Video Game Review: ‘Need For Speed: Most Wanted’ Plays Like J.J. Abrams Film

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CHICAGO – I am not (by any means) what you’d call a gear-head. I’m the guy who skips through the car reviews on “Top Gear” to get to the challenges, I’ve changed oil twice in my life, and my current sick ride is a 2001 Chevy Lumina with a bum tail light. That said, I do typically appreciate - if not thoroughly enjoy - racing games. The problem: With the prevalence of open-world GTA-style games occupying lots of shelf space at my local gamestop, I’d rather opt for a “Sleeping Dogs” or a “Saints Row 2” to get my racing fix alongside some other sort of gameplay mechanic or six.

HollywoodChicago.com Video Game Rating: 3.5/5.0
Video Game Rating: 3.5/5.0

As a result, it’s rare that a game focused exclusively on racing warrants a purchase in my eyes. So far, there’s only been two during my time as an avid gamer: “Burnout 3” and “Burnout Paradise.” Those games warranted purchases because they did two things better than any other game on the market at the time: Unbridled speed and glorious destruction. The “Burnout” games nailed a sense of sweltering, barely containable speed, where every corner and fork in the road could spell triumphant victory or telegraph crushing defeat - made all the more exciting by an awe-inspiring destruction engine that allowed cars and trucks to smash, explode, and contort in a nearly infinite amount of ways.

It was a spectacle worthy of a purchase and they remain two of my favorite games of all time.

Which brings us to “Need For Speed: Most Wanted,” developed by the same folks who gave us the brutal glory of the “Burnout” series. Some things are the same: The developer (Criterion Games), the open world dynamic (from “Burnout: Paradise”), and still no Ad-hoc multiplayer mode (come on, guys!). Some things are different: The graphics are shiny and new, eeking out all sorts of bells and whistles from the Xbox, all cars are unlocked right away (you just need to find them on the map), and there are actually licensed cars this time around.

Need For Speed: Most Wanted
Need For Speed: Most Wanted
Photo credit: EA

Wait. Licensed cars? No. No. No. No. No. No no no no no no no no no no no. I don’t know a *lot* about racing games, but I do know that car manufacturers are sorta, well, uptight about letting their cars be ripped apart at the seams in glorious slow-motion following brutal collisions. This does not bode well for that whole “glorious destruction” thing I liked so much.

Need For Speed: Most Wanted
Need For Speed: Most Wanted
Photo credit: EA

Alas, my fears are confirmed. The awesome, incredible, “Hey Dad look at this!” insanity of the “Burnout” games is missing from “Need For Speed: Most Wanted.” Sure, cars still wreck in slow-mo, but the worst you’ll see is a busted fender or bumper. It’s a sad day for casual race fans. Your favorite franchise has been homogenized.

After a brief glancing at message boards and articles on the game, I was told that, while disappointing, the absence of destruction would not be missed, as “Need For Speed: Most Wanted” is a deep game with incredible online integration…which is mostly true.

The online features are…mixed. There’s a big focus on multiplayer and online connectivity this time around; racing with friends and climbing leaderboards are a feature attraction of “Need For Speed: Most Wanted,” with tons of options and modes, and playlists in which to tool around. After signing into a multiplayer session you’re dropped into a free-roam mode of sorts and can customize your car, license plate, and some other options, before being directed to a meet-up spot somewhere on the map in the gloriously rendered Fairhaven city. From there, the event will start - whether it be a team race, drifting contest, take-down challenge, or a few other available permutations (largely based on car-class). The whole thing is pretty chaotic, and it doesn’t even tell you which way to face at the start of a race, most of the time.

It’s kind of a hassle to be honest. Don’t get me wrong, I love the concept of the open world and being directed to specific locations on the map to engage in them, but it’s all so messy and doesn’t really lend itself to competitive balance. I’ll spend several minutes driving to a meet up point, only to find out it’s a stupid drifting challenge that’s ultimately annoying and/or boring, then be told to drive to *another* spot on the map to participate in the next race. It kind of throws the putzing around to actual competitive racing ratio out of balance, and as a result I’m far more compelled to play offline, where the results are a bit less frustrating.

