REVIEW: On the blacklist.
Whatever happened to Need for Speed? Actually, don't answer that question, we all know full well what happened: the series got split up between different developers, all trying to bring something different to the license, with the ultimate result being a scrappy, messy stable of racers that doesn't always seen to know where the race is, let alone what vehicle to take to the event. Two years ago, Critereon had a stab at restoring the focus of the series with it's partially successful update of the classic Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit, but then EA Black Box churned out last year's disastrous The Run. But this year, Critereon are back in the drivers seat, and they're updating another classic NFS game - 2005's Most Wanted.
The game is set in the fictional city of Fairhaven, a fairly grimy place but one that has a pleasing range of narrows streets, country roads, wide interstates and all manner of off-road regions, including railways, multistory car parks and industrial sites. Its reminiscent of Critereon's work on Burnout Paradise, and indeed Fairhaven is a great setting for a would-be street racer. You're new to the town - aren't you always? - and have your sights set on becoming the most wanted street racer in town. That means earning enough cred to work your way up through the 10 drivers on most wanted list, challenging and taking down each one in turn.
Well, I say drivers, though in actual fact they're just cars. Most Wanted is strangely devoid of personalities - whilst the original game was full of overbearing stereotypes, at least all of the drivers had names and (admittedly bland) personalities. Here, each car on the list is just that; a car. The number 3 slot is a Bugatti Veyron Supersport, for example. Perhaps this is supposed to imply that the car itself is the personality, but when the only voice you'll ever hear in the game is the chatter of police radio, it does make the experience strangely empty.
Similarly strange is the bizarre way that Most wanted handles progression: There sort of isn't any. You don't ever earn any cash or own any cars- you just find them in the world, parked up with headlights on and doors unlocked in 'Jack spots,' and hop in. The car is then added to your stable. You can't actually customise the cars either - you can change it's paint colour by driving through a garage, but you're just given the next colour in sequence for your vehicle, and you can't add any decals, body kits, or upgrade any components either. What you can do, however, is earn 'mods' which can be applied to various parts of your vehicle. Somewhat amusingly, these can be hot-swapped whilst you're driving around; you can swap between off-road and track tyres as you race off the tarmac and onto a rough track, switch from short shift gears to improve acceleration to long gears as you reach a freeway to improve your top speed. It's frankly ludicrous, but hey, this is an arcade game after all.
That much is readily apparent in the game's handling model, which emphasises a drift-focussed, heavy steering setup; vehicles are not subtle or twitchy beasts - even the most lightweight cars struggle with gentle corners if you're not actively drifting. They all feel fairly similar, too, which is a bit of an oddment, especially when there are only 41 cars in the game anyway. The arcadey-ness is also evident in the lack of options you get: there are no driving assists to toggle on or off, no option for manual gears or even ability to change difficulty settings.
More than that, though, it's also apparent in the game's structure. As I've already said, there's no progression as such, only your races against the Most Wanted vehicles. In order to progress up the ladder, you need to earn Speed Points by winning racing, escaping the cops, and completing milestones in each vehicle (such as driving a certain distance, or drifting). The tricky part is, there's only 6 races available for each car, so in order to progress you need to change vehicles quite often to complete events. In addition, several of the events are shared between cars, so you'll find yourself repeating some of the same events a few times before you've managed to progress up the ladder. Most events are straightforward races - there's a mixture of circuit and point to point races, both of which can prove a bit frustrating due to the unforgiving handling and the fact that cars are apparently made of paper - pretty much the slightest contact with an object or civilian vehicle ends up with your vehicle wrecked, rolling and smashing to bits. It looks very impressive, sure, but it's really annoying when the sludgey handling results in you slightly clipping the tail of a civillian car and you're wrecked as a result. The only other event types are Speed Runs, which challenge you to maintain an average speed over the course of a point-to-point drive. These, again, prove equally frustrating, as a single crash can ruin your chances of getting anything higher than a bronze medal in the event.
