Black Box and Redwood Shores, the developers of EA’s 2005 Need for Speed Most Wanted must be scratching their heads right now. We already had a Most Wanted in 2005, so why has Criterion games come in to recreate their 2009 hit Burnout Paradise City under the same name? I have no idea, but what I do know is that Guns & Roses are out of the window, and Muse are on the scene with their hit ‘Butterflies and Hurricanes’. “Maybe if we have the exact same menu-less opening and dive right into the game with the exact same voiced and animated city introduction, but change the music, no one will even know”, they probably thought. Well damn it, you can’t switch Guns & Roses with Muse and not raise any eyebrows, but putting the music to one side for the sake of obfuscation, how does this twisted amalgamation of prior Criterion and in house EA projects fair against the competition?

The similarities to Paradise City are more than mere aesthetic, and although I realise that tiresome comparisons often serve only to provide a flippant reference frame, you should note that pretty much every part of 2012′s Most Wanted can be found in both the 2005 original and Burnout Paradise; by that I mean there’s absolutely no real innovation, but there is a whole lot of picking and choosing what worked and what didn’t from prior releases, which ultimately presents us with a very polished, very balanced and enjoyable installment that appeals to the mass market. The problem with Most Wanted and Paradise City was that they invariably appealed to different demographics of racer fans, but EA have created something this time more uniformly enjoyable to all. That is probably what justifies this release, but with it comes quite a bit of compromise.

If you hate EA subsidiaries, enjoy smashing through their advertisement billboards with rocket fueled rage

Need for Speed Most Wanted is a sand-box driving game where players explore and race around an open city, with high-ways, streets, alleys, and some level of countryside. Challenges are races are once again found by driving around the map, but this time you also get a selection of suggested races and challenges from the menu hub where, sometimes, you’ll be allowed to select the race and start from the start without having to drive there – a welcome mechanic in this kind of driving experience. Earning Speed Points (SP), the main and only currency in the title, will allow the unlocking of extra races, including the opportunity to try and head off against one of the top 10 most wanted drivers.

This top 10 most wanted list serves in lieu of a story, and your ultimate goal is to become number one. Speed Points come easy; drifting, avoiding cars, hitting speed cameras at high speeds, avoiding cops etc,. To earn bonus points, you can rely on Autolog – which makes a comeback – to provide you with mile-stone event challenges, such as distance drifted etc, to earn some bonus points. In a nut-shell, that’s what Need for Speed Most Wanted entails. Race, drift, avoid the police, and make your way to number one on the top ten spot.

The Autolog menu system is like texting and driving, and that never ends well.

Autolog is a bit of a double-edged sword. Whilst it’s easy to navigate with the d-pad (I’m using an Xbox 360 controller), you’ve got to be sitting still to do it properly, otherwise you’ll probably have a head on collision of the sad-wife magnitude. This means that accessing anything during one of the many long, long police chases is problematic. From Autolog, you can do everything from change car, customizing your car, and changing your chassis, to jumping into a new race, setting destinations, and accessing multiplayer. When you’re essentially ‘parked’, don’t be surprised if one of the NPC generic traffic vehicles drives into you activating the crash-cam, just as you were trying to set a new destination. Car parks can actually prove to be pretty useful.

This is the main thing about Need for Speed Most Wanted that annoyed me the most. Whilst I was enjoying the game, their amalgamated inbred child replaces actual, awesome mechanics with compromised gimmicks that come with more problems than benefits.

Probably the biggest gimmick in this Need for Speed entry is the method by which you acquire new vehicles. On paper, it sounds great, which I know is probably the reason they stuck with it: “you see a car you like? Drive up to it and jump in.” Wow, doesn’t that just get the nitrous in your blood pumping? Whilst it’s fairly cool at first, there’s a whole host of problems that follows with this method. Firstly, you earn upgrades for your cars independently from one and other, and acquiring nitrous for example requires coming first in a race, for each of the cars you want it for. Because of this, you’ll be apprehensive about jumping into a new car at all, since your current one is probably better in its current state, not wanting to repeat races to get to where you were with the car you’re in, only to suddenly spot another one down the road. Secondly, jumping in a new car changes the autolog challenges and races available to you, and if you’re on your way to one of those challenges following the way-point, and see a new car you want to collect, that all gets reset and you totally lose your way. Because of that, you will either find collecting new cars a counter-intuitive chore, or just not really get anywhere. Grab a new car, head to an event, see a new car, event changes, head to that event, see a new car, etc,.

