The Backlog: Need for Speed: Most Wanted (2012)

The Backlog: Need for Speed: Most Wanted (2012)

I'm hiding from the cops again. The police force in this town really doesn't turn a blind eye to anything. Driving on the wrong side of the road gets an all points bulletin and escalates until walls of SWAT vehicles block your path. They literally throw vans at you, trying to take you down by any means necessary. Finally I've found a spot away from them, inside a lot in Callahan Industrial. They didn't see me duck in here, have been searching for me for a few minutes, and I should be in the clear. The little arrows on my minimap show them fruitlessly poking around nearby areas and I grin as I watch my wanted level go down. And then... I can't believe it. A car that hadn't existed before, just blinked into existence that very second, comes in. It turns a corner. I rev my engine and prepare for the inevitable. He turns in. He's found me. I slam the gas pedal and fly out of my hiding place before he can corner me, and I sigh. The chase is on again.

I wish I could say this is thrilling, but at this point the game has done this to me dozens of times: I lose the cops, hide away in a place they'd have no reason to check and where absolutely no one saw me go, and suddenly... here they come. Or even worse, they hadn't even existed but suddenly the game pops them in, a technique so blatant, there have been times I've watched the actual physical model appear from thin air, starting to chase me down.

So here's the question, then: is this good AI or really bad AI? It hearkens back to the days of first-person shooters where had AI squadmates, but the enemy AI focuses on shooting you instead because you are The Player and that makes you the Most Important Being in the Game. So are the cops smart enough to figure out your hiding patterns, or are they so stupid they don't know how to search realistically and in a way that feels rewarding?

It's just one of the many ways the game takes the name and concepts from the original Most Wanted – a fun, personality-driven (if ridiculous) game where you take down the most wanted racers before facing off with the incredibly named, phenomenally-acted Razor Callahan– and strips them of what makes them interesting, creating the feeling they just hit bullet points to remind you of the game you'd loved in the past.

Criterion's Most Wanted isn't actually a game about a blacklist of Most Wanted drivers. It's not a game about cops chasing you and thrilling escapes. It's barely even a game about progression–it's a game about competing against your friends, something that the company had been developing themselves towards in the past before finally making, as the box claims, 'the most social racing game' they've ever done.

And this might be why the single player feels like an afterthought so often, as though the developers approached it with the thought of "if you're not playing through and exploring this world with friends, then why are you even playing this game?" It's a game where the actual events are OK, but that dangling carrot of "look your friend did this better, if you leave your time like this you're saying you're WORSE than him!" makes a huge difference.

But there's two problems with this.

The first is the fact that they reuse racing routes over and over. In itself not the worst thing – you only have finite money to make a game after all – but the leaderboards don't factor in which car you attempted in, it just takes into account the route. A friend of yours who completed the game in a Lotus is always going to have a better time than your Focus. Especially tied into the fact that you don't really unlock cars – they're available from the start, but you have to actually hunt them down and find them, meaning there isn't so much 'progression' as there is 'hey look at a map on the internet, congratulations, now you've unlocked everything.' Unless you're a completionist, there's no point to the less powerful cars then; you don't unlock anything, you don't stand a chance on leaderboards, so they kind of just occupy space.

The second is that these events aren't really varied in a way that makes them particularly interesting. Which I know isn't an issue when it comes to games like Forza or Gran Turismo, but those are different games about the small gains you get from proper tuning and the difficulty of dealing with weather on the road and considering the fact that damage to your car actually affects your driving. Most Wanted isn't that. It's an arcade racer, but somehow it's one where all you do is checkpoints races, point-to-point, or try to complete a course going as fast as you can.

There is one more event, where you're trying to escape the cops, but these are a) just timed versions of a thing that usually happen when you're exploring randomly anyways, and b) the most annoying events in the game. The original Most Wanted understood that the thrill of the cops was challenging yourself to see how long you could survive against them, but this new one instead challenges you to get away from them quickly, which is a slog for the very reasons I mentioned above. Cops WILL find you, no matter how fast you go. The only ways I ever got gold were because I felt like I cheated the game, which was only satisfying because oh my god I finally got away from them and beat this stupid game's stupid AI.

Going back a bit to those cars scattered around the world, this is definitely a case where the age of the game when I came to it made it look even worse, because scattered throughout the world, amid the beautiful cars you can find and ride around, are the DLC cars, whether you've bought them or not. Just placed in the world in the exact same way that cars you DON'T have to pay for are. It's the most intrusive kind of advertising they could have possibly had for these because it so violently wrenches you out of the game. Powersliding around a corner you see a car you want to grab, and hit the transfer button and instead of the small animation, you find yourself on a menu. Worse, actually: you find yourself on a loading screen as the game retrieves DLC information from online.

For a game that comes off so focused on just keeping you moving, there's a lot of things like this that really take away your momentum. It takes over a minute from pressing start on the start screen to actually getting into the game. When you beat a race and get a new part, the game takes over 10 seconds before actually letting you get into the menu (designed to be navigated while driving to prevent this very delay, ironically) and equipping the new gear.

But then there are other times when this is far too vigorous, eg. times when I drive my car into a lake, and the puts me back on dry land, car already in motion... going right towards the lake. A couple of times I just immediately splashed in again, which was honestly pretty hilarious. The same thing happens when cops take you out, though, essentially making the cop chases pointless. I've had times I'm about to be busted, then someone just rams me, my position is reset, and I'm already in motion the other way. Aces.

Which basically I have no idea why the cops are even in this game. If your car gets busted, I don't actually know if they do anything aside from not give you the speed points you accrued from the chase. They start chasing you when you're on the way to other events and are too difficult to lose, making them a larger hassle than they deserve to be, even as the chases themselves are far too easy. Being taken down or even having your tires popped are more small setbacks more than real problems, and can easily be countered.

I have a lot to say about the direction this game took, but it's because I'm disappointed in both the direction Criterion's taken with its games, and I'm disappointed in the use of the name of one of my favorite racing games for an entry that loses so much of what made the original great without finding an identity of its own. It just feels sterile and personality-free. Even the Most Wanted cars are just white and pristine, the only thing really standing out being the intro videos for the events. It's a game that is technically well-made, but all of that polish going to making a game so personality-free that even its big gimmick of the cops comes off as pointless and memorable only for frustration.

At the very least, though, EA seems like it's reversing course for their next Need for Speed release, giving it an outsize personality, more ways to play and progress, and wonderfully horrible-looking FMV. I keep hoping Criterion is going to surprise me one day and finally announce the next Burnout game I've been waiting for. But after Most Wanted and some of their other Need for Speed efforts... maybe I don't want to see what that game would be anymore.