Go ahead. Ram me off the road. It's cool. I'm not mad. I realize that it's part of the experience and fair game. We're good, man.
But don't get mad if you find that I've intentionally given up placement in the next challenge to screw you over. Don't be mad if I'm sitting in hiding at the apex of the next turn, finger on the gas trigger, waiting to jump out and T-bone you into a wall to take you out. Don't be mad if I follow you around in every race, trying to bash you into other cars. I'm going to be everywhere you are, at all times. Watch your back.
Me? Oh, I'm not mad. Really.
Need for Speed Most Wanted (Xbox 360 [reviewed], PlayStation 3, PC, PlayStation Vita)
Developer: Criterion Games
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Release: October 30, 2012 (North America) / November 2, 2012 (Europe)
If you couldn't tell, I'm really into the multiplayer side of Need for Speed Most Wanted. I'm out for blood most times, especially if you've wronged me. The single-player side of the game has you taking down ten of Fairhaven's baddest drivers -- the Most Wanted -- to become one yourself. But in multiplayer, they're out and your friends are in, making for a much more enticing experience. With every pedal to the floor, everyone speeds to be the first in a shuffled mix of events where the rules are uncommonly loose and winning takes multiple forms.
You'll race, speed through checkpoints, jump off ramps, and more to earn the most Speed Points in multiplayer. Free racing (and crashing) around the city takes place between events that pop up in a random playlist. When the next event comes up, all of up to 8 players are notified of a meet-up point, and all can race to this point for bonus Speed Points. When everyone arrives and is ready, the game counts down to an event, and as it begins, event objectives are given on a ticker. Until this point, no one has any idea of what objective will come up next, which gives Most Wanted's multiplayer a sort of free-for-all feeling.
Most of the events in the playlist are standard races where everyone will speed through checkpoints scattered over Fairhaven to be the first to cross the final checkpoint. The city is packed with sharp turns, perilous intersections, live traffic, jumping ramps, and countless obstacles, all working together to make races more gratifying than what you might find in a sim racer. Similarly, team races have all players divided up into two teams, with the win going to the team that has the highest number of points, based on placement. In both standard and team races, being an asshole pays off. More on that later.
Other events have you crossing a set point to pull in the top recorded speed or jumping off ramps to earn the most air time before the clock runs down. Drifting, takedowns and other challenges will also pop up in the playlists. One of the craziest ones has all cars fighting to find out how to get to a single point in the city, and then staying there for as long as possible until a clock runs down, with the top time on the clock taking first prize. Most of these locations are far above street level, requiring players to figure out how to get from street level, with many requiring the use of ramps and high speed starts. Things become more interesting when multiple cars try to camp the same point. In the best matches, lots of pushing and crashing takes place.
The player with the most points at the end of the playlist is the technical winner, but what makes Most Wanted so great is that the multiplayer experience is stuffed with opportunities for small, unofficial victories. Sure, you may not have technically won the most Speed Points, but a particularly good lap or a brutal takedown may feel even better than taking first place. In multiplayer, everything from tight passing to taking a corner feels rewarding; even driving haphazardly and way too fast has its moments. Even last place had a good time here.
One of the key things that makes multiplayer in Most Wanted so engaging is that your cars are fully disposable and instantly replenishable. Porsches, Maseratis, Ferraris and other cars that would normally be considered priceless can be found all over the city and can be immediately claimed with the press of a button. No money, credits, or ranking are required so even the most expensive car in this game costs nothing. And with the crash-y gameplay of Most Wanted, they're made junkers regularly, but they can be instantly repaired to brand new by driving the battered piece of junk through Fairhaven's gas stations. Takedowns, which happen when your car is completely wrecked by another player's collision, carry little penalty as cars respawn immediately after the crash animation. They may be beat up or missing wheels, but you can still make it to the next gas station. Or at least go kamikaze and crash someone else off the road.
With just about every car being the fastest and most powerful thing on the road, and all of them being free and instantly replenishable, it's like Criterion is encouraging you to be an asshole. That's the true magic of Most Wanted. 'Nice guys finish last' has never been more true. In fact, I'd go as far as to say that even the best driver won't stand a chance against your typical asshole. Perfect racing lines and exact cornering mean nothing when you're slammed directly into the concrete of an on-ramp. And really, the steering and cornering in Most Wanted isn't that great anyway, so you're better served learning how to best take others down. You'll have the best time in multiplayer by not worrying too much about your driving precision, instead spending more time making sure that you've done everything else possible to be the first across that finish line. Anything goes. It's like the biggest, flashiest, messiest game of bumper cars ever.
For as fun as multiplayer is, it's not perfect. I touched on the steering and cornering control earlier, which sometimes feels iffy and slow -- the total opposite of the tight and precise feeling you'd expect in a racer. The control is forgivable for arcade style racing, but may be a little bit too loose and wiggly even for that standard. Beyond this, there isn't much of a difference between the feeling of any of the wide variety of cars, other than limits on speed and cornering. Bigger cars may be able to take more damage, and faster cars may be able to lock in better times on speed traps, but for the most part they're all really similar. You're going to find a car you like and stick with it because it doesn't really matter that much.
Most Wanted's HUD, in both multiplayer and single-player, is lousy, and often obnoxious. Placement indicators are crammed in the very upper-left and right-hand corners of the screen, forcing players to take their eyes off the race completely. I can't tell you how many times I've crashed trying to check my ranking mid-race. The game's ticker, placed at the bottom of the screen, is so small and far away from the action that racers that look at it are at a disadvantage. In contrast, notices of points earned, placement and other messages are displayed in the dead center of the screen, blocking the action. They stay on the screen for far too long, too.
