British developer Criterion Games impressed most racing enthusiasts when it took its first stab at EA’s uber-franchise, Need for Speed, with Hot Pursuit back in 2010. The developer managed to revive the Hot Pursuit sub-brand, and delivered one of the most well received Need for Speed games of its generation.
So I was pleased to learn that the developer had been put at the wheel of this year’s big NFS release, Need for Speed: Most Wanted. I was even more pleased after spending a few minutes in the game, because it doesn’t take long to appreciate the standard of quality it achieves. From the environment detail, to the refined handling, and magnificently crafted sound effects, Most Wanted plays like a game that was built with love and unwavering attention to detail. The lighting effects are dynamic and gorgeous, and you will almost hear individual specks of dirt colliding with your bonnet as you careen through a dusty patch of road – sure signs that you’re playing a game that was developed with love and care.
Most Wanted is an open-world racing game. An interesting design choice was to make all its cars available from the beginning. That’s not to say you can immediately drive any car you want, but the process of unlocking each one is a little different to the approach taken by most racing games. You do not have to earn points to unlock vehicles, or save up money to buy them. You simply have to find them, and they are hidden around the city. There are 41 of them, some of which you will find sneakily tucked away on a rooftop, or a storm drain, while you’ll bump into others that are parked in virtual plain sight. The result is that you are encouraged to explore the world.
The game does also deliver a robust progression system by way of upgrades and modifications. When you unlock a new car, it will come fitted with standard parts. Using Speed Points, you can upgrade its tyres, chassis, transmission and so on. Speed Points are earned by breaking the law, getting snapped by speed cameras, damaging property, and evading the cops. Then there are the street races, which deliver the biggest Speed Point pay-offs.
Each car has five races available to it, and they range from pretty easy to quite difficult. Some are straightforward circuit races, but you will also get to take part in sprint races and speed runs, which require you to maintain absurdly high speeds while navigating civilian traffic. If you perform well in these races, you will not only earn Speed Points, but you will also receive special perks, such as a reinforced chassis which is handy for smashing through police roadblocks. As well as your regular vehicle upgrades, you are also given the chance to mod your vehicles, and this is done seamlessly on the fly via the d-pad, so forget about wordy menus.
Street races are not the only organized events though, and “ambush” events are a highlight, requiring you to evade the cops. This can be achieved by either driving really fast until you eventually outrun them, or more cleverly by breaking their line of sight for long enough to lose them. As you learn your way around the city, you will discover all its subtle intricacies, and you will learn sneaky routes that you can use to your benefit. Often it’s the street races that will introduce you to these lesser travelled paths, and when you manage to use one of them to cleverly leave the cops wondering where you vanished to, it’s hard not to get a little giddy.
Of course, the cops don’t only make an appearance during these events, and they will also try and spoil your fun when it comes to street races or just general joyriding. The longer you evade them for, the higher your Heat rating will climb. At first the cops will stick to trying to ram you off the road, and deploying faster vehicles to keep up with you, but before long they will be blocking off intersections and calling in SWAT teams.
So the various campaign tools that provide the structure for Most Wanted are fantastic. The ability to unlock new vehicles by exploring the city is genius, and the ability to upgrade them using Speed Points means that you are likely to pour plenty of love and care into the ones you like most. In terms of the actual driving, Most Wanted is very solid. Cars handle well, but it might be worth mentioning that the game is not trying to be a driving simulator. It’s straight-up arcade fun, but having said that, cars still feel weighty and substantial. It’s easy to get the hang of most of the vehicles’ unique handling configurations, but don’t expect to be winning the more challenging races with as much ease.
On top of it all Most Wanted also features a storyline, although calling it that feels like a bit of a stretch. Essentially, it’s a narrative that dares you to become Fairhaven’s most notorious racer. As you progress and earn points you are given the opportunity to take on the city’s other most wanted racers. These guys race some of the game’s most desirable cars, which you win if you defeat them.
Need for Speed: Most Wanted is my favourite game from the franchise in a very long time, and I would go as far as to call it a must-play game, even if you are not the biggest racing fan. Gorgeous visuals and top-notch production values are the icing on the cake for a well-designed open-world racer.