Top positive review
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Go. Do. Enjoy.
on November 28, 2012
The venerable "Need For Speed" series has long been ill-defined: games such as the Road & Track sponsored original, Porsche Unleashed, and Shift have focused on driving simulation, whereas others, such as Hot Pursuit, High Stakes, and Most Wanted have eschewed realistic control for fast-paced cop-evading action. Enter "Need For Speed: Most Wanted - A Criterion Game." It's a reboot of a game that's hardly old enough to warrant a reboot - "Need For Speed Most Wanted" was released in 2005 to the acclaim of fans and critics alike. So how does Criterion's effort hold up?
For the sake of completeness, I'll briefly review the first Most Wanted here. It was an amalgamation of all things learned from both the Hot Pursuit series as well as the Underground series. Featuring a wildly varying roster of cars, from Mazdas all the way to Lamborghinis, as well as an incredibly deep pursuit mechanic (where the number of cops chasing you could rise above fifty - believe me, I've seen it), Most Wanted was the deepest NFS to date. Long lists of customization options could have you buiding, painting and repainting your car for hours, and a plethora of race modes gave ample opportunity to work your way up the Blacklist, a ranking of top competitors in this open-world racer. Set in the massive and bustling setting of Rockport city, the story was told through a series of hilariously badly-acted full-motion video sequences, which could easily be described as a wonderfully snide parody of the "Fast and the Furious" series. Altogether, Most Wanted was a very complete, very impressive, and very fun arcade action racer.
Then Criterion comes along to show us how it's done. And they do it, ironically, by removing many of the elements that make the first so great - car customization is limited to simple and invisible on-the-fly modifications, there's no story to speak of (except for the "goal" of defeating 10 Blacklist racers), and race types are limited to standard lap races, sprint races, and average speed races (which require the player to maintain a specific average speed through the course).
This Most Wanted dumps the player almost immediately into the gigantic, gorgeous city of Fairhaven in a snarling Aston Martin and tasks the player to find a Porsche Carrera S. Once the player has accomplished this, there's no more hand-holding. Criterion is extremely confident of the world they've created - and no wonder, since the inspiration from Burnout: Paradise is both obvious and invasive. It's a confident system: they simply want you to explore, and they know that fun is nearby, no matter where you are.
In fact, everything is nearby - including all but 10 of the vehicles in this game (which can be earned by defeating blacklist racers). Finding and unlocking a vehicle is as simple as driving up to parked one and jacking it. Every car, all 41 of them, can participate in five races, meaning that a total of 215 races are crammed into this game (including the blacklist races). This may seem like nothing more than an odd development decision, but it's truthfully revolutionary - I never want to play another racing game another way. It's as open-world as a racer gets - moreso than Most Wanted, and even moreso than Burnout: Paradise. Fortunately, the decision to point the driver in the correct direction during a race by a series of checkpoints has been implemented so finding one's way to the finish line is not as frustrating an endeavor as it was in Paradise.
Speaking of Paradise, if that world was heavenly, then Fairhaven is doubly so. It's massive, teeming with life, and chock full of all sorts of nooks and crannies to be explored. Many races even funnel the player through unusual routes throughout the city to keep races interesting. And while Rockport may sport a few more roads, Fairhaven feels bigger. It's very easy to get lost wandering around the city, looking for billboards to smash, speed cameras to buzz by, security fences to run over, and police to antagonize.
All of this would be for naught if the controls were bad. Hats off to Criterion, this is the most delightfully well-controlled arcade racer ever. All the cars have a very profound sense of weight to them, which means that they all are subtly nuanced in their handling, much like a racing simulator. Cars drift with delicate use of the brakes, and too much can send cars into an uncontrollable tailspin. Crashing results in some pretty impressive damage done to these cars (more than I would expect a bunch of companies doling out expensive licenses to allow). But racing simulator this is not: reaching a blistering 170 miles per hour is akin to breaking the sound barrier. This is one fast game.
And the game keeps you going fast. The menu in this game is handled through an "Easy Drive" system which keeps you driving even while selecting a new race or adding a new unlocked part to your car. Repairing and repainting your car is as easy as breezing through a fuel station. All of this means more time spent doing what Criterion wants you to do. Drive. This game maximizes the players time: why spend time ruining your Porsche with 22" rims (like in Most Wanted 2005) when you could be out soaring for 300 yards over a suspension bridge just for the heck of it?
There are issues, however. I should note that I have at least once encountered a 5-10 second freeze related to a Most Wanted car not loading properly, but it's hardly a game-changing problem. What might be a game-changing problem for some, however, is difficulty: if you want to do all there is to do in this game, prepare for quite a fight. Some races can be hard. "F-Zero" hard. I think the difficulty is a plus rather than a minus, but to use a tired car-related adage, your mileage may vary.
Criterion's Most Wanted is a playground; it wants you to go, to do, and to enjoy. Everything is consequence free: a violent crash results in the immediate delivery of a shiny new model. If the police bust you, nothing happens except the loss of whatever speed points you might have earned if you successfully evaded them. The only humans that exist are merely seat-warmers for top-down convertibles. It encourages you to try anything and everything. And rather than having you commit to a single car for large portions of the game, it hopes you will enjoy all of them equally by splitting the challenges equally among them. It's a simple game - elegant, even - but it understands that complexity does not equate with innovation or, more importantly, fun. It only understands the joy of driving with the throttle wide open. Enjoy Need For Speed: Most Wanted - A Criterion Game.
Ten Point Scale: 9.5 out of 10.0
Genre: Action / Racing