2005’s Need for Speed Most Wanted is probably the pinnacle of the long running racing franchise. Sure there were great entries like Hot Pursuit, Underground and especially Need for Speed 2 SE, but Most Wanted was a perfect blend of technical design, challenging gameplay and undeniably fun moments. When Criterion was tapped to remake a second Need for Speed (the first being 2010’s Hot Pursuit remake), my excitement was palpable.
Criterion’s Hot Pursuit was a glimpse of what the studio, then best known for the Burnout series, could do with a brand name franchise, the backing of a major publisher, and a stable of licensed vehicles. The results were impressive to say the least. Hot Pursuit not only cemented Criterion’s legacy as one of the top racing development studios but it brought Need for Speed back into the limelight, after many had written the series off as stale and repetitive.
The first thing that I noticed when driving into the city of Fairhaven is that Most Wanted is a stunning game. The city skyline pops, the road has just the right mixture of sheen and grit, and the sunlight dances across the meticulously modeled cars. Your first car in the game is an Aston Martin V12 Vanquish painted in classic silver. The Vanquish’s engine lets out a low growl as you pick up speed on the highway just to throw the rear wheels out for a high speed powerslide. As you are getting a feel for this British beast, you are directed on your GPS to your first landmark, your second car: a Porsche 911 Carrera S.
The 911 has a more pitchy engine and feels nimble compared to the hefty Vanquish. You play with the car for a bit and head to the next landmark, your first race. And that’s when it dawns on you, this game isn’t like other racing games. There is no garage to swap rides, there is no list of events to choose from. Your task in Most Wanted, is to explore Fairhaven, discover new cars and events, and compete. It is absolute driving freedom.
Each vehicle has a set list of five events that they can compete in. Events range from sprints, to circuit races, speed runs and ambushes. Sprint and circuit races are fairly straightforward, with sprints being point to point and circuits being a basic checkpoint race. Speed runs are challenging checkpoint sprints where you have to get your average speed above a certain level to win. Speed run courses are often in technical areas with a fair amount of traffic. Ambushes are when you are tasked with escaping and eluding a swarm of police vehicles within a certain amount of time. Also worth noting is that later events get more challenging parameters, opponents and much more police interference.
Rewards for completing events are aplenty. The first is the ability to upgrade your vehicle through items like racing slicks, nitrous systems, chassis frames and the like. Each upgrade can also be upgraded to a pro level by completing challenges with the upgrade equipped. Challenges include driving in the opposite direction on a freeway, taking out police vehicles and dodging traffic. The second is earning Speed Points, which are used to climb the Most Wanted list. By climbing the Most Wanted list, you are able to challenge the bosses of the game who drive some of the most fantastic cars on the planet. The Lexus LFA, Shelby Cobra 427, Bugatti Veyron Super Sport and the Lamborghini Aventador are all waiting to be challenged to a head-to-head race.
The Most Wanted races are often much longer than other sprints and circuits, have a lot more police activity and Most Wanted cars do not play nice. They are usually always faster than you and even if you wreck them mid-race, they are scripted with some intense rubber-banding which allows them to catch up to you quickly. When you are able to successfully defeat a Most Wanted car, the only thing left to do is wreck them. Sometimes you might get lucky and have a favorable turn or some traffic to steer them into, but more often than not the targeted Most Wanted car will still be driving around flat out and odds are one or two will disappear from your screen. This isn’t a problem as the game spawns the fleeing Most Wanted cars in relation to your position so they’ll eventually pop up again to be wrecked.
As much fun as racing in events can be, Criterion has seen to upgrade the Autolog system that they made famous with their Hot Pursuit remake. Everything you do in Fairhaven is connected to Autolog. Not only race times, but speed cameras, smashing through billboards, even the position on the Most Wanted board are constantly made available to you and your Autolog friends. Oh and those billboards you smash through? The record holder’s gamer picture is displayed on them, so there’s nothing quite like smashing through a billboard with your friend’s face on it.
But if there’s anything that Most Wanted absolutely needed to deliver on, it was with the police force. The police in Fairhaven predominantly drive police cruisers which are pretty annoying to deal with en masse, but don’t pose too much of a threat by themselves. As your wanted level goes up however, Fairhaven’s arsenal becomes more aggressive, adding spike strips, a fleet of Corvette ZR-1s, SWAT vans and of course, Rhino SUV units. As much of a challenge a six star wanted rating can be, I was pretty disappointed by the police when compared to the 2005 original. The original Most Wanted had some of the most brutal pursuits I can remember in a game. The Rhino units alone, driving to knock you out in a head on collision, were a fantastic challenge. Comparatively, the 2012 Rhino’s are not nearly as fearless. I would describe the 2012 cops as persistently annoying. When evading detection, your hiding spots have to be practically impossible to reach because the police will explore every nook and cranny to find you, restarting any pursuit.
Multiplayer in Most Wanted is solid with stable netcode. Participating in live multiplayer events is fun, but the real enjoyment comes from driving aimlessly and essentially making Fairhaven a playground to jump cars, annoy the police and crash into your friends. Progression in multiplayer is similar to singleplayer, with a separate speed level dictating what cars and upgrades are available to each user, similar to an experience point system in a shooter.
As much as Most Wanted is pure fun, it was lacking a bit of the soul that its predecessor had. The original Most Wanted had one of the more interesting story modes in a racer. It was because of the story that you had a motive to climb the leaderboard, defeat rival drivers and ultimately get revenge on a guy that cheated to win your car. The original Most Wanted was created by Black Box, and it was these story modes that they were known for, for better or for worse. While I don’t want Criterion to be like Black Box and focus on narrative over gameplay, the fact that the Most Wanted list was just a list of cars felt devoid of personality.
Also, I have to note that the game does suffer from a few odd errors. The first nearly made the game unplayable for me, in that the music menu would stutter and freeze. The problem was related to loading music while in shuffle mode and it resulted in the frozen pause menu and extra long load times. That problem has since been fixed, but other quirks involving DLC and compatibility packs are a nuisance.
Speaking of load screens. Most of the event load screens are trippy dream like sequences that pan towards your car accelerating to an event start. This is cute the first few times, but at least they are skipable. But pay attention to the gorgeous load screens for Most Wanted races and the absolute mind bashing WTF moments in Ambush load screens. When your car is being surrounded by tornados made out of cruisers, it probably is in your best interest to run.
Ultimately, Most Wanted is a fantastic racer and probably the best game in the Need for Speed series since the original Most Wanted. It is a flashy, gorgeous racer with a ton of replay value, a huge city to explore that is made even better with friends. But for as many things Most Wanted does at a spectacular pace, it all feels a little too sterile. It may not be a true successor to the original Most Wanted, but it reminds me a ton of another fantastic racer: Burnout Paradise. And that’s not a bad thing at all.
8.5/10 Need for Speed Most Wanted succeeds in making the series truly relevant again with stellar technical performance and just enough addicting fun. A gem of a game that can be recommended to even casual fans of the racing genre.