Fast and Focused.
The Fast and the Furious wasn't an especially great film, but it did feature a scene tangentially related to Need for Speed Most Wanted. In the opening act the engine in Brian Spilner's Eclipse self destructs when he tries to push it too hard. As the wiry mechanic assesses the damage, he looks at Brian in utter disbelief and asks, "was that fun?" Brian doesn't answer, but destroying an expensive car by driving it too fast is probably fun.
This question also seemed to be Criterion's design philosophy when building Most Wanted. Every aspect of their previous open-world racer, Burnout Paradise, seems to have been given the "was that fun?" treatment and adjusted accordingly. Furthermore, many new ideas, some of which are undeniably outrageous, appear to have passed that test and qualified for inclusion. Is it fun? The Fast and the Furious didn't seem to know the answer to that question - it alternated between melodrama and popcorn amusement - but almost every aspect of Most Wanted is confident in its response; yes, everything is a lot of damn fun.
This is quickly apparent in the way Most Wanted handles its suite of vehicles. A hundred or so "jackspots" dot every side road and off-area in the fictional city of Fairhaven. Every jackspot comes with a specific car and if you find it, you can drive it. Within minutes of starting the game it’s possible to be driving everything from an Arial Atom 500 to Lamborghini Gallardo. What's novel is how easy it is to get back into any car you find. A lesser game would plot a garage on the map or force the player to drive all the way back to where they found it, but Most Wanted skips the tedium and provides the option to hop back in the car whenever you'd like. You can still drive back across Fairhaven and find it, if that's your thing, but this seemingly tiny decision by Criterion is a huge convenience for the player. Across almost every facet of its design, Most Wanted strives to respect your time.
I smell donuts
Every back-end decision, like the previously mentioned car-jumping, is found in the EasyDrive menu. Another extension of ideas first explored in Burnout Paradise, EasyDrive is a drop down menu guided by the d-pad and the functional menu for most of the game. Each of the starts points for the five races available to each car can be plotted and GPS'd through EasyDrive, and once you've been there once, you can freely select "start race" at any other point in the game. If you’ rather get to the point you don't have to burn a bunch of your time driving all over the considerably huge city just to engage simple races. EasyDrive is also responsible for getting in and out of multiplayer as well as obliging the challenges of Autolog, which I'll get to a bit later in the review.
Car modifications are also handled in EasyDrive. Most Wanted doesn't support cosmetic variation beyond a change of paint, but it offers plenty of streamlined under-the-hood options. Getting first, second, or third in a race unlocks upgrades like burn nitrous (read: turbo), shorter gears, or re-inflating tires. Additionally, every single upgrade has a Pro option that can be earned through mini-challenges. Track tires, for example, get upgraded to Pro after you've drifted several thousand yards in them. All of these are car-specific; meaning upgrades you've unlocked for one car aren’t available in another.
Midway through Most Wanted I stumbled upon an interesting consequence of attaching mods in EasyDrive. I had been using track tires because they were extra sticky, which unfortunately rendered my car vulnerable to the myriad of spike strips. Inevitably I hit a spike strip, but rather than wait for a repair station or restart the race, I opened EasyDrive, selected re-inflating tires, and waited for the tires to re-inflate before finally switching back to my track tires. It was the best of both worlds. It was also ridiculously hard and a stupid risk because I was going 110mph on broken tires, and fiddling with a menu isn't exactly the smartest option amongst those activities. Still, it worked, and I was surprised that the game let me do it.
Speed Points, Most Wanted's award for progression, are woven through every fiber of its being. Each car comes equipped with five challenges including traditional checkpoint laps around the city, pure distance races, escaping the police, and tests to maintain an average speed. The bulk of SP will be earned winning these races for the first time, but taking down other racers, crashing through billboards and gates, and even beating your own best times is met with a gift of SP. Criterion seemed to be deathly afraid of the player getting bored, and any time the game may start to drag there's always another SP hook around the corner.
It's much more impressive in motion
The riskiest of Most Wanted's challenges, or at least the one that will be the most polarizing, are the police chases. The intensity of Fairhaven's finest is measured by a heat meter. It rises with increased chaos and only drops if you can manage to twist and turn enough distance from the police. Initially I felt the police were more of a nuisance than a legitimate threat. Races would usually end with the police on my tail, and rather than spend time trying to evade them, enter the cool-down period, and get Fairhaven back to normal, I would just get busted and forfeit a couple hundred SP that I had earned in the chase. It was bothersome, and I didn't care for the frequency at which it seemed to be happening. Getting arrested and not dealing with police seemed like the fastest way to get to the next race.
