Need For Speed: Most Wanted is a video game shot out of a cannon. It starts at a sprint and never stops for breath, hurtling forward with such momentum that it feels like it may rattle apart at any moment. Most Wanted is exhilarating, disorienting, maddening, cathartic and hilarious, all in equal measure. It’s the most purely enjoyable racing game I’ve played in ages.
Here’s how it begins: An introductory video plays for exactly two minutes, after which point you are thrust behind the wheel of a speeding car with a single objective: get to another car. Preferably a fast one.
It’s a perfect introduction for a game that never slows down; a game where the races never really end or begin, and where every single action, from car customisation to race selection, can be undertaken while flying down the highway.
Most Wanted is something of an amalgamation of developer Criterion Games’ past racing games. A little bit of tasty, burnt-rubbery race stew. It mixes the open world of Burnout: Paradise with the less stunt-focused racing of Need For Speed: Shift and the cops ‘n' robbers chases of Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit and its 2005 predecessor, oddly also called Most Wanted.
The whole thing is set in the city of Fairhaven, which feels somewhat like the open-world cities of the world’s many Grand Theft Auto clones, with one crucial difference: there are no humans here, only cars. (Did anyone else find Pixar’s Cars to be sort of creepy for this reason? Sort of like that Stephen King short story Trucks, where the vehicles came to life and killed everyone? Fairhaven is like that, 50 years after. Anyway.)
The setup is simple: cars are strewn all around the city. Beautiful cars — Porches and Vipers and Aston Martins, oh my! They’re all unlocked and waiting for you to drive them. All you have to do is cruise up and press a button and you’ll instantly pop from one car to the next. You’ll have dozens of cars available right from the get-go; you won’t have to race to unlock decent cars, a move which feels revolutionary, even though at this point it really shouldn’t. Almost every car in the game is right there, if you can find it.
Each car has a set of distinctive races, which you can work your way through in whatever order you want. As you drive, every action you undertake will net you “speed points”, which help you climb the game’s ranks online and off. Placing in the top two of a race will also net you valuable upgrades for the car you’re driving. There are also in-world events strewn around the map, all of which are fairly straightforward — radar cameras track your top speed as you pass, billboards you can ramp through. (Curiously, the billboards are all branded with logos for EA’s subsidiary studios, like Dead Space makers Visceral Games and Battlefield’s DICE. This sometimes invokes the eerie sensation that you’re cruising around inside a tiny diorama located on a conference-room table somewhere in the depths of Electronic Arts.)
In addition to that simple but sprawling framework, there are 10 unlockable cars driven by “Fairhaven’s Most Wanted”. The members of this gang are, apparently, the most badass of the badass, the fastest drivers in the whole city. However, they don’t have names, just cars, like in that Seinfeld episode with the Puerto Rican Day parade. I enjoyed this, and came to think of each one as a dude that no one knew personally, so they just called him by his car-name.
In order to climb the ranks and race against those 10 cars, you’ll have to first accumulate enough Speed Points to challenge a new driver, then race each him mano a mano (or, I guess, neumático en el neumático) for his spot on the list. In a nice, sick touch, after beating a most wanted driver, you’re given the opportunity to run him off the road. If you can do that, you win his car. Bam.
Other than street racers and doddering civilian vehicles, the only other occupants of Fairhaven are the police. They are quite possibly the hugest dicks in video gaming, a relentless squad of jackbooted assholes hell-bent on ruining your fun. They’re the best kind of wild card, and the races that feature police intervention are among the most enjoyable in the game. Run for long enough, and your heat level will increase, just like in Grand Theft Auto and other similar games; to escape, you’ll have to out-maneuver the fuzz and hide. The overheard radio chatter between officers is a highlight, and you’ll smile and grit your teeth as they call out your car description and status in dry, collected cop-jargon. “These guys are really moving,” observes an officer as a fellow racer and I blow past him, elbowing one another around a corner. It’s a moment of solidarity before he T-bones me into a highway divider.
That said, the game’s relentless focus may be a mark against it for some. If you’re looking for a rich, diverse video game experience, this ain’t it — stunts barely factor, and there isn’t much to do inside the city except drive really, really fast. That was enough for me — more than enough, really — but if you’re looking for variety, you might want to look elsewhere. Unless your idea of variety is “This race feels pretty different with the Porche instead of the Audi!”
