The team at Criterion carries an enormous amount of pride. Their rationale for allowing the latest title in the Need for Speed franchise, Most Wanted, to literally bear the same name as a recent title was thusly explained; "We don't make sequels to other people's games." What sounds like a slick marketing line for maintaining brand awareness is actually a genuine mantra for Criterion. I've rarely seen a team as confident and proud of their work, and it shows in the final product. Most Wanted is as much a 100MPH-with-you-hair-on-fire Need for Speed game as it is a natural progression from the open-world ideas first explored in Burnout Paradise, and Criterion walked that delicate line with clear respect and grace.
Burnout Paradise's influence can be felt almost immediately. Fairhaven is a sprawling city complete with winding country roads, tight city corners, and, for good measure, plenty off-the-beaten-path playgrounds. Like Burnout Paradise, You also initiate challenges by driving your car to a predetermined point and mashing the gas and the brake to set up a race. Pack in licensed sport and super cars and you've already got the core of what made Burnout Paradise such a breath of fresh air when it debuted in early 2008. Some four years later, Criterion’s had plenty of time to blend new ideas into their existing model.
With the exception of the ten titular “most wanted” vehicles, all of the other cars are immediately available. All you need to do is find its pre-set location on the world map and with a button press you're instantly driving a new car. Better, once you've acquired said car you don't have to go back to a garage or any other extraneous storage area to drive it again. Using the EasyDrive interface bound to the d-pad, you can freely select to be teleported to that car's location on the world map and drive it right away.
Each car comes with its own list of challenges. Circuit Races are lap-based races around the city, Sprint Races force the player to obey checkpoints in a single shot across the city, Speed Runs set an average speed goal and require the player to meet that average, and Ambushes corner the player with a veritable armada of police and challenges the player to lose the heat as fast as they can.
Everything (everything) you do contribute to Speed Points (SP), which function as Most Wanted's measure of player progression. Accrue a set number of points, and one of the ten most wanted cars will appear for a special challenge. Races against the most wanted were typically longer and tougher than the standard races, and came with the added challenge of police trailing the player along the way. In a bit of a puzzling move, beating one of the most wanted doesn't entitle you to their car, instead leaving you to perform a takedown on that car after the race concludes. Given that the races were unusually difficult (that is to say, seemingly more reliant on luck than the standard challenges) just one more thing after such a task felt a little odd.
SP isn't exclusive to your performance in challenges. Finding new cars, breaking billboards, and busting through gates, as you would expect, also nets some SP. Even more SP, and indeed a great deal of Most Wanted's replayability, is provided by instant challenges through Criterion's Autolog system. Autolog, back from Hot Pursuit, constantly challenges the player to best their friend's times in almost any kept statistic. For example, a notice will pop up on the Autolog Recommends tab saying one of your friends beat your time on a particular race or speed camera. Obliging the notice will transport you to that race (or you can simply drive there, if you like) and, should you beat their time, Autolog reward you with 700 or so SP. Through the five hours I played Most Wanted Autolog was always eager to find ways to reward me with SP. All of this builds toward steady drip of positive reinforcement, not unlike the XP bombardment in everyone's favorite first person shooter.
SP certainly isn't your only reward for a good performance; Most Wanted's system of car upgrades functions as its own reward chain. Coming in first might net your car an option for Burn Nitrous, which trades regular nitrous for an all around faster engine. Second place might reward you with a reinforced chassis to better absorb the punishment the car is bound to go through. A variety of under the hood customization options are available, and they are all unique to each individual car (meaning each new car you find is basically bone-stock). Everything from driving a set amount of miles (each car also has its very own odometer) to winning an easier race builds toward customization unlocks, and my cars rarely felt out of place in their respective races.
It's a good thing upgrades exist, because Fairhaven's finest get aggressive pretty fast. Initially your heat level seems like nothing to a worry about, a couple cops on your tail are a minor annoyance at best. Suddenly your heat’s up to level three and then they've unleashed a Corvette that also happens to deploy spike strips about a hundred feet in front of your car. It could have been random but on several occurrences the normal police seemed to work with that police Corvette and slam me over, at just the right time, into the spike strips I was working to avoid. Another time police were driving off of an overpass to get at my car, making me feel like I was in some weird hybrid of Maximum Overdrive and Terminator.
Were the police infuriating? You bet, but after an escalating series of groans a few of us began to share tips on how to beat the police. Upgrading to tires that re-inflated was a plus, but better was the apparent option of finding a safe place to hide and shutting off the engine. If I was in the cool down period that strategy made my heat meter drop like a rock, and thankfully Fairhaven is packed with side roads and other secret areas perfect for a temporary hiding spot. The police do feel unnecessarily oppressive at first, but with experience and a better understanding of Most Wanted's systems, hopefully that feeling can be mitigated in the long run.
Most Wanted also features a number of odds and ends to round out its open world. Billboards scattered in popular and remote areas of Fairhaven exist for your crashing pleasure, and even come with your friend's picture should they have been the one to get the highest jump through it. Likewise, speed cameras all over the city are constantly recording and ranking your fastest flyby. Like Burnout Paradise, Most Wanted also caters nicely to driving around without much of a plan and ramping off everything in sight. The abandoned airfield and a gyro sculpture thing in the middle of the city filled that niche, though I did find myself wishing the cars would be able to flip a full 360 degrees.
