Review by BloodGod65

"A sequel in name only"

Most Wanted. For racing fans, those two words conjure memories of racers battling police on the winding back roads of an autumnal city. It also brings back memories of a time before EA Black Box took Need for Speed and let yearly iterations ruin it. It was, in a very real sense, the last hurrah for a beloved series, a final moment of glory before its rapid descent into mediocrity.

Fast forward seven years. After releasing a critically and commercially acclaimed reboot of Hot Pursuit, EA hands over total control of the Need for Speed brand to Criterion. For their follow up act, Criterion once again aims to revive a classic. But this time they stray from the things that made the original so great and ultimately ruin the reputation of Most Wanted.

Criterion's revival, like the game that inspired it, tasks players with ascending a list of the most notorious street racers in the city. Like the original, you'll have to increase your reputation enough to attract the attention of each list member while avoiding the notice of the police. Beyond that, Criterion's game is an altogether different animal than the original.

But that's not a fair comparison. In reality, Most Wanted is unlike any other arcade racer that has come before it. The game breaks with convention in several areas. While this makes the game revolutionary in a sense, the changes don't appreciably advance the genre as a whole. Although many of the changes are sound in theory, in practice they create issues where there were none before.

From the start, Most Wanted faces the insurmountable task of overcoming its underwhelming career structure. Though both the original and the remake require players to advance through a list of street racers, the list itself serves two markedly different purposes. In the original, it was a method of progression. By defeating a list member, you unlocked new cars, parts, and more races.

In Criterion's version, the list is nothing more than a set of point totals for the player to work towards. Even though I was never a fan of the story in the original game, it did at least give the player a reason for wanting to ascend the black list. The story - and its accompanying list of names and faces – not only made the task at hand seem real, it also gave the player a reason to fight for that next spot on the list. That's not the case here. The list just shows how many points the player needs to accumulate to get to the next level. When you hit that point total, a new race becomes available and the next racer can be challenged for the right to drive their car.

But even unlocking new cars doesn't create any real sense of purpose because Most Wanted treats cars as disposable commodities. Rather than forcing players to choose which cars to buy and which ones to ignore, Criterion makes the entire car list available. Every car is strewn throughout the city, waiting to be discovered. Find one and it will remain there, available whenever you want it. There are no goals to complete, no special requirements to fulfill; every car in the game is available from the moment you start playing. All you have to do is find them.

While it sounds like an invigorating departure from the norm, this single design conceit introduces a whole slew of problems. Not only does it destroy all sense of pacing and progression, but it also ruins the excitement that comes from defeating a list member and gaining their car. Although this encourages exploration, it just doesn't make up for that sense of conquest that came from felling someone on the black list and unlocking new vehicles, or the bond that came from using a single vehicle for an extended period of time.

Since I'm already on the subject of cars, it bears saying that the car list is rather unremarkable. There are around forty cars, and the list spans the relatively low end of the spectrum to high-end exotics. Owing to the fact that you can drive any of these cars from the beginning of the game, much of the car list is redundant by default. Who wants to drive a Dodge Challenger or Subaru Impreza when you can have a Lamborghini Gallardo or SRT Viper? Nobody, I suspect. And some of the inclusions are downright bizarre. A Ford pickup truck? A Bentley convertible? A Lancia Delta? Why? I appreciate Criterion's willingness to veer away from the norm, especially in regards to the inclusion of street legal go-karts in the form of Ariel and Caterham, but it seems like a waste to use space on silly entries when they could have easily put in more super cars and exotics.

What makes the game more frustrating is that the career structure makes it obvious Criterion realized what a massive mistake they had made. In other arcade racing games, players are free to choose a car and complete as many events as they please. Not here. Each car has a mere five events tied to it. Each event unlocks performance parts and awards points that go towards unlocking the next racer on the list. But when all five events are completed, the car is basically useless in progressing through the career any further. And without events, it is impossible to gain the points needed to progress. You are forced to switch to another car and start over from scratch. With this being the case, it's astounding that Criterion reuses many of the races between cars. Expect to complete the exact same event numerous times over the course of the game.

If there's one good thing I can say about Most Wanted, it is that Criterion has resolved the handling issues from Hot Pursuit. The handling is still heavier than the hockey puck on ice feel of Burnout, but cars are easier to control this time. They no longer feel like trains hurtling along a track. Now the vehicle physics are balanced between weight and agility, allowing them to be driven hard without getting twitchy like the handling in traditional Burnout games.

The revised handling is useful because you can still even the odds by smashing the competition. Smashing opponents into walls is still a satisfying way of taking the lead in a race. However, the crashes and wrecks of Most Wanted pale in comparison to anything the company has done in the past. Quite frankly, they're terrible. I suspect this is due in large part to the usage of real world vehicles.

Obviously, manufacturers don't want to see their cars break apart like a cheap Chinese wristwatch when they hit a wall (apparently, they think gamers are too stupid to know the difference between entertainment and reality). The wrecks pale in comparison to those in Burnout Paradise (released five years ago). Crashes just lack that bombastic visceral feel that Criterion used to do so well. Windshields crack and spider-web, lights shatter, paint scratches, hoods crumple, but that's all. Forget seeing a car transformed into a twisted wreck; it just doesn't happen.