When it comes down to it, Need For Speed: Most Wanted is a three-minute loop that plays out over and over for as long as you want. This loop, the three-minute race, is so fine-tuned, so brilliantly tense and unpredictable, that I’ve been content to simply repeat it for going on eight hours now. There is so much game stuffed into every minute holding the controller that I felt ready to issue a verdict after 15 minutes. “Yes,” I thought, “I will play this game for as long as I own it.”
Criterion has, through some form of digital alchemy (and years and years of practice) managed to almost flawlessly recreate the feeling of flying forward at extremely high velocity. The recipe lies somewhere in their combination of whiz-bang visuals, undulating audio, screaming engines, thrumming music, and reflecting, refracting light-bursts. Everything feels heightened. This is how you’d imagine street-racing would feel. In this way, Most Wanted is at heart a fantasy game.
Visuals play a huge role in maintaining that fantasy. Similar to Battlefield 3 (of all games), Most Wanted’s camera is a constant presence, a piece of glass that accumulates specks of water, dust and mud as it desperately tracks the action on screen. I’ve spent the bulk of my time playing the game on Xbox 360, and even on Microsoft’s aging console, Most Wanted looks fantastic and runs pretty consistently. However — and I’ll have something more detailed on this later today on Kotaku — the PC version of the game is markedly superior. The quality of the effects isn’t the big differentiator — it’s the clarity. Playing on PC, running at 1080p and 60 frames per second, it’s noticeably easier to see what’s coming at you from a distance, which in turn makes it easier to drive cleanly and race well. And yeah, the PC version looks gorgeous.
Most Wanted isn’t a realistic driving game; it’s not a sim. You won’t spend any time in a virtual garage or showroom; you won’t manually shift gears, and even the gnarliest wrecks won’t cause you much damage or slow you down. In fact, you can’t even choose your car’s colour — in a particularly inspired touch, every time you zoom through an insta-fix repair shop, your car will change colours on the fly. It’s a lovely embrace of Most Wanted’s fast-paced, cars-cars-cars philosophy. And when a column of speeding vehicles zooms through a repair shop, spontaneously shifting colours like so many careening chameleons, it’s a sight.
The game is loaded with that kind of stuff. Before every race, an in-engine cutscene plays — the camera flips and zooms through the city, flash-cutting to racing automobiles, back, forth, until finally it spins forward and arrives behind your car, already racing at top speed. These mini-movies are inspired, funny and occasionally bizarre — one, set amidst the multicoloured crates of a shipping yard, is so good it could probably be spun out into its own music video. Better still, each most wanted racer is accompanied by a super-slick, CGI intro short that perfectly combines showroom car-porn with outer-space morphing effects and melting neon.
Once you’re in the thick of it, the dust, the dirt and the water all serve to dirty things up, to make things feel more frenetic and fast-moving. You’ll zip down a dirt path, blinded by the dust kicked up by the drivers in front of you... or shoot out of a tunnel, straight into the flare of the midday sun... everything is built around a single purpose: to make you feel like a bat out of hell, just barely maintaining control.
Most Wanted can also be a maddening game. I haven’t yelled at my television this vociferously in ages. The rich, immediate agony of a crash, just yards before the finish line; the cold rage you’ll feel at your closest Xbox Live friend, still 10 seconds ahead of you on the leaderboard. I’ve become obsessed in the best, worst way possible. To mitigate this darkness somewhat, I can only recommend taking advantage of the open world — don’t let a failure turn into an endless series of repeated, failed attempts. (I can give this advice, but I know no human could actually take it.) The open map has plenty of distractions, and failure always breeds growth and learning. But despite the generally forgiving nature of its moment-to-moment gameplay, Most Wanted can be a ruthless taskmaster simply by virtue of its addictive, compulsive design.
A good deal of Most Wanted’s “pinch” comes from its built-in asynchronous multiplayer. It centres around the Autolog, an integrated database that tracks your every statistic and relentlessly compares you with your friends. Every race, every top-speed, every jump, every stat you can imagine is tracked by the Autolog. A journalist friend of mine was among my Xbox friends playing the game ahead of release, and every time I’d finish a race, I’d be rewarded with the knowledge that he had finished it faster. Every. Damn. Time. It’s a bitter, bitter thing, the Autolog, but also an addictive one. I once backed up and re-buzzed an emplaced radar-detector about a dozen times just to get a faster time than he’d had. And while it may not happen that often, the feeling that accompanies winning a race and beating all your friends’ best times? Priceless.
