Need for Speed: Most Wanted is a fun but flawed game that incorporates many elements of the open-world racing great Burnout Paradise, with varying degrees of success. Although the multiplayer gives the game its best shot at trouble-free fun, a drab single player and numerous design quirks leave Criterion's latest a fun racing game that's clearly short of its full potential.
That's not to say that the single player portion of Most Wanted can't be entertaining. You're given a fictional, decent-sized chunk of open road called Fairhaven to ramble around in, and instead of giving you a clear direction the game sends you out into the world to explore. The main impetus to check out the map hinges on finding new cars at first, which are tucked away all over the city. Simply finding one in a parking lot or highway shoulder gives you access to it from a convenient drop-down menu, which also manages events to compete in, upgrades, and online features. You'll find events largely stick to checkpoint races, circuit races, races that involve you fleeing the police, or speed-related challenges that have you barreling down a stretch of road while maintaining a minimum average speed.
Just about anything you do - drifting, driving in the oncoming lane, nearly missing a passing vehicle, placing in events - nets you speed points, large sums of which will unlock the next crux of your progress, the titular Most Wanted races. These ten events each contain a rad car that needs to be beaten in a point-to-point escape from the cops and subsequently crashed on the world map between events. The police presence seems to be more lively and aggressive during a Most Wanted race, which is great, but I rarely found these events to be more interesting or unique than any of the other standard races. Some felt more scripted than others, which led to some frustrating retries. These title races are usually a good time, but their function as the sole milestone in the solo game falls flat and leaves the single player a little empty overall.
That feeling is intensified by the layout of challenges. Instead of a map filled with events akin to Burnout Paradise, each vehicle has a specific, small handful of races to compete in. They're ranked easy, medium, or hard, and placing well in them unlocks a few different nitrous systems, tires, body kits, and so on. It seemed like a neat idea at first, but it quickly grew tiresome. Each car starts with only stock parts available, and unlocked parts can't be shared across vehicles; you'll have to unlock the same small stable parts over and over again through each one's specific events. It gets a little dull, especially since cars don't start out with a nitrous boost of any kind. This can get especially egregious when you play for long periods of time and grow more mindful that many of these events appear far and few between on the map and are used repeatedly across different cars. It's a unique way to acquire and try out new rides in a racing game, but I couldn't help but feel that a simple currency system that would let you quickly beef up cars by the time you're already skilled at the game would work better and feel less like filler.
The Most Wanted moniker surely inspires memories of speeding away from bands of encroaching black-and-whites, sirens blazing, and adrenaline rising. Police do often attempt to impede your speed-and-smash endeavours, but their role in this game is surprisingly, disappointingly muted. Even when your heat level is maxed out, cops don't really do much more than trail behind you, occasionally try to pit you with little result, and set up the odd roadblock or spike strip. Blasting out of their ring of sight and staying out for a while, or spraying your car a different colour without being seen, ends the pursuit. This whole process can take 10 minutes or more, and if you're being chased by the cops, you can't begin any events. This is a huge hassle. It can sometimes be faster to simply stop and let yourself be busted, which ends the chase without any tangible penalty but annoyingly spawns you back at your vehicle's starting position on the map, often miles from where you were headed and wanted to be.
Alas, any activity in Most Wanted consists entirely of racing around and weaving through traffic at high speeds, and this is a game that nails the excitement of this concept to good effect. Every car feels loose and drift-happy while also maintaining a nice, reliable grip on the road that lets you whip and slide your way around at wild speeds with relative ease. It's a shame that a lot of the stuff surrounding the racing can drag, because the basic act of starting up a car and sailing through freeway traffic and police roadblocks feels great. When the gods aligned and the pacing worked out in my favour, I was having a blast, and even when it didn't the core action managed to keep the fun afloat.