I get the feeling that this has nothing to do with what Criterion wanted. No doubt they would have crashed and smashed with the same wild abandon that they always have, if they had been allowed. No, more likely it's the manufacturers who are to blame here. But rather than retain some sense of artistic integrity and cut the feature entirely (because, let's face it, crashing has never been a real part of Need for Speed) they just left it in as a crippled, sorry shadow of its former glory.

If I'm being honest, the previous statement sums up the game as a whole. All those elements that should be identifiably “Most Wanted” have been reworked, stretched, and distorted to the point that, were it not for the name emblazoned on the cover, I wouldn't recognize this as the successor to a game I absolutely loved.

To make matters worse, Criterion's Most Wanted suffers from the worst case of identity crisis I've ever seen in a game. It's like a child torn between two parents in a bitter divorce; neither side wants to give an inch and the one that suffers is the kid. But then, perhaps it's just self doubt or unclear design ambitions. Maybe Criterion didn't know whose game they were making. The entire time I was playing I found myself struggling to decide if I was playing Need for Speed or Burnout.

Frankly, I'm not sure how to call it. Many elements have been taken directly from Burnout Paradise and transplanted into Most Wanted. You can smash security gates and billboards. When you unlock a special car, you must crash it before you can drive it. Then you've got the elements taken from Need for Speed, such as licensed cars, heavier vehicle physics, and police. The crazed way the disparate elements come together – which is more of a gruesome collision than an elegant interweaving of parts – favors Burnout and as a result, the identity of Need for Speed suffers. In the end, the game feels fundamentally conflicted because each side of the equation is recognizable but unable to shine through because of the other.

And don't think I've forgotten about the police. I've purposely saved this element for last, for the simple reason that it is the single most important aspect of the game, and, as a result of its mediocrity, the most disappointing.

The police chases could have been – should have been – Most Wanted's piece de resistance. Instead, they are a reminder of just what a woeful job Criterion did in remaking Most Wanted. Though the cops are more numerous and tenacious than ever, the police chases fall flat. This is mainly because you are defenseless against them. You have no weapons, other than your wits, with which to do battle. There are no environmental weapons, such as the ones from the original game, to help you escape. And for some reason, running police off the road or even smashing into them usually fails to produce the desired result. You're just forced to drive around as fast as possible and hope you can shake them off long enough to escape. It's a bit like being a rabbit chased by a pack of angry wolves.

As much as I despise the police chases, they are a non-issue because they have been turned into a Carbon-styled sideshow. The original Most Wanted made you do battle with the police in order to progress through the game. Here, they are rarely even around. Given the aforementioned issues with the police in general, I'm not sure if this is a good or a bad thing. But for a game named “Need for Speed: Most Wanted” I know that the police chases should have been the main attraction.

At this point, no amount of technical wizardry can salvage this wreck, but hey, at least Most Wanted looks nice. Not great, mind you, but nice. The city design is slick, with plenty of varied zones and even a nice mountainous region. Some of the textures and designs are a bit bland, but the road itself looks stunningly realistic. On the other hand, however, I hate how intense the light bloom is in the game and how Criterion decided to have random text spring up in the dead center of the screen while you're racing, obscuring visibility at the worst possible times. Way to use your heads, guys.

And speaking of random annoyances, let's talk about audio! Okay, some of it is pretty good. The engine noises are quite nice, especially the big rumbling V8s. But the sounds the cars make when they shift are absolutely awful. All of the cars sound as though their gear boxes are filled with huge chunks of gravel that crash together when the vehicle shifts. But even that is preferable to the terrible soundtrack Criterion has assembled.

Granted, music is subjective, but this eclectic selection of hipster noise is catering to an audience that is more likely to be hanging out in some pretentious, trendy bar or molding their ridiculous facial hair and tooling around in their new hybrid eco-box than playing a racing game. This is the first time I have ever muted the music in a game. Criterion; learn your audience.

Police dialog is actually pretty good, albeit quite repetitive. They call out codes and forecast their plans to take you off the road, ensuring you are prepared for what lies ahead as long as you're paying attention. But expect to hear them realize you “aren't just a joyrider” several times over the course of a single pursuit.

Criterion's Most Wanted takes many of arcade racing's conventions and turns them upside down. The result is unique, but in no way superior to its predecessors. It is a simple romp through tired racing territory that tries to recapture the majesty of Paradise, and generally fails to meet to the high bar Criterion set for itself. This doesn't even feel like a real successor to the original Most Wanted.

Seeing how Criterion rejuvenated the brand with Hot Pursuit, I came into Most Wanted with high hopes. I left disappointed. Criterion hasn't make a successor to Most Wanted; they've created a tiresome, inconsequential, and unremarkable title that is unlikely to be remembered by the time the next Need for Speed hits shelves.

Reviewer's Rating:   2.5 - Playable

Originally Posted: 01/22/13, Updated 02/25/13

Game Release: Need for Speed: Most Wanted (US, 10/30/12)

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