Autolog also uses cloud-saving to let you track your speed points and other accomplishments across multiple platforms. I played a bunch of the game on 360, but now that I want to switch to PC, I could, in theory, just pick up the PC version, sign in, and find my score and victories waiting for me. Even cooler, the fully featured Vita version supports the same feature, meaning I could play the singleplayer part of the game on the go and save my achievements. Ditto the iOS/Android portable game, which lets you save up speed points in other races.
Unfortunately, implementation has been mixed for me. My Xbox is synced to some totally random EA account that has nothing to do with my Origin account, likely because at some point I synced it incorrectly on another EA game. There’s no easy way to deactivate or de-link my account without going through customer service, so I’m in the middle of doing that. I’m avoiding using my Kotaku powers because I want to see how this would be for a regular person to do. Furthermore, the Vita version seems unable to sign in to an existing Origin account — it is dead-set on creating a new account, which of course has already gotten me into trouble on Xbox. So, the cloud syncs are a cool idea, but I’ve been having trouble getting it to work so far. Your mileage may vary if you’ve already got your EA accounts all happily linked to your Gamertag and PSN ID.
The more-standard online multiplayer is a good deal of fun, and is a cinch to pop into and out of. Finding a public match is a simple matter of opening a menu in-game, hitting a couple of buttons, and boom — you’re off. The map remains unchanged in multiplayer, and you’ll have a number of various types of races and challenges dictated to you, one right after the next. At the outset of each, players are all given a meeting point, and it becomes a race to get there — arrive first, and you’ll earn more points.
Many of the multiplayer events are the same as in singleplayer, but a few are designed just for humans. My favorite of these is called “Park Up”. In it, players are given an unlikely location — a platform hanging beneath a bridge, say, or the roof of an auto-shop — and told to finagle their vehicle up there and occupy the space without moving — or being moved — for as long as possible. What follows is a hilarious game of brinksmanship and king of the hill, where players attempt to sit still and run up their own clock while simultaneously running risk assessment against any attempt to shove their neighbour off.
There are some small niggles, minor oversights that detract from the game ever so slightly. The mini-map, while welcomely clean and far easier to read than the map in Burnout: Paradise, could still be a bit more user-friendly. There’s a green line that paints the way to the your next location, but it can be tough to tell whether it’s telling you to take a highway entrance/onramp or not. A simple indicator at every entrance/exit would have instantly alleviated this problem. Sometimes, you’ll get a full “crash” that doesn’t quite feel right — a sideswipe that went a bit too far but shouldn’t have taken you out of commission for as long as it did. Also worth mentioning: On the 360 there is an occasional graphical stutter where the game freezes for a split-second. It’s almost never an issue... until it is. Once, it caused me to be just discombobulated enough that I blew a long turn. And almost threw my controller out a window.
One last thing, which I can’t believe I’m highlighting and yet here I am: Kinect. Need For Speed: Most Wanted is, truly, the first game that actually is better with Microsoft’s Xbox Kinect camera. More specifically, with Microsoft’s Xbox Kinect microphone. Using only your voice, you can use Kinect to quickly navigate the in-game “EasyDrive” menu, hopping from event to event and car to car without ever taking your foot (or, finger) off the accelerator. It works very well with Most Wanted’s always-racing, always-moving vibe. You can’t quite perform complex upgrades while engaging in a focused race, but all the same, Most Wanted is the first controller-based game in which I’ve regularly used my Kinect. It’s in no way worth going out and buying a Kinect just for this, but if you already have one, you’ll probably be you glad you do.
A million years ago when I first took Drivers’ Ed., our instructor gave us an important lesson about the concept of “velocitisation”. When you’ve been driving at a high speed for a long enough time, you’ll become velocitised; your body adjust to its inertia and accept your high speed as the new normal. It’s is why sometimes, when you’re tooling down the highway and come upon an unexpected red light, you’ll wind up having to brake much harder than you’d anticipated.
Need For Speed: Most Wanted is a velocitised game. Its cruising speed is 80km/h faster than any human could comfortably control, and it gets more done in three minutes than most games get done in three hours. At its best, it feels like a living thing, always pushing forward; harder, faster, onward to the next three minutes of terror and ecstatic velocity. It wants you to be playing it, always; your muscles tense, your fingers blistering, your heart in your throat. Never stop, it begs. Never stop.