Hands-on: Need for Speed: Most Wanted

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Developer: Criterion Games
Publisher: EA
Platforms: PC, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PlayStation Vita, iOS, Android
Version tested: PlayStation 3

Helmed by UK dev Criterion GamesNFS: MW feels more like a mix of Burnout and Need for Speed than 2010′s Hot Pursuit reboot ever did, with its urban locale and even ‘Wrecked’ crash cams. We sat down with the with the PlayStation 3 version of the game at the Eurogamer Expo in London last week for some hands-on time.

Just so you’re not under any illusions, Criterion GamesMost Wanted bares little resemblance to 2005′s game of the same name, other than its open world setup and focus on attaining that titular most wanted tag. It’s more of a spiritual successor than a remake or a sequel.

Gone are the masses of visual customisation, modding options and street racing culture, in its place are stock supercars and exotics. Gone is the hip-hop/nu-metal soundtrack, in its place a fusion of drum & bass, dance, electro and, most likely, the flavour of the month, dubstep. Gone is the coastal town of Rockport, in its place is an entirely new locale known as Fairhaven City. Safe to say, then, that like Hot Pursuit, Most Wanted is most definitely its own game. But is it a good one?

We played a series of 4-player online game modes, each accessible through the game’s open world. Each player would start at a random point on the map and drive to a rendezvous spot to start the event. First up was Speedtrap. In this mode, a speed camera was placed on one of the map’s longer straights with the aim of driving past it as fast as possible within the allocated time. It’s worth noting that the single fastest speed is what matters here, not a speed total. In this instance, it was 147mph, set by yours truly.

Our good friend Chris Kerr from gamrReview came in dead last, though in his defence, he was driving an Audi A1 whilst I swanned round in one of the game’s cover cars – a Porsche 911 Carrera S. Luck of the draw, I guess. This mode was fun enough, if not a little basic; as part of a series of events it’d be fine, but I can’t see many people opting to play this as a fully-fledged game mode.

Next on the agenda was a straight-up, point-to-point race, and this is where the game sets itself apart from Black Box’s game; like in Burnout Paradise, rather than sticking to a set route, players can take pretty much any path they fancy through the city, alluding to that Criterion influence. At slower speeds, the game handles really well and handbrake turns in particular are joyously satisfying to execute.

Now, I’d imagine that controlling a car at 170mph is actually quite difficult, but nevertheless, I feel I should mention that, for an arcade racer, Most Wanted doesn’t feel quite as it should when you’re hitting those top speeds. It’s not quite as bad as the tank-like controls seen in Need for Speed: The Run, but it’s also not as responsive as, say, Underground 2. It’s not a deal breaker by any stretch of the imagination, but when so much of the game is focussed on high speeds and police pursuits, it may prove to be a bit of an annoyance as it did in the next mode: Jump.

The third and final game mode was a bit of a detour from traditional NFS fare. Unsurprisingly, the objective was to compete against your adversaries to achieve the longest jump distance in the allocated time. Disappointingly, you couldn’t wander off and find your own ramps; the game dictated that we all used the same freeway-crossing mound of dirt; it feels like Criterion are effectively offering you a huge playground in Fairhaven City, and then telling you that you’re only allowed to go on the swings.

As you can imagine, with four cars all attempting the jump at interfering times, there was more crashing going on than actual jumping. Whilst it’s true that Most Wanted is trying to push the social aspects of online gaming, we feel it would have been better for each player to gallivant off on their own for a while, and then perhaps meet back at a certain spot before the time ran out. Nevertheless, it proved to be an entertaining finale.

Even with its open world setup, the game looks absolutely gorgeous. It runs at 30fps on consoles which may disappoint some racing purists, but once you see it in motion, you’ll see why. Car models are impeccable and immaculately recreate their real-life counterparts as the glistening sun illuminates their every scratch and scrape. Environments are detailed and the cityscape looms high above with no jarring pop-in or texture loading. Cracks in the shimmering, wet road create a look of genuinely worn concrete as sparks and traffic cones fly across the street. A stylish and simplistic HUD rounds off a hugely impressive visual package; we must surely be reaching the performance threshold of these 6-year-old consoles, now.

Criterion’s free-roaming competitor, Forza Horizon, also made an appearance at the expo, but, bafflingly, Playground Games decided not to demonstrate their open world. Maybe, like NFS’s, it still needed a bit of work. Fairhaven City looks pretty enough, but it’s not exactly lively, and citizen AI was positively stupid and, at times, suicidal.

Despite a few niggling shortcomings, Criterion‘s latest take on the franchise looks set to be the best in many a moon.

Need for Speed: Most Wanted launches October 30th.

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Rating: 5.0/5 (2 votes cast)