If the racing feels a little stunted on options, then the series' signature police chases are even worse. Most of the assets that cops had available to them in previous Need for Speed titles have been removed; the Fairhaven Police only seem to have a couple of varieties of Police car, some heavier Police SUVs, the ability to create half-hearted roadblocks, and the annoying habit of deploying spike strips when you're right behind a cop car (Fortunately, if you've unlocked Reinflating Tyres you can just swap to those, restore your tyres, and carry on). Amazingly, police cars can outpace any vehicle you happen to be driving - it's quite amazing to watch a Fairhaven police saloon outpacing that Veyron Supersport burning nitrous at top speed on the interstate, but there you go. You still have a Wanted level, that increases (and eventually levels up) the longer you're chased by the cops, and decreases when you're hidden, but it doesn't seem to make much difference to how much effort the police force put in to catching you - you might get a few more roadblocks or some heavier SUVs, but that's about it. There's no sign of any of Hot Pursuit's quirky Police weapons, and not a helicopter pursuit in sight - bizarre given that helicopters were a feature in the 2005 Most Wanted. Worst of all, though, is that there's not actually any penalty for being busted. Sure, if you escape the cops you'll earn a handful of Speed Points, but the payoff is significantly less than you'd get from a race which would probably be over quicker. Since you can't start any events or quick travel around the city when you're in a pursuit, it's often a better option to just pull over, let yourself get busted, and drive off later than putting in the effort to evade the cops.
Most Wanted does at least look great; the 41 vehicles are exquisitely rendered and the damage modelling is particularly impressive, with smashing windows, panelling and body kits falling off and flapping about, and so on. The city of Fairhaven is equally well detailed; it's a bit of a grim-looking place with perenially overcast skies and plenty of industrial grime, but it has pretty solid character. There's some wonderful lighting effects, too, with heavy use of lens flare that looks really stylish, if a little distracting at times. The only downside is that the framerate on the PC version is oddly unstable; console versions run at a smooth, pretty locked 30fps, but the PC version - which does have quite a few graphical options to toggle, in a welcome turn - can struggle in some parts of the city. There's no real dialogue to speak of - just the chatter of Police radio that will be familiar to NFS players anyway - though I'd reccomend turning the game's soundtrack off as quickly as possible; rarely has a selection (of often decent music) felt so out-of-place in a game, and you'd be far better served by either putting on some music of your own or just settling for the meaty roar's of the engines of the vehicles in the game.
Where the game does find a bit more of it's appeal is in multiplayer, both asynchronous (through the Autolog system that tracks the progress of friends and rivals, offering up challenges based on what your buddies have been doing) and traditional online multiplayer. Autolog proves a great draw - it's always nice to beat your friends - and provides more incetive to set faster times, smash billboards, and set high speeds through speed traps. Of course, your mileage will vary depending on how many of your friends also have Need for Speed Most Wanted, but if you and a few buddies take on the game together, you'll all be in for a much more enjoyable time. Online multiplayer races are a real treat; easy to set up and participate in, and there's a subtle but effective catchup system to ensure that races are always close and tense. It doesn't quite dispel the issues of the handling and paper vehicles, but it does make for a lot more entertainment.
Need for Speed: Most Wanted ultimately feels like a surpirsingly barebones experience. With no progression, customisation or vehicle ownership, there's little opportunity to feel any attachment to the game's small stable of cars, and the limited number of events available means you'll have to chop and change vehicles a lot anyway. The sludgy handling proves more frustrating than fun, and the lacklustre police pursuits don't give the same tense chase feeling that they used to. Most of all, though, it's the complete lack of any kind of personality that really harms the game; Fairhaven, whilst well-designed, is lifeless, as are the nameless racers that supposedly make up the Most Wanted list. By the time you reach the top, you'll be long past caring, and it's only the draw of multiplayer and beating records set by your friends that will give the game any lasting place in your console or PC.