Need for Speed: Most Wanted 2012 PC Review
For years now, EA has floated the Need for Speed brand on a particular style of action racing that throws out the realism and keeps in the fun, while at least giving the cars a weight and feel that's predictable and exciting. Nearly every car in every NFS game is fun to drive, even if simulation aspects were only really explored in the underappreciated Need for Speed SHIFT games from Slightly Mad Studios, but I can't fault EA for bringing Criterion in to help with what is possibly the most well-known name in video game racing period. This went fairly well with 2010's Hot Pursuit revival, which Criterion turned into nearly as much of a versus-style multiplayer deathmatch as an actual racing game. Alright, deathmatch might not be the right word - guns or explosions didn't come into it at all - but it did pit players against each other in an adversarial way with cops on one side, racers on the other, and lots of deployable powerups to go between. Now, they're back after two years to deliver Most Wanted, another revival of NFS history - this time they're going back to the 2005 original to draw inspiration and jack the name - to deliver a little more racing with high-speed chases with the police AI. The result is far from a sim and it's loud, flashy, and sometimes a little too in-your-face, but it certainly gets the job done.
The game is laid out in much the way of the original Most Wanted, which gained fame as one of the better launch titles for the Xbox 360 (although it was also released on other platforms). You're in a free-roaming city called Freeport trying to win illegal street races to get to the top of law enforcement's... you guessed it... Most Wanted list, and to do that you'll be crashing, smashing, and even doing a little bit of racing throughout the city to get to that goal. Unlocking cars is a matter of finding them in the city and, if you're on an Xbox controller, pressing the Y button to jump in them and start driving them immediately. (Am I stealing them? I'm even using the same button I'd use to carjack in Grand Theft Auto!)
Finish races in first or second place and you'll unlock video game-y upgrades for your cars. So no, you won't be tuning your Subaru STI with Vorshlag Camber Plates, but you'll get more generic stuff like specialized tires, reinforced bodies to resist your opponents' attempt to smash you (more on that later), or configurations for your nitrous to give you either a shorter, more potent boost or one that lasts longer but isn't quite as powerful. These upgrades aren't really what drive the game, though, and I have to say that the feel of each of these cars is generally averaged out a bit; for example, a Porsche Panamera doesn't feel terribly different than an Ariel Atom V8, which even if you just look at pictures of the two cars, it becomes apparently that the difference should be like night and day. On the downside, this means that the variety between all of the cars is a bit weak, but the advantage to this is that you can jump in just about any car for the first time and get around a race well enough without putting it into a wall every fifteen seconds.
I considered doing some testing with a Fanatec CSR steering wheel in this game, but once I spent five minutes in it, I knew that that would have been a mistake. Both on PC and on consoles, Most Wanted is geared for play with a controller, and its arcadey handling and ability to induce a powerful and completely stable drift simply by tapping the brake when going into a corner, well, that should tell you all you need to know about how realistic it was intended to be. It's still an absolute blast to play and the races are white-knuckle thrill rides at insane speeds, but we're not getting much in the way of realism here - just that same solid feel and consistency that has made Criterion's racing games over the last decade so successful. There's nothing wrong with that, but
And yes, this is a Criterion game, so while the massive crashes of Burnout aren't here, the ability to take opponents down by slamming them into walls most certainly is - you just won't see much worse than a bent fender or lost spoiler. Generally, your success in a single player race depends at least somewhat on your ability to take down at least one or two pesky opponents, especially considering that the AI has nitrous to use too, and they'll zoom by you at speeds far beyond what you'd expect if you let them do it. It's up to you to save some of your own nitrous and slam them into a wall either as they pass or when they slow down for the next corner. What I like about this system is not the implications it has for offline play, but what it has for online play, as it sort of makes the kind of aggressive, bumpin'-is-racin' play you get online in all but the most exclusive of online racing simulations something officially sanctioned. Now, it's part of the game and no one can complain about it; all you can do is get good at it. Be aware that the single player mode doesn't last terribly long, and while there are lots of small challenges and car unlocks littered throughout the city (and plenty of unique online-only events), those looking for a "career" mode might be disappointed.