In spite of what issues arise with its structure, Fairhaven nearly always looks sweet. The game incorporates architectural ideas from various cities in the US, and the modern metropolitan environment looks good and is filled with detailed storefronts, construction sites, rural outskirt freeways, and busy skylines. Cars from Ford, Chevy, Alfa Romeo, Aston Martin, Lamborghini and many others are rendered as accurately and as waxy as you'd expect, and finding a new one was always visually stimulating. Criterion has also included some amazing looking, cinematic lead-ins to race events that manipulate the graphics and show off its car models in weird, cool ways. The colours might change to mimic a thermal image, the camera might shoot the cars upside down, and occasionally these bumpers take things in more outlandish directions. One event that had me evading a police pursuit began with cop cars lifting off the ground and forming into a huge tornado of justice that tore down the road toward me. The game often transitions these bumpers smoothly into gameplay so that you get a rolling start into the game's many high-speed tears through the city. Even when the single player tedium started getting to me, these intros stood out as a high point.
As great as the overall look is, a number of rough edges definitely stick out on consoles. The fine lines of cars have a noticeably jagged outline. The same goes for large pieces of the background that can grit up the skyline a bit. The framerate can also get a little erratic at times, though this is typically only for the first few moments of a race. Of particular disappointment - presumably because of the game's licensing of actual cars - are the crashes. Although some cool exaggerated spark effects light up whenever you trade paint with an opponent, the wrecks look a little like painted styrofoam models of cars that bounce around without suffering more than a few dents and a cracked windshield. Considering the developer's pedigree of rendering some really righteous automobile destruction, this disappointed me the most visually. And yes, you still have to watch the crash video every single time. Running this game on a capable gaming PC would surely alleviate the performance and clarity issues, but the game looks great overall on consoles, too.
The sound design surrounding the cars and wrecks thereof is fantastic. Impacts are booming, scrapes and scratches sound shrill and full of crunch, and the engines are nice and riotous. The soundtrack fares less well, featuring lots of questionable pop and dubstep tracks with only a few tunes that really stand out. After playing for a couple hours, the soundtrack got the mute.
The act of driving feels great throughout Most Wanted, but a lot of the design framework around that driving can often make the single player a chore. Although the world of the game allows you such liberties from reality as instantly fixing your body, tires, and paint job by driving through repair huts, you can't switch cars instantly. You can select any car you've found at any time from the menu, but the game will warp you to where you found that car, often miles from where you were heading or want to be. This can be pretty annoying if you're trying to search a specific part of the city or need a faster car to nail a specific jump, and it forces lots of retreads across the city. Although its always a pretty good time cruising around the world, speeding through the city - a constant in this game - attracts the attention of the cops, and since you can't start an event if you're wanted, this creates further frustration. When you're in the middle of an event, this stuff doesn't matter so much, but it impedes the action significantly and constantly enough that it becomes a pretty sizeable roadblock to enjoying this game. Sure, the game plays well, but there are other options without the same kinds of hiccups.
And yet, there's not anything precisely like Most Wanted out there this year, and its points of pride become more noticeable in multiplayer, which relieves many of the administrative issues from the single player game and provides more consistent enjoyment and pacing. You don't need to warp around the world to access different cars, and a feature called Speedlists mixes up normal races with challenges like competing for the biggest air off a specific jump or drifting the longest through a couple checkpoints. The more immediate and tangible progression through a Speedlist can be invigorating, but playing online isn't without its own set of issues. Unless you're playing with a group of friends, I found that getting and keeping Speedlists organized and moving forward was often a frustrating chore. Many opt to simply roam around the city without an objective, but public games start Speedlists and smack information about them in your face automatically, like it or not. The dissonance between what players want to do, what the game's UI tells you, and the need to reconcile both into a good multiplayer match can add up to a lot of effort just to race online. Playing with friends or dedicated players was the most fun I had with Most Wanted, but when I tried to crack the online community by my lonesome, I mostly just got discouraged.
The latest Need for Speed release has its share of slip-ups, but it's mostly able to sideline them and deliver a fast, fun open world racing game very much like Criterion's classic Burnout Paradise. Although there are no allusions to that game on the box, this is an arcade racer with a city to roam, cars to crash, billboards to smash, and a clever integration of single and multiplayer gameplay to get lost in. It's just unfortunate that a decent amount of fun gets lost in its design. Though the magic doesn't feel as alive in this latest incarnation than it has in the past, there's an enjoyable and slick game in Criterion's Most Wanted.