On one particular race, however, I had accumulated several thousand chase SP, which I would only receive if I successfully lost the police. What followed was a twenty minute game of cat and mouse where I would escape their reach, find an off-road area to hide my car, shut off the engine to make the cool-down meter drop, and hope to god the police didn't drive by. Thousands of SP were on the line, and any attempt to drop that meter by parking my car provided an exhilarating risk/reward scenario. My strategy then involved breaking away, finding a hiding spot, drop a fifth of the heat meter, getting found, and then engaging another chase before finding a new spot and repeating the cycle. It was a wild ride, and it provided better appreciation for police chases.
The cool thing is that scenario was entirely under my direction and wasn't part of any proper in-game challenge. There are a bunch of specific "escape the heat" challenges that task you with doing so under a time limit (and I wound up having more fun with those after this particular instance), but everything I did was under my control. Honestly that was the first time in maybe a decade where I started specifically instigating police chases in an open world game just to see how deep of a hole I could dig and still make it out alive. The improvisational nature of escape also manages to fill some of the void left in the absence of a proper stunt mode, a favorite feature of Burnout Paradise.
How about that, the game features 75% of the cars I own
The single player side of Most Wanted centers around ten ultra exotic vehicles. The titular most wanted, each one is gated behind a tiered SP wall and can be challenged when their respective SP requirement is met. All of Most Wanted's normal challenges are shared between the normal ("normal” meaning exotic) cars, however the most wanted essentially function as boss battles and boast their own unique distance races.
Racing against the most wanted were the most challenging areas of the game. Not only were the routes longer and the police more threatening, but the rubber-banding AI was at its most aggressive. I could not hold a lead. Ever. And even if I would drive a perfect race the AI would always sneak up behind me at impossibly fast speeds. Did this keep the races interesting? Sure, but I was also mad as hell when the AI car would inexplicably blow right by me at the finish line. In the end taking down the most wanted took around ten hours of my time and, while it felt like a significant accomplishment, that might have been disappointing if that's all there was to the experience. Thankfully, it's not even Most Wanted's main course.
Autolog, the brand name for Criterion's synthesis of single player and multiplayer ideas, makes a welcomed return. Virtually everything you do is measured by Autolog. Speed cameras all over Fairhaven judge your fastest fly-by. Billboards and corresponding jumps remember how far you flew. Each particular instance carries its own leaderboard, and every time you engage a speed camera or blow through a billboard Autolog tells you where you rank on your pantheon of friends. If you can be bothered to jump through the hoops of setting up an Origin account, your picture will even appear on billboards in your friend’s game.
Autolog, as one might expect, is also quick to dish out XP. Getting the top speed on a speed camera or time in a race is an obvious example, but what's beautiful about Most Wanted is how easy Autolog makes it to find this information. It has its own menu option in EasyDrive, and it always tells you who has the best time, where you need to go to beat it, and how much SP you'll be rewarded. In any case it always stands to the player's benefit, and Autolog itself can be switched off in the pause menu.
Where's the merge warning feature on this damned thing?
A proper multiplayer experience is also a part of Most Wanted's set of options. Seamlessly integrated through EasyDrive, groups of up to eight can compete in event playlists of the host's choosing. Everyone's then tasked with racing to the part of Fairhaven where the event takes place, and, as you might expect, the winner of the race to the race receives a nice SP bonus. And, as an anti-trolling countermeasure, those who choose to ignore the call to assembly will eventually be teleported to the start point.
Most Wanted's multiplayer races have a kind of laissez-faire attitude that set it apart from its peers. Cars aren't aligned in any sort of grid, but rather start wherever they happened to be when the last car shows up to the race. If you're paying attention to the countdown timer it's even possible to get a minimal head start every time. Also, the rubber-banding omnipresent throughout the AI races seemed absent entirely. This is a double edged sword in that repeated mistakes might render you permanently out of contention for first place, but valuable in that players aren't subjected to Mario Kart-like instances of cheap balancing. Even if you don't win there's still opportunities to score SP from takedowns, and if you do win you can promptly turn around and drive head on into others scrambling to finish the race. It's more hilarious than it is infuriating, and is yet another example of Criterion thinking outside the box of a traditional racer.
