The development house behind my previously favorite arcade style racing game this generation, Criterion/Burnout Paradise, is back but this time they're not driving the Burnout franchise. EA has instead placed their hands on the steering wheel of their biggest racing franchise, Need For Speed. Specifically Criterion developed a new iteration of Need For Speed Most Wanted (last release carried the same name (although different content and developer) and was released back in 2005).
If you're like me and enjoyed the hell out of Burnout Paradise, you'll quickly feel at home with the latest Need For Speed Most Wanted. Uses the same engine, has a similar feel and carries over a lot of the same gameplay elements. Could practically be a sequel except, as expected, it focuses more on police chases and street racing elements rather than crashing (Burnout's foray).
Returning is an open city concept with events dispersed in various locations. Rather than choose races through a menu system, you're provided the freedom to drive around the city and can enter an event by driving to the event location. Previously played races are instantly accessible (a feature I welcome tremendously with an open world racing game like this). If you'd like to just cruise around and not race an event, the game encourages you to do so by providing billboards to crash through (over 150 to find and destroy), street gates to discover that lead to different paths/areas, jack spots where you can find (and drive) new vehicles, radar locations that capture your top speed as you drive by and much more. Many hours can be spent searching out all the various items separate from the more typical campaign. But the searching doesn't stop once you find all of these landmarks. Each has a sort of 'high score' associated with it. For example, smashing through a billboard also tracks the distance jumped. Online friends with the longest jump through each billboard has their avatar displayed on that billboard. So even if you have found and smashed through a billboard previously, it reappears and can be smashed again and again until you take over the lead (furthest jump distance).
I can't review a Need For Speed title without mentioning Autolog. Criterion introduced this amazing feature two years ago with their first NFS release, Hot Pursuit, and wisely utilized it here again in Most Wanted. Autolog is an in-game social network that allows players to compare their high scores in a competitive fashion. I mentioned the ability to compare furthest distance jumped through a billboard and that's just one example of autolog. This comparable tracking also applies to all other facets of the game including, most importantly, racing. While playing single player events, autolog stays connected and displays not only your times and accomplishments but also other players times/accomplishments. You can immediately see where you rank against friends and if you desire, you can access those previous races/events through the autolog and try to beat those times/scores instantly. It's all easy to access and cleverly integrated. Easily one of the best online score chase elements in all currently available games. You'll never spend time digging through a menu or leaderboard in this game to find a friends score.
The main campaign centers around Most Wanted street racers. Your goal is to rank up your character via speed points (in-game ranking system) and as you gain more speed points, more street racers are available to contest. Goal is to level up to and beat all 10 of the Most Wanted street racers. After beating each in a race, you then have to also hunt them down and disable their vehicle by crashing into them. I suppose this could be compared to boss battles but only by design as they don't feel like boss battles. They're rather a series of increasingly difficult races to beat.
In addition to the Most Wanted races, the drivable cars can be upgraded through racing events. Earn better tires by taking first in a race and then earn nitrous boosting by winning another. In order to beat some of the later Most Wanted street racers, you'll need to invest time in one or a couple of the individual vehicles and associated races/events. There's an underlying theme through the entire experience relative to cops/robbers. Instead of robbers it's cops/street racers. Driving 100 miles an hour can draw the attention of the police as can driving into oncomig traffic (among other traffic crimes). You are then tasked with evading law enforcement and this includes during race events. The later Most Wanted races also have police throwing spike strips (a section of nails across the road) at you. In order to beat a couple of the Most Wanted races, I had to earn the re-inflatable tires for my vehicle. And that's an example of the importance of leveling up at least one of your vehicles. Its fun to drive all the available cars but it's also wise to take a couple of them and beat their individual events.
Online play is also included. Up to 8 can race together on the consoles (PS3, XBOX 360) while up to 4 can join and play on the Vita handheld. Online multiplayer can consist of open world driving and and can also include user created speedlists. Speedlists contain a series of events that players can join and play together. It's not intuitive and is a point of contention currently. Time needs to be spent outside of the multiplayer game in order to optimize an online session. Races don't start automatically but rather require players to drive to the start point, wait for the other players, and then once everyone is present a timer counts down and the race begins. Optimal speedlists (in my opinion) have a series of races/events that are located close to each other in proximity. Having to drive 5 minutes to the next race destination when the goal is to hook up and do some racing can be frustrating. Fortunately it's fun to drive around and look for opportunities to beat some autolog scores while chewing the fat with friends on the way to the next race.
Need For Speed Most Wanted is an arcade racer and a good one at that. Personally I prefer arcade to simulation racing games and I believe this game blends both rather well. Definitely leans heavy on the arcade side. It's forgiving but not too much so. Crashing into traffic and being pushed around by the police while driving is a common occurrence. Unlike some racing games, crashing once or twice during a race doesn't guarantee a loss. Your opponents are also being smashed and pushed so it usually equals out in the end and creates some fun and competitive racing. Of course if you can drive flawlessly... you'll be rewarded with better scores/times and I'll be looking for you via the autolog. Controls are tight and react very well. I always felt a sense of control over my vehicle and never found myself fighting with the controls. Car weight and control vary as appropriate and also feel as such when you switch between vehicles. Ford Focus feels lighter than a Dodger Charger for example.
Graphically this game shines. Cars and environment look amazing. The game does load for a while upon firing it up but it must load either the entire city or a large chunk because you can then drive around without a hiccup or a pause. As you careen over some of the hilly terrain on the outskirts of the in-game city, you can see for miles in the distance without even the slightest draw-in. The sun (all of the game played during day time) provides some jaw-dropping lighting and reflects off of cars, glass, etc. So much so that I even found myself reaching for the sun visor at times. The audio is OK. Cars don't sound spot on to their counterparts like Gran Turismo but the crashes and smashing glass always make me smile (it sounds fabulous). I spent over 12 hours beating the single player main (Most Wanted) and I'm thankful for the ability to utilize custom soundtracks. The included tunes have a couple good tracks but also some duds. I suggest a custom playlist or new taste in music if you like all of these songs.
The handheld PlayStation Vita version is technically impressive and is almost as good as the PS3/XBOX 360 versions. As a Vita title, you've got to see how amazing this looks and runs. There are a couple slight differences on the Vita version but nothing to be concerned with. Personally I prefer the PS3 version but I tend to favor console over handheld typically. There is no cross-play between versions but players who own both the PS3 and Vita games, can accumulate speed points (in-game ranking) across both. As a result, I played the PS3 primarily and then would "grind" through some Vita in order to hit next Most Wanted racers in the PS3 copy. Trophies and content are otherwise identical from what I can tell.
If you like racing games, you'll more than likely have hours of fun with Need For Speed Most Wanted. If you didn't already figure it out from my earlier hint, this is easily my favorite arcade style racing game this generation.