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'Need for Speed: Most Wanted' review (Xbox 360): Petrolhead Paradise

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Released on Tuesday, Oct 30 2012

Need for Speed: Most Wanted images

© EA


Release Date: November 2 (Europe), October 30 (North America)
Platforms available on: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC
Developer: Criterion Games
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Genre: Open-world driving

Need for Speed: Most Wanted is technically a reimagining of 2005's original of the same name, but the title should realistically be viewed as the spiritual successor to the much-loved Burnout Paradise. The same studio that handled Burnout Paradise, Guildford-based Criterion Games, is behind the new game, and rather a good job it has done too.

Need for Speed: Most Wanted images
Criterion has created a totally open world where you are free right from the outset to indulge your petrol-fuelled pleasures. Drive the races, take on the social challenges powered by the Autolog system (which returns from Criterion's Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit) or just annoy the cops; it really is up to you.

The lack of overall structure in the game may put off some players, and the multiplayer is chaotic and confusing at first, but Need for Speed: Most Wanted offers a depth and breadth of content that gobbles up the gaming hours just as easily as Burnout Paradise.

Need for Speed: Most Wanted's big new idea is that no car should be blocked from the user right from the outset. After first jumping into the game, you drive around the city and if you see a tempting vehicle with an icon floating above it, you can just take it. This means you can be driving a Ford GT, Porsche 911 or Lamborghini Countach in minutes, rather than laboriously climbing through the rankings via 'lesser' vehicles.

Need for Speed: Most Wanted images
In fact, Criterion's open-world racer pretty much strips away all the structure. Unlike the recent and well-received Forza Horizon, Need for Speed: Most Wanted does not have a story or characters. You become just a faceless guy wearing a helmet, and no one gives a monkeys why you are in Fairhaven, a location that's a mix of various American cities acting as the game world.

Compared to Forza Horizon, the absence of an ill-judged narrative is a plus in Need for Speed: Most Wanted. All you do is drive, and drive fast. Instead there is a loose objective involving players taking down all the premium 'Most Wanted' cars in the city, and so becoming the most notorious driver. These are fun mini-boss battles against premium cars, involving a straight race with the cops in pursuit, and then hunting down the opponent to take their vehicle.



It is a bit disappointing that the vehicles you win are often not much better than the cars you already have, reducing the sense of achievement. But 'Most Wanted' is only a small section of the challenge in the game. Realistically, you will spend most of your time just hurtling around in ridiculous cars, surviving unbelievable smashes and generally upsetting the law.

At the core of the game is the Easy Drive system, a drop-down menu in the top left-hand corner of the screen that triggers races and challenges, as well as manages the upgrade and garage systems on the fly. (This is also controllable with voice commands on Xbox Kinect.) Every car has different race progressions, but knitting the whole experience together is Speed Points - essentially experience points.

Need for Speed: Most Wanted images
You must earn points to rise up the leaderboards, access new 'Most Wanted' missions and earn upgrades for your cars. But pretty much everything earns you SP, including smashing up the city or surviving police chases. One of the biggest triumphs in Need for Speed: Most Wanted is how Criterion has made the sense of challenge feel both social and within every player's reach.

After its successful inclusion in Hot Pursuit and The Run, the Autolog system makes a return. Whilst in the previous games only times were compared between you and your online friends, Autolog 2.0 compares everything. Your speed is logged as you zoom past speed cameras, and then compared with friends on leaderboards. If you smash through a billboard and get the longest jump, your face will be immortalised on the poster until someone breaks your record.

Pretty much everything that happens in the game sees you slapped on a leaderboard of some kind, and this inflames the competitive itch and makes the game feel dynamic. But rather than conjuring lofty leaderboards featuring unattainable scores, you are always compared with the people around you of a similar skill level. If you are the best, you will be compared to the best, but otherwise it is about making achievement feel within reach.

If your friend sets a new record Mph on a speed camera, you want to beat it. If they last longer in a pursuit with the cops, you want to eclipse them. Indeed, some of the greatest fun we had in Most Wanted involved getting our Police Wanted level up to the maximum six, and then evading the SUVs, spike strips and road blocks to get away scot free. Simple, yet effective.


Compared to recent release Forza Horizon, vehicle handling is a lot more forgiving. Whilst truly refining the drifting and boost controls takes time, the game is a much less technical racer and so true driving nuts may find themselves wanting more, and the upgrade system isn't as deep, either. To compare with other open-world games, Need for Speed: Most Wanted offers the open care-free approach of Grand Theft Auto, while Forza Horizon's tuning and careful consideration are more akin to the likes of Fallout.

The single-player campaign feels like multiplayer because the social challenge is so closely integrated. But some players may find the game lacks a bit of structure. There is no real breadcrumb trail in the solo campaign, and if you do not have a big online community around you then the game might feel a bit empty. But most people will find that they are engaged and always wanting more.

Need for Speed: Most Wanted images
There is also the opportunity to play with other gamers, but here the lack of structure really shows. You enter the multiplayer through 'Easy Drive', which puts you in a different car but in the same world along with other free-roaming players. Instead of choosing a specific mode, the system just selects options at random and then calls all the players to a Meeting Point for the start.

The modes themselves are actually quite fun, including team races and a challenge involving you attempting to park in an elevated spot for as long as possible without being smashed off by other players. But the problem is that none of this is explained very well. Criterion has left it up to players to work everything out for themselves and while there is value in persevering, some people might not stick around that long.

Modes can often descend into chaotic messes of everyone smashing into everyone else. Plus, there is a lot of, 'Oh, so that's what we're supposed to be doing?' in the multiplayer. There is no problem with encouraging people to work things out for themselves, but a quick optional overview would not have hurt.

Criterion has wisely side-stepped the pitfalls of last year's Need for Speed: The Run by shunning some insipid story and instead offering a truly open and free world for indulging petrol-fuelled fantasies. The single-player game lacks a bit of structure and the multiplayer is certainly chaotic at first, but the game excels in providing socially connected racing that gets under the skin. Some players racked up more than 500 hours in Burnout Paradise; don't be surprised if some do the same in Need for Speed: Most Wanted.

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