There's plenty more to do than race cars. Some challenges mimic those found in the multiplayer elements of Burnout Paradise; casting the collective group to achieve a set number of takedowns on each other or accumulate a combined drift total among them. Others are a bit more playful. My favorite was an instance where we were all tasked with ramping our cars up to this small roof, and the winner was determined by who occupied the roof for the longest. This essentially created an exotic form of bumper cars with the added element of other cars occasionally flying in to land on said roof, and it was a hell of a lot of fun. There are some duds in the mix, for sure (anything where you try and jump a huge distance is a bit unfair, given takedowns eliminate you from competing) but most of these more experimental type of events are a joy to play - and a nice pallet cleanser from normal races.
One aspect of multiplayer I didn't enjoy was Most Wanted's casual disregard for downtime. In between races or during breaks between playlists I would try and use EasyDrive to change parts or switch vehicles. When someone else performed a takedown on my car it ejected me from the EasyDrive menu and showed a seven second cut scene of my car getting demolished. Once I was back in the field it was only a matter of time before someone took me down again because, hey, SP’s right there on the table. The little bit of time in between races was spent driving away from the action just so I could change one or two parts. It's a consequence of allowing players to whatever they want whenever they want, but it's also insanely irritating.
The only thing that could stop us now is a spiked... SON OF A
A part Most Wanted I haven't addressed, indeed one paramount to its success, is how the game actually behaves as a racer. In the beginning I was skeptical - save a difference in engine placement most of my cars seemed to have a general feeling of arcade-y sameness about them. When I progressed to harder races and started getting more options for modifications, differences began to stand out. Replacing shorter gears with longer gears on certain cars was essential, and you can bet that I went for the reinforced chassis every time took out the Arial Atom. Tires were the most important, with the abject stickiness of track tires feeling entirely different from their off-road or re-inflating counterparts.
Speed, or at least the perception of it, is another important facet of racing games. The loss of sixty frames-a-second hurts initially, though the sting is removed a bit by the gorgeous vistas populating Fairhaven. Unlocking and upgrading some of the most wanted allows command of vehicles that can easily exceed 200mph, and the sensation of speed builds to the point where one tiny mistake can have a catastrophic effect on performance. Back-ends get wild during turns, the slightest taps result in takedowns, and random traffic can feel like an utter calamity. Drifting with appropriate tires feels solid and mitigates the challenges behind wider turns, but the rest is largely left to acclimated skill. It's a great balance between the accessibility and openness of arcade style racing combined with the satisfaction of practicing various corners and absolutely nailing them every time.
Most Wanted also has an unconscious penchant for creating devastating scenarios. These are defined by instances when a police officer randomly decides to commit suicide by doing a 90 degree turn into a wall, which inevitably leads to a collision with either traffic or the racer in front of you. Every time this happened both of the wrecking cars would become airborne and my car would barely pass under them (and then I would kind of duck in real life like an idiot). Those instances were exhilarating, and Most Wanted has the magic ability to pull them off with alarming frequency.
Got a train to catch
From a layout perspective, Fairhaven is quite diverse. Sprawling country back roads encompass the corners of the map, tightly packed industrial zones specialize in surprise turns, and city streets are populated with fantastic architecture and ample side roads. Areas that lend themselves to death defying stunts are in no short supply (that circle sculpture thing and the abandoned airfield being the most obvious), but Most Wanted seems to have a softer focus on messing around with stunts than Criterion's past work. It's not Burnout, I get that, but if the cars can't completely flip over then I don't feel encouraged to mess around with death-defying stunts at my leisure. Instead I try to figure out how the hell I'm supposed to crash through the billboard and move on. That alone is fine, and it'll satisfy the casual Need for Speed fan, but it was definitely an area that left me wanting more.
Most Wanted also looks incredible to my console-trained eyes, and seems to have a fixation with the purple and pink hues of sunrise and sunset. Detail is also in no short supply, with wave-crashing mist visible on beachfront locations and pink petals falling off cherry trees. Most Wanted also has a peculiar fascination with the surreal and the fantastic, as each scene that introduces either a race or a member of the most wanted is highly stylized beyond the bounds reality. Giant pyramids of police cars, most wanted opponents being born in a manner not unlike when Unicron created Galvatron, and inverted monochromatic vignettes are in no short supply. Letting the art department go nuts with these sequences was a bold choice, and kudos for Criterion for having the guts to try something genuinely weird.
If it's not yet clear Criterion intends for your Most Wanted experience to be a social one. It's possible to just play through the "campaign" and take down the ten most wanted vehicles, but it's nowhere near as satisfying as reaping the benefits of Autolog or participating in genuine multiplayer matches with friends and strangers online. There's even a "suggested friends" tab in the options screen for friends of your friends who also have the game. The social experience can be both asynchronous or real time, and skipping out those yields a lower appreciation of the end product.