Second to those issues I found with the system, if you actually want to change your car on the road to one you’ve collected, you’ve two choices: drive to where you initially found it, or automatically teleport there. This means that any sense of placement or direction is totally inconsistent, and planning events really becomes a matter of planning what car progression you want to follow. Because of that, I found myself wanting to stick with one car, and since acquiring new cars involves the exact opposite of that I just… didn’t want to do it. I much prefer buying a car and leaving it in my warehouse.

It took me way longer that it should have to realise I had no tires. 

It wouldn’t be Most Wanted without police chaces, but unlike Hot Pursuit, the police in this installment aren’t here as an entertaining central mechanic, they’re here to try and murder you and your car. If you catch the attention of the police in races, they’ll come after you and the other racers, adding an other layer of depth to the race, but not one that isn’t in Hot Pursuit or The Run, and with the usual road blocks and spikes, they’re not offering anything new other than constant radio chatter which helps to distract you from the Skrillex pounding into your soul.

Police chases help to offer an exciting dynamic to this street racer, but, again, they’re another central gimmick that came with too many negatives. For example, after a race is over, your notoriety level will still be high, and you’ll have to lose the cops. This can take forever, since the longer you drive the higher it goes, and there are so bloody many of them, coming from all angles, that whilst it’s very difficult to actually get ‘busted’, it’s very difficult to out-run them. It’s not a matter of skill so much as speed. They arbitrarily come towards you once you’ve lost them and you’re in the cool down period, and your best bet is to just sit tight under a bridge or something and go make a cup of tea. I got particularly annoyed when I lost a race and wanted to change car. I opened up the menu, went to my list of cars and tried to select one. I was told I can’t do this during a pursuit, so I had to spend about 20 minutes trying to lose the police before I could restart the race with a new car. Now, it’d be unfair to point out that I did have the opportunity to instantly restart the race despite the pursuit, but I wanted to change my car.

These little niggles really put a dampener on open driving experiences, racing to your race location seems tiresome now, since your race location will be the same location you’re probably already driving in. It’s completely arbitrary. Even if racing from A-B is different from your course of Z-A to start the race, the entire city looks so similar that it merely feels like they’re wasting your time. Paradise City overcome this problem by making crashing fun. In Most Wanted, crashing is most decidedly not fun.

Go away I want to change my car. You’re hampering my fun. 

The thing is, Need for Speed Most Wanted features a modified version of the Hot Pursuit engine, and it has a dedicated crash cam for take-downs – it’s a Criterion game after-all – but the crashes look absolutely crap. There’s basically no damage model for the vehicles, with merely a few bumps and scratches like something from 2005, and there’s no wrinkled, wheel-less wrecks, or cars folded in half from head on collisions. With a dedicated crash-cam for take-downs, what the hell were they thinking? 2009′s Paradise City, from the same publisher and developer, had arguably the same emphasis on crashes, but they’ve taken an enormous step back with regards to how they approach them. This is the main thing about Need for Speed Most Wanted that annoyed me the most. Whilst I was enjoying the game, their amalgamated inbred child replaces actual, awesome mechanics with compromised gimmicks that come with more problems than benefits. They’re things that look great on paper, but have a host of issues once you play, or, have bought, the game.

Vehicle handling is yet another problem, with prior Criterion games overcoming the problem with very linear, very fast driving by making it so that hitting traffic which is going in your direction is not too much of a detriment to your velocity, but in Most Wanted, hitting basically anything means you’re toast, and with cars that handle like musket rounds that’s a big problem. It’s impossible to make tiny adjustments to your angle, and taking corners is a matter of hitting x and drifting. Drifting is a sort of uncontrolled motion, and you can’t avoid anything during a drift, so what you have is either uncontrolled forward velocity, or uncontrolled turning. I don’t remember prior Criterion games having such troubled handling, and there’s one way to avoid this:

Basically the only car you need in the game.

