other racer around. It’s not like each individual car is as detailed as you’d find in Gran Turismo or Forza 4 but the overall package is ahead of the curve. We’ve already mentioned the varied environment from mountains to sea to beach and to a bustling city, but combine that with stunning vistas illuminated by wonderfully Miami Vice type lighting which looks and feels every bit as snazzy as it’s meant to. There’s always a considerable number of vehicles driving around at crazily high speeds and a variety of models, too. We have day / night cycles and weather effects as well which not only look awesome when the rain, or wet mud gets splashed up into your viewpoint thanks to the screeching wheels, but also has an effect on the handling and racing of your chosen vehicle itself. It is locked at thirty frames per second which is upsetting, but they’ve used the saved horsepower to create more life. The sound is also a thing of beauty. Each car sounds like it should with the roar of the engines as you slam the accelerator down. Go through a tunnel and you get an echoey hollow engine roar thanks to the acoustics of the enclosed environment. The soundtrack also is fantastically good and varied, with metal, pop and some country and western in there. Turn the knob to eleven and you really do feel enveloped in the action.
There are forty-one cars available to drive and those which aren’t available from the start are unavailable because they’re owned by Fairhaven’s Most Wanted. Your aim in this game is to become the Most Wanted. To do this you need to collect Speed Points first off. These are handed out for pretty much everything in the game. Win a race and you get a chunk; pass a speed camera or blast through a billboard you get more. Drift a lot or drive a fair distance in a specific car and you get more. Jump online and you continue to earn Speed Points and whether on or offline all go into one total pot which also correlates to your speed level. Pretty much everything you do gives you more. All of this is very well received as you need to get up and over a million to challenge the number one most wanted in-game, and possibly more if you’re coming to this after some friends who’ve already smashed through that level. Every eighty thousand or so you unlock a race versus the next Most Wanted. You can then challenge that driver and if successful in a one versus one race, win their car by taking them down. Beat and take down all the Most Wanted drivers and you will have access to every single car.
Getting to a million or so points and beating, then taking down the number one Most Wanted racer (allowing for your friends) will take you up to ten hours depending on how much you play about exploring and hunting down the ‘collectibles’ rather than powering through each race in an aim to open all vehicles. After this there’s still quite a bit to keep you going as you head towards one hundred percent single player completion. Again - and we keep mentioning it - you can go and find all gates and so on. Each car has five races and you’ll need to win each race. Whilst some races are shared by multiple cars (so there aren’t five times forty-one unique races, only sixty-one) the challenge will vary depending on what you use, and you will unlock different modification options for the specific car in use at that time. If you’re tackling a race whereby you need to maintain a certain average speed over the set distance, you’ll clearly be able to do more in the Bugatti Veyron versus the Aston Martin. Obtaining the different customisation options for each car is fun, as it allows you to vary the handling, speed and so on but more so is necessary at times if you wish to succeed. When driving the Aston Martin in a particular event the target was an average speed of 130mph. A few goes got the speed up to around 127mph but that was a nearly perfect, drifting run. Only on changing the load-out to the lighter body or longer gears to allow a higher top speed and so on did this average speed change and first time through 135mph was hit easily. This is something you’ll find throughout the game as you aim for wins in all races. You can vary your gears, chassis, nitrous, body and tires and fiddling and experimenting will be essential. Perhaps even more important when you have your pride at stake in an attempt to knock your friend off of the Speedwall’s top spot. Choosing the best load-out for a challenge is nice and straightforward, in keeping with the arcade racer feel of the game - you’re handily shown what each option does to various important metrics like acceleration, speed and so on.
You can choose your customisations via the amazing Easydrive menu system. In your HUD at all times the word Easydrive is shown in the top left-hand corner. Using your D-pad you can press right and this menu opens up showing Autolog, races, customisation, multiplayer and so on. It allows you to do anything you want, go anywhere you like and drive the car of your choice all without entering some static menu away from the open world. You can jump to the Jaguar you discovered the other day in your preferred Jack Spot. You can enter a race you’ve tried before and you can challenge a friend’s time on that mountain race you love just to smash their time and top the Speedwall. It all works seamlessly and swiftly and is oh so intuitive.
The social gaming aspect of Need For Speed: Most Wanted is a step above 2010’s Hot Pursuit and light years from Bizarre Creation’s Blur, arguably the first driving game to push this area. Autolog is into version 2.0 and does all it sets out to do and more. Every race, every speed camera, every progression from zero to all billboards is captured by Autolog. When you set a time, or discover something new it shows how you stack-up versus your friend’s list. When you beat the best time it shows you sitting atop all others. It makes the whole game competitive and feedback is everywhere. It’s sure to push the game’s lifetime well past what it would have been otherwise.
The whole multiplayer aspect as well lends itself to extending the longevity of the game thanks to its integration such that multiplayer and single player are thought of as one thing and both combine well to the integrated social aspects. Using Easydrive you can jump in and out of multiplayer without dropping out of the game or anything. You can set up a friends only game, a public one or join an already existing open game with a space. The leader of any game can build a playlist whereby they can set five events which activate in succession. In multiplayer the type of events available are much more varied and party focussed than in single player. You can find yourself racing alone, or in a team race. You might need to contribute to a set number of jumps over cars, or total drift distance. There’s so much going on and so many milestones to get (similar to single player but seemingly endless amounts) which nab you more speed points and modifications - different to the single player ones - and feel like perks found in shooters whereby you can boost nitrous for thirty seconds unlimited, or steal another player’s car. If you can create a game with friends the life in the title is endless.
Not everything is wonderful, though. You can be driving along at two hundred miles an hour and take down your opponents whilst carrying on. Hit a random non-competing vehicle though and you’ll crash. It’s inconsistent and really, really irritating. Race for long enough and the cops will be onto you. There are six levels of heat and the higher the level the more difficult it is to escape the pursuit and it takes longer due to the cooldown required. There’s just very little point to this mini-game. There are some trophies attached, milestones and you get Speed Points for pursuits and cop takedowns but if you’re busted you just get reset to a Jack Spot. Nothing bad happens, aside from losing your pursuit Speed Points. It’s not fun and there’s no reason to succeed, so why have it in? It spoils the racing. Fortunately if you just let yourself get busted everything restarts pretty quickly so the pain is largely avoidable, but shouldn’t have been there to start with Otherwise technically there are some bugs and short-term locks here and there which jars with the typically slick gameplay, and in our case we experienced weird pause screen locks requiring resets when restarting a race event.
Need For Speed: Most Wanted is the best pure racer out there. The feeling you get when powering your Bugatti Veyron Super Sport around the world of Fairhaven at over two hundred miles an hour, twitching for dear life and feeling real exhilaration thanks to the speed and the knowledge that all of this can be done if your skill holds up, otherwise hello big brick wall - the engine, handling and so on is perfect - is just amazing. But the game isn’t just about the racing. It has all the other things to do and this is all fun and makes a nice, relaxing change from what’s gone before. The problem with the overall structure is that it reminds you it’s not as fun a place to stay as Paradise - the world doesn’t entrap you like there, nor do you have the Stunt runs to really up the joy. Then you recall the cops of Hot Pursuit and you wonder quite why the design this time was chosen. So although we have the best pure racer out there it tries to be more; it tries to be the best Criterion game this generation. It’s wonderful, and on a par, but in trying to be so much to so many it forgets to just be great.