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Those of you familiar with racing games will know the name Criterion to be one of the most admired in the genre. It’s a word uttered with the utmost respect, as Criterion were the studio that brought us Burnout Paradise, and Burnout Paradise was good. Recently, though, they’ve  been tiptoeing through the tulips with EA, trying their luck with possibly the world’s biggest racing franchise, Need For Speed. After the impressive Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit, Criterion have taken the reins on the reboot of 2005’s Most Wanted, which itself is wholly responsible for my love of racing games.

Most Wanted is a game that never wants you to take your finger off the accelerator. Everything, including navigating the menus and the map, can be done while you’re still driving. It’s a nice idea, but trying to use the D-Pad and the left analog stick simultaneously often ends in loud swearing. Even if your car takes a beating, just drive it through any of the garages scattered around the open world city of Fairhaven and it’ll be spick and span without having to slow down.

There's a great range of cars available, including the iconic Caterham Superlight R500

There’s a great range of cars available, including the iconic Caterham Superlight R500

As expected, Most Wanted feels very much like a Criterion game, rather than a true NFS game. Wrecks have their trademark epic slow motion section, in which your car’s collision is replayed in full destructive glory. The actual driving itself is just as smooth as it’s ever been in a street racer, if a little simplistic. A hardcore racing fan who’s into the likes of Forza and Gran Turismo might be sorely disappointed, but it does what it has to do. Disappointing is the lack of any manual option, with all cars locked to fully automatic. In a game that’s so reliant on swift acceleration, this is a thorn in the side of serious competition in Most Wanted.

The most significant talking point in Most Wanted is the way with which cars are unlocked. Unlike in any game before it (that I can think of), every car in the game is available right from the start. All you have to do is find it in Fairhaven, where it will have a conspicuous badge floating over the roof. After finding the car once, you’ll be able to instantly teleport to it at any point in the game. From there, you can take on three car-specific events–circuit races, sprint races, and speed runs–to unlock customization options, extending as far as tyre type and suspension.

This instant access to every car, however, prevents any significant feeling of progression. Those of you who are okay with jumping straight into the action won’t mind this, but I like that feeling. After spending hours working your way up from a crappy Lancia, finally jumping into your first Lamborghini is pure bliss.

Driving is still an absolute joy, a great balance between arcade and simulation.

Driving is still an absolute joy, a great balance between arcade and simulation.

Aesthetic customisation ends at cars randomly changing colour as they drive through a garage, abandoning a large part of what made 2005’s Most Wanted fun. While the lack of personalisation ensures that your finger rarely comes off the accelerator, it prevents you from becoming attached to a car–the threat of having your favourite ride impounded was one of the main motivations for evading the cops in 2005. Here, there’s not really much penalty for being caught.

That’s where my other main gripe comes in–the police are horrendously under-powered. You can forget being caught before the helicopters come into play, even in one of the slower cars. There’s no threat to them. Even if they manage to total you in a roadblock, all that happens is you see a nice slo-mo crash video, and you’re put in a fresh car, free to continue on your escapades. You don’t actually get caught! To get “busted”, you need to be essentially surrounded by cop cars for a seemingly endless amount of time. Your car got totalled? That’s fine, just reverse and drive off, no harm done. I mean, there’s easy, and then there’s this. If you get totalled in a pursuit, that should be it. No second chances. No third chances. No fourth… you get it.

The plot is similar to that of 2005’s Most Wanted–you compete in street competitions to earn points and progress up the “Blacklist”, which is a list of the ten most wanted cars in Fairhaven, parallel to the Most Wanted List in its predecessor. This time around, the Blacklist is made up of just cars, as though the driver of the car is irrelevant. In fact, there’s no mention of humans at any point in the game, which gives the entire city of Fairhaven a strange, unintentional post-apocalyptic feel. I dunno, maybe it’s just me.

There just aren't any people at all. Why?

There just aren’t any people at all. Why?

There’s just one thing I think I’m still a little unsure of, even after having played MW–is this a remake, a reboot, or what? If it’s intended to be a remake of its 2005 predecessor, it leaves out far too much for it to even be mentioned in the same sentence. The NFS franchise has been around for a long time now, and yet with every release it’s becoming more and more like Burnout, to the point where MW might as well have been called Burnout: Most Wanted.

Most Wanted also sees the inclusion of Criterion’s Autolog feature, as was introduced in Hot Pursuit. Your fastest time for an event will be compared with those on your friend list. This has the same effect on one’s competitive nature as it did in Hot Pursuit–you won’t rest until you see your handle back atop the leaderboard. Yet again, Autolog ensures that I’ll continue playing Most Wanted well after I get bored of it due to its lack of actual progression.

I’m not on board with every new idea that Criterion have brought onto the Need for Speed table here–that said, I’m not sure I ever could be, considering the sheer number of fond memories I have of the original Most Wanted. The way I see it, the total lack of customization is a criminal offence, but it’s still a pleasure to drive around the streets of Fairhaven, regardless of the car you’re in. Need for Speed: Most Wanted is a good, high quality open-world racing game. It’s not great, but it’s still fun, and at least it’s showing signs of innovation in a genre some might say is stagnating. I think I’ll go back to its predecessor though, if only for the cheesy cut-scenes.

7.2

Select Start Media was provided with a copy of Need for Speed: Most Wanted by EA Games. The platform it was reviewed on was the PS3.