Once I found this car, I didn’t need to change cars for basically half the entire game. I worked on this one alone, and its light weight and incredible speed gave me much more control over the driving. In fact using this car, or this type of car, essentially ‘fixes’ the handling, and offers you a good mix of speed and maneuverability that makes Most Wanted a lot more playable. The problem is, once you get into this glorified go-kart, you’ll never be able to go back to the other super cars or muscle cars – they just don’t turn.

Graphically, Need for Speed Most Wanted is quite standard on PC. I remember the prior entry, The Run, looking and playing a lot better. Although the Chameleon engine offers some nice effects and damage, the actual damage aside from the billboards is… well, there isn’t any. What a waste of the engine, considering it could have made the cars crumple into scrap beautifully. The city is fairly generic, but looks good enough. The open world, and the city being a sort of iteration of Paradise City, means you’ll probably tire of the areas pretty quickly, but with some fun arena type areas, such as one with a scrapped plane in it where you’ll find a Porche to drive, means there’s some versatility. There’s also some foliage, coast-line, and long high-ways, but it’s nothing you’ve not seen before.

 Waiting for players – the doughnut experience.

Of course there’s always multiplayer to take you out of that lonely, life-less city, but with it comes another host of problems which is something of a trend in Need for Speed Most Wanted. When races get going, they’re enjoyable due to the fact that players have the option of finding their own way to the checkpoint to win the race, instead of prior more linear racing experiences. This is great, kudos to the team for that, but actually getting the race to start due to this incessant need for for a ‘life-like open world’ is a whole problem in and of itself. The first 4 races I tried to get wasted an entire hour of my life. Joining the ‘free drive’ lobby from Autologs plops you into the game world with other places, acting as a lobby. With around a 5 minute intermission, drivers roam free doing whatever they want. When there’s enough players, you’ve all to head to the ‘meetup’ point which could be around 9-10 kilometers away. That’s about a five minute drive. Whoever gets there first is awarded some SP, and then you all sit there waiting for the race to start.

The first four times I did this, I was sat there for 10 minutes each time as players joined and left, and every single time some total idiot had their speakers and mic on full blast, reproducing the in game music loudly, through multiple mics and headsets, looped, for the entire time, with no way to shut it off. Because of this, people naturally left, and my free-driving, racing to the start, and waiting for the race to begin was a total waste of time. Why the gimmick? What’s wrong with “everyone is in the lobby, let’s start the race.” Again, this might have sounded great at a board meeting, but in practice, like so many of the other gimmicks, it’s merely a devolution of game mechanics. That said, when you do get a multiplayer race going, they’ve solved the problem with “if you’re behind you’ve basically lost” by offering the chance for players to pick their own route. This means that even if you drive badly, your keen sense of direction can win you the event. That’s a nice feature.

Hodge’s airfield is a good example of somewhere to go to blow off steam

EA’s amalgamated offspring is a very mixed bag, and what it offers is gimmicks that look good on paper, it ruins with how they’re implemented. A lot of the time, they’re just flat out bad ideas, and taking away things like the ability to purchase and store vehicles, able to pick them up from anywhere on the map, or the limited-to-point-of-non-existent destruction on the cars when you crash makes Need for Speed Most Wanted look like a vapid attempt to create something to appeal to the mass markets without any risky mechanics that might appeal to one, but not to the other. In the end it feels a little soulless, which makes it not just generic, but a mere ‘entry’ in the most clinical, evocative use of the term possible, in the Need for Speed franchise.

If you take away the incessant police chases that were more necessary and entertaining in the more linear Hot Pursuit, The Run, and older Need for Speed games, and take away the “want that car? Just hop in!” mechanic that presents more problems than its worth – and if you added a proper multi-player lobby where 8/10 times your game wouldn’t dissolve into nothingness, then you’d have a solid arcade racer that’s enjoyable albeit totally done before… by the same publisher… and the same developer. The problem is, every time I was just starting to have fun, my experience was ruined by an idea that was merely designed to ship more copies.

That’s not to say it’s a bad game – it’s not, it’s just ‘another Need for Speed,‘ playing it safe. I’m certain, though, that anyone who doesn’t experience the problems I had with the game will probably have a mostly enjoyable experience, particularly if they’re fans of Need for Speed games on the whole.