Need For Speed: Most Wanted
Need For Speed: Most Wanted
Photo credit: EA

Both online and off, you can earn various upgrades and mods for your cars, including nitrous, better breaks, lighter chassis, and some other items to make your fly whip a bit more, uh, whippier. The problem is that the upgrades don’t transfer from offline mode to online mode. If, like me, you found yourself engaged in the single player mode for several hours before even sniffing the multiplayer, then decide to dive in, you kind of have to start all over again. It’s a pain. In a perfect world, the multiplayer and singleplayer would merge seamlessly, allowing opponents to drop in on single player races and the like. Instead the game is broken in two halves, and because of it, neither side feels like a whole.

The single player isn’t bad, either. You’re given dozens of cars and dozens of races - which seems great, but those races are divided amongst specific cars, thus giving each car roughly 5-7 races to complete. By the time you finish tricking out your ride, well, there’s nothing to do with it. If the upgrades transferred between single and multiplayer, then, well, suddenly you have a reason to dive into both play modes and assert your dominance online.

The main focus of singleplayer is a series of 10 “Most Wanted” races, hardcore 1-on-1 races that span the length of Fairhaven. If you win the race, you’re given the chance to chase down and take down the car - and the ability to use the “Most Wanted” car in the single player game. This is some exciting stuff, too. It’s thrilling to be on hot on the tail of a Shelby Cobra, as the cops chase after both of you, while you twist and turn and crash through the city, sparks and lens flare and debris assaulting your senses. Unfortunately, there’s a limited number of these set-piece style events, and with each win, you feel yourself ever closer to being completely finished with the single player campaign - which is a bummer.

Need For Speed: Most Wanted
Need For Speed: Most Wanted
Photo credit: EA

On the bright side, the sense of speed is present and accounted for. The graphics, when not disappointing you via lame crashes, are pretty incredible. There are lens flares, sparks flying, dust, debris, dirt, junk, all flying around the screen with very little noticeable slow-down or texture pop in. It kind of feels like a J.J. Abrams movie - bright, exciting, and epileptics should probably steer clear. It’s really quite the technical marvel and it’s bizarre to say, but every time I played the game, it felt like the perfect day for a race.

My only complaints on the graphical side of things come from how relatively unobtrusive race markers and checkpoints are during the game. I’ve blown by race markers, or found myself fiendishly looking for where I’m supposed to go, because the game - which is filled with flare, and grandeur and excitement - chose a subdued aesthetic approach to checkpoints. Literally it’s a single white line protruding into the air, with the word checkpoint resting on top. Against the bright blue sky with white clouds, it’s very easy to miss during the heat of a race.

The handling is a bit more stiff this time around, and you *will* need to break around most corners if you’re trying not to smash into a guardrail, but it’s arcadey enough where you can still have success without being the world’s best (Tokyo) drifter. You can still draft behind cars to gain speed and nitrous, and you can still take down cars by smashing them into guardrails or pushing them into oncoming traffic to satisfy your secret malevolent yearnings.

Need For Speed: Most Wanted
Need For Speed: Most Wanted
Photo credit: EA

The game’s objectives are almost exclusively controlled through an easy-nav system, which allows you to set way-points to races, customize your car (and license plate) and access various online and offline features of the game. It’s a good idea in theory, but in practice it can be sort of…irksome. It’s controlled exclusively through the XBOX 360’s D-Pad, which is sort of loose to begin with - but do a servicable job or directing you from point A to point B without the need of the start menu.

Ultimately, I came away from “Need For Speed: Most Wanted” annoyed at the things I wanted in the game being missing and the things that were in the game being things I didn’t want. Its biggest failing is that it’s not “Burnout: Paradise,” a game that came out eons ago in console terms. If you’re a hardcore race fan, you absolutely need to play this game. It’s fast and frantic and exciting and pulse pounding and even better if you have friends to play it against online (I didn’t). If you’re a die-hard “Burnout” fan, well, be aware things are different this time around, and not always for the better.

“Need For Speed: Most Wanted” was developed by Criterion and released by EA on October 30, 2012. The version reviewed was for the Xbox 360 but the title is also available for PS3, PlayStation Vita, and PC.

By Paul Meekin
Staff Writer
HollywoodChicago.com

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