Autolog essentially weaves an asynchronous multiplayer component through every odd and end of Most Wanted, but rest assured a dedicated multiplayer suite is also available. In this way it once again borrows from the blueprint established by Burnout Paradise and uses the new interface to smooth out some of the more coarse design choices. Basically each multiplayer session is a drop in/drop out series of five events. Events range from standard races to abstract challenges like performing a set number of takedowns on each, drifting a collective number of yards, or, you know, letting everyone take turns jumping over a car underneath a bell tower. The absolute best event was assigning everyone to a remote location on a rooftop and declaring the victor as the one who managed to occupy a tiny rooftop for the longest; it was literally bumper cars up there.
Acquiring SP isn't exclusive to the events. Hell, getting to the event is an opportunity to earn SP. The first one there receives a small bonus, and those who are paying attention can even get a slight head start on race sequences. You can also completely remove other players from the equation. For example, if there's a challenge to get a long jump and you take down one of your opponents midway through, they won't be able to record any more jumps. Their existing score will stand, but they're done competing for that round. This adds another layer of chaos to an existing pallet of vehicular insanity, ensuring that sometimes the most alert, rather than best, player will ultimately have an advantage.
Online communities have the potential to be ruined by griefing idiots, and Most Wanted has a couple checks and balances in place to deal with the,. If a player doesn't obey the directions to get to a start point, all is not lost, after an invisible timer they're teleported to the location and the event begins anyway. There's also an intermission period between event cycles where players are free to bash into each other and get take downs for extra SP. This might seem like it would get out of hand, and perhaps it will, but I suppose Criterion’s idea, much like a little kid in the ball pit, is to allow the less socially inclined to get their aggression out in an appropriate environment.
The only aspect of this I truly disliked, indeed even hated, was how takedowns affect the menu system. For example, if I'm trying to change my car or customize my unlocks in EasyDrive and someone performs a takedown on my idle car, Most Wanted skips to a cut scene of my car getting demolished and kicks me out of the menu. When you're idle people are smashing into you every five seconds, making it effectively futile to try and switch cars or do practically anything else in your intermission or downtime. This was insanely annoying and I sincerely hope some sort of invisibility option or something makes it into the retail release.
Multiplayer also arrives with its own set of balance checks. Despite the apparent disparity in vehicles there didn't seem to be (and member of Criterion confirmed this in our interview) any major disadvantages separating new players with entry level cars from veterans who have unlocked everything. Even if more experienced players have better load outs, Most Wanted offers an easy remedy through granting those at the bottom of pack a few bonuses. Instant Takedowns are essentially one hit kills on another player. Hardened provides extra damage protection. Carjacker steals an assailant’s entire load out, car included, for the disadvantaged player to use. In two straight hours of multiplayer the list of winners in each event was constantly changing. It's too early to tell how the community will shape up after people start developing genuine skill, but the opportunities presented certainly feel like everyone's got a pretty good shot at winning something.
Cosmetic options appeared to be limited to the color of a car, but there was still some room for a personalized appearance. At the event all of our pictures were attached to our profile, so whenever I would get taken down, a screen would flash with that player's picture as well as their license plate. License plates, taking another cue from Call of Duty, can be unlocked through accomplishing a wide variety of tasks (I got my favorite, titled "Sink or Swam" by driving off a cliff into a lake). You can also customize your license plate to say anything other than the usual expletives. Most Wanted comes up short on pure visual customization options, which may disappoint some fans, but there's enough going on under the hood to keep most happy.
No one wanted to see Burnout Paradise's sixty-frames-per second presentation disappear, but the consensus was that Hot Pursuit traded up to become an amazing looking game. Most Wanted continues this trend, obeying a slightly more realistic tone to go with Fairhaven’s sprawling cityscape. Evident all the way from the exceptional box art right down to the slick EasyDrive HUD, every corner of Most Wanted looks gorgeous. After a while you'll start to notice cars crumple in about the same way and catching a glimpse of the PC version made me wish the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 could keep up, but Most Wanted is certainly one of the better looking chaotic racers to hit our aging consoles. The licensed music was decent, or I suppose appropriate as I'm not really a fan of the tracks that typically populate racing games (though I do have a weakness for Poliça, whose exceptional song ‘Violent Games” made it in).
There was another aspect of the presentation that lied slightly beneath the surface. Small cinematic sequences persist in introducing various challenges. This seems like business as usual for races, as these scenes usually focus on shortcuts or other environment related tips. Sometimes, though, things get weird. On an ambush, for example, I was greeted with an oncoming tornado of police cars, and then when I turned around there was an advancing pyramid of cops to say hello. When challenging of the most wanted, the game decided to make their car evolve out of a crystalline explosion. None of this is playable and it's meant to be some sort of flourish to Most Wanted's atmosphere, but those sequences always felt like a relic from a much different version of the game.
Before I wrap this up it's also worth mentioning I spent about ten minutes with the Vita version of Most Wanted. After playing the console version for a couple hours the visual downgrade was clear, although not by much. Most Wanted on Vita seemed to be hitting at 25 or 30 fps with reduced textures and, considering its peers on the handheld, looked fantastic. I was told that it's also feature complete and, aside from a drop (down from eight) to four in multiplayer, an identical game. Additionally, through an Origin account, SP can be shared between the PS3 version of the game. Game progress cannot be shared, meaning you won't be able to carry completed races or cars found over, but SP will apparently be universal. Lastly EA was still not commenting on whether or not they're going to follow SCEA's lead with "buy it on PS3, get it on Vita" promotion but, hey, we can hope.
Need for Speed Most Wanted comes out in about three weeks on October 30th. Check back with us then for a full review. Until then, check out my interview with Criterion Producer Hamish Young.