Need for Speed is back. After a lackluster installment last year ( The Run just didn’t live up to the franchise’s usual high standards), the racing gurus at Criterion Games have delivered a gem that fans of the long-running series can really sink their teeth into. …yes, I’m being grammatically incorrect because saying “into which the fans can really sink their teeth” just sounds weird. Anywho, welcome to Fairhaven, where the most wanted racers await your challenge and the cops are lurking, just waiting to bust your thrill-seeking ass.
The graphics are quite nice, especially considering the sheer size and scope of the city in question. There’s a lot of eye-popping detail and a ton of awesome special effects that accompany your more reckless driving; smashing through billboards or bouncing off other cars is always visually satisfying to the nth degree. The urban landscape is mostly bright with the exception of a few darker, more industrial areas and the overall palette and design is fantastic. It’s not quite as crisp as some other top-tier productions, but it’s pretty damn impressive through and through.
Thanks to a diverse soundtrack, crackling audio effects, and a smooth-voiced narrator that introduces you to the high-speed world of street racing, the sound is a definite high point. The balance can suffer depending on the situation but such miscues are rare and hardly condemnable. I’m not the biggest fan of the music selections on this soundtrack but that’s a purely subjective assessment. The bottom line is that there is a solid variety of songs and the pseudo-realistic growls of the many different engines you’ll hear is a pleasure to the gearhead’s ears. The gameplay will keep you riveted while the technical elements appropriately enhance the experience at almost every turn (pun intended).
Many have compared Need for Speed: Most Wanted to Burnout Paradise and rightfully so, as we have an open-world environment to explore. However, it might not be 100% accurate to call the latest from Criterion “Burnout Paradise 2,” because there is a distinct NFS flair. Those who recall the excellent Hot Pursuit from 2010 will remember this style of driving, as it’s not entirely arcade-y and it can’t qualify as simulation. This blend is great because it requires a fair amount of attention and practice and yet, the learning curve isn’t too steep. Hence, both hardcore and casual gamers can get a lot of mileage out of this one.
You start off in a nifty Porsche, which is a very capable car. But you’ll soon learn that you don’t need to stick with the Porsche; in fact, it’d be silly not to experiment, as there are no less than 123 “jack points” scattered throughout Fairhaven. To try out a new ride, simply locate one of those jack points, drive up, and switch cars. The cool part? You don’t have to remember exactly where you found that particular vehicle; after locating it, you can switch to it at any time via the simple in-game menu. You can also customize your car, select races, and challenge the Most Wanted racers with that menu, which makes the game incredibly streamlined.
It’s just so user-friendly. If you finish a race and you aren’t happy with the result, you don’t have to drive all the way back to the start point. Just open up the EasyDrive menu (which isn’t a hindrance to the on-screen display at all) and try the event again. If you’re not enamored with your current car, either drive around and find a new one or just check the list of available cars you’ve already found. If you do like your vehicle, go through a series of events – labeled Easy, Medium, and Hard – that will give you useful upgrades, such as Nitrous, Lightweight Chassis, and better tires.
Essentially, this is where the majority of the freedom really lies. The open-world environment certainly encourages exploration, but the true freedom of choice is found in the instant options available. You’re never tied to any one car, you never have to unlock better cars, and in general, you never have to do anything tedious or boring. The result is a madcap, all-out, balls-to-the-wall racing experience that never lets its heavy foot off the throttle. And by the way, if you want to win, you shouldn’t be taking your foot off the throttle too often, either.
As you progress, you will earn speed points, which can be earned by doing well in events and creating havoc all across the city. The crazier you are when outside races, and the better you perform within those races, the more points you will have. The goal is to become the most wanted racer in Fairhaven, and that means taking down the top 10 most wanted. You need a certain number of speed points to challenge each member on the list, so you have to work your way up. After beating them in a special challenge race, you take their spot on the most wanted list. If you want their car, you gotta track ‘em down and take ‘em down.
Cops are a big part of the game, too. However, I should add that I think they’re a little too prominent. Sometimes, when you just want to get to the start of a race, you fly past a speed camera (another way to earn speed points, by the way), and a cop might see it and give chase. Now, this might not be a big deal as you can easily evade the authorities at Heat level 1. But if things go wrong and the Heat level starts to rise, the situation starts to get annoying. At first, it’s fun to try to get away from the cops but after a while, you’re going— “Damnit, just let me get to the freakin’ race!”
The weird part is that there appears to be no consequences for getting busted. There’s obviously a consequence for getting busted during a race but when you’re just driving around being chased, nothing really happens if they catch you. The game just reloads and off you go again. That being said, eluding the cops at higher heat levels will make you more notorious, thereby upping your speed rank faster. So it’s not like there’s no reason to run away but after a while, it definitely gets a little tiring. And while I’m on the subject of small drawbacks, I should probably mention one other irritating factor…I don't like being disoriented.
Too many times during a race, you just don’t know where to go. Most of the time, you have to follow the other competitors just so you have an idea of where and when to turn. It seems like only certain races (like the Most Wanted events) have the green arrows that help direct you; the other events don’t. This translates to a lot of racing and re-racing, just so you can learn the circuit. And because of the more open environment, there are often multiple roads to take, although one of those roads could be the wrong way. In such a structure, I really think we needed those green arrows assisting our driving; otherwise, it’s just a lot of trial and error.
Finally, I’ll say that the game does seem to gravitate more toward the multiplayer realm, in that it’s just far more entertaining if you’ve got a lot of Friends on your Autolog. That being said, playing solo is hardly a shallow experience, as there’s always plenty to do (even if it can feel a little repetitive) and there are tons of vehicles to try. The city’s top-notch design is another huge plus. Just make sure you’ve got at least a few buddies that will join the competition on the Autolog, because that creates a fully realized, fully fleshed-out game that continually rewards the player.
Need for Speed: Most Wanted is just fun. Normally, I try to be a bit more elaborate or verbose when it comes to summing up a big game. But I think first and foremost, “fun” was the order of the day when Criterion sat down to make this game. The user-friendly, extraordinarily streamlined presentation, slick technical elements, and emphasis on freedom is all conducive to that little yet all-important three-letter word: F-U-N. It can be a little frustrating due to the numerous and pesky cops, and one too often feels lost when first attempting a race, but most will be more than willing to put up with all that. And why? You guessed it: FUN.
The Good: Tight, pleasing technical presentation. Beautiful overall dseign. Accessible yet challenging control. Very streamlined in all respects. Real feeling of satisfaction. The Autolog makes this game full-on addictive. F-U-N.
The Bad: The cops can get really irritating. Lack of direction in some races. Feels less impressive with fewer Friends.
The Ugly: “Okay, the start point is…right here…I’m turning…*%^&$(!!!!! Hit a cop.”