The game's map is the worst of all. It's small, terribly placed, and frequently disorienting. The placement of your car on this map is so close to the top of its display that it barely serves the player anyway. In going at any respectable speed, there's a high chance you'll pass your next turn before you see it on the map. How can you tell what road you're headed toward when the map doesn't show it yet? I've lost count of how many times it sent me into oncoming traffic. If the in-game GPS were a real-world unit, any driver would have thrown it out the window on the first day of use.
I've focused on the multiplayer side of Most Wanted in this review because I believe that most players will spend the majority of their time playing this mode. Let's be clear: the multiplayer in Most Wanted is so outrageously fun that I'd recommend this even without a single-player mode.
While there's no real storyline in the single player game, there's at least something of a path toward completion with the ten Most Wanted racers, which you'll take on each of eventually as you work your way up in Speed Point count. The game initially drops you in a Porsche and lets you drive around and take on challenges at your leisure to earn points.
The city of Fairhaven is a huge sandbox full of varied raceways and challenges that you're free to tackle at your own pace. The game's EasyDrive menu, mapped to the controller's directional buttons, makes the world a bit easier to navigate through instant access to any acquired cars, available modifications, and available races and challenges. All of this is accessible at any time, even during races.
The top item in the EasyDrive menu connects to a player's Autolog. This system, which debuted in Hot Pursuit, automatically tracks and compares top race times, progression and other achievements against all connected friends. Autolog alerts are announced when records are broken. This event becomes a selectable challenge, which can be acted upon through EasyDrive at any time. Accepting and beating one of these grants Speed Points.
As you drive in these challenges and free exploration, you'll find other cars that you can jump into, opening up even more car-specific challenges. After a certain point, you'll reach a Speed Point threshold that unlocks a race against one of the Most Wanted drivers. Beating them lets you take their car as your own and beating each of the car's specific challenges lets you upgrade it with perks, like reinforced bodies, better tires, nitro, and more. When you reach the next Speed Point mark, a new Most Wanted race opens up. Beat all ten and you become the Most Wanted yourself.
The problem with these Most Wanted races is that they are so scripted that having to run through a race a second time is disappointing, as you start to see how it all lays out. Even some of the standard races feel scripted sometimes. Traffic seems to pop up in the same places, as do takedowns and police pursuits. In multi-car races, opponents seem to catch up to you or cut you off at about the same place. Beyond the first playthrough of these races, nothing feels very organic or believable which makes crashing and wiping out even more frustrating.
At first, the wreck replays are fun, but the fun quickly stops. These animations show your car crushing and tumbling in slow motion, like in an action movie. The problem is that they're a bit too long and you're not able to skip them. Even in the heat of a key race, you'll have to watch your car slowly tumble around while you know other cars are zooming by. Players have no indication of their placement until this mandatory animation completes. Imagine coming out of an accidental crash, disoriented, and then finally finding your place and ranking, only to be pushed back into another crash animation. It's absolutely maddening. I can't tell you how many times I swore off playing this game any further after watching one too many consecutive crash animations.
These races are challenging enough on their own but adding police pursuits to the mix jacks the challenge to an even higher level. Of course, if you're speeding, Fairhaven's finest will want to pull you over. Bump into one during the heat of a race and they're immediately on your tail. It's possible to break away from police pursuit by driving really fast, or by hiding, but it rarely works out that way.
There are six heat levels that the game steps through if you can't break away, ranging from a mild one car chase to full-force coordinated ram fest, complete with roadblocks, SWAT vehicles and tire-busting strips. Get caught (or wrecked) and become Busted. But, if you manage to break away from a level six heat, you'll earn massive SP rewards. These police pursuits walk the line between fun and frustrating. Getting away from a chase feels great, but being busted after 30 minutes or more of high-pressure driving and dodging really wears on you.
There are a few technical issues that won't break the game, but do mar the experience a bit. I found the Xbox 360 version's framerate to be lacking in spots and quite stuttery in others. Cutscenes have issues with smoothness with even the opening movie showing jumps and pauses. Hiccups happen during transitions in and out of races, too. The PS3 version is a bit more smooth as far as framerate goes, but I encountered a few game-stopping crashes instead. Both versions won't let you shut off controller rumble and have issues with music settings; if you shut the music off, it will still randomly pop up in places.
Even with all of the smaller issues I've listed for Most Wanted, it's hard to stay mad at it. I like how the game constantly reminds you that you're becoming too serious. I found that I would check myself during one of the game's crazy cutscenes or race introductions. One has a pyramid of a dozen or so cop cars stacked, rolling at you in unison, lights and sirens on. They somehow turn into a rotating tornado of cars before the pursuit starts. It's as if they're saying that realism and structure were never a consideration. I like that.
It's the same situation with the multiplayer side of the game. The aforementioned issues and lack of any kind of regulations on starting a race makes for events that never really feel like they have structure; you're just part of a rowdy free-for-all. But when you embrace that and stop getting hung up on the details, you really start having fun. Most Wanted encourages you to cut corners, to be a cheater, and to bring out your inner road rage. You're missing the point if you don't realize this.
Fans of Criterion's previous games were clear in what they wanted, and in turn, Criterion themselves were clear in what they were making. There are some scrapes with single-player and a lack of polish here and there, but the multiplayer delivers in such a big way that all of this hardly matters. Need for Speed Most Wanted is that big, crazy, crash-y open-world racer you've been asking for.