Police chases were a big part of the original Most Wanted, and they have made their triumphant return this time as you can increase your wanted level by stringing along cops, taking them down, and busting through their roadblocks or avoiding spike strips. You can evade and end the pursuit by getting away from them and keeping them away in a decent-sized radius around you for long enough, but that's not terribly easy once the wanted level goes up since you'll have five to ten cops chasing you at some points, at least some of whom will surely be able to keep up with you. Instead, you'll have to trick them by busting out handbrake turns to lose a few, use traffic to block a couple more, and maybe take down a cop or two to start the evasion countdown. My very first police chase in the game happened after only just the second race, it lasted nearly half an hour, and I had three near-escapes before the cops eventually piled up so many cars around my Lamborghini that it simply couldn't move and I was busted. I didn't expect to have such an epic-length chase so early on, and I wasn't even upset at the end, because it was a blast! Police chases are really exciting in Most Wanted, and while they might sometimes be an unwelcome thing if you just want to complete a race and move onto the next - keep in mind that a police pursuit that starts during a race will continue after you complete it - you can always make a very quick escape and move on, or just purposely get busted and be back on the street with no real penalty.
Online, the police are basically turned off completely, and everyone's racing and competing on a (mostly) level playing field. Those who want to go up against player-controlled cops shoudl check out 20120's Hot Pursuit, as that's what that game's online play was mostly centered around. Here in Most Wanted, the developers do their best to keep players together and doing stuff constantly, so it'll have you do a little race to a meetup spot to start an event, handing out extra points to those who get there first. Then an event will begin, and there's no starting line at all; the game simply puts a GPS-marked route on your minimap and wherever you happen to be sitting when the race starts, that's where you start. Not all events are races, however - at least half of the events I did online were something else, like a ranking of the maximum distance of jumps off of a set of ramps, the most time spent driving above 50mph, or even a point-to-point timed area where the person who got from one point to the other in the least amount of time won. All of these non-race events just let you drive anywhere you want, and if that happens to fulfill the goal of the event, great. Some events only require one really good attempt at a particular goal, so if you're comfortable with your first-place spot during an event, you can stop trying to improve on it and instead try to sabotage other players' efforts if you want. It's kind of mean, but it's fair game here.
Of course, the online races are a little different than the events. You'll still collide with other players and can screw up their progress, but races are less free-form and actually timed; checkpoints will come and go as you drive along so you'll need to stay on that path. Some races are free-for-alls, while others put players into teams and give the first-place award to the team with the best overall placement. The game does insert small breaks in between each event and a player could easily sit out of one if they wanted, just driving around the city as they normally would, maybe busting through signs and gates like the single player game asks you to, but one thing about Most Wanted is that you're either online or you're offline. In offline mode, there's no quasi-multiplayer where you see other players' "ghosts" driving around; you'll see ranks and accomplishments of people on your friends list and invitations to beat them, but you'll be playing alone until you actually decide to go online.
On PC, Most Wanted works pretty well through Origin, but I did find some unsettling frame rate drops on a fairly powerful machine that shouldn't be having them, and over near the minimum requirements the frame rate dips and heaves in unsettling ways even on minimum settings, causing havoc for your driving; get closer to the recommend system (Quad-core CPU, GTX 560 or Radeon 6950) if you want the frame rate to be a little more stable. The visuals are great, if actually a bit excessive, as the game threw around almost too many lights and shadows. Freeport looks pretty amazing, even if it's a bit sterile - there are no people walking around - and the night and day cycle is very pleasing. I don't think that Most Wanted is what I'd call a stellar PC port, nor do its visuals really add up to something more memorable than some of my favorite racing games over the years (even if they're technically more astute), but it's certainly better on PC than what you get on consoles. Native 1080p resolution at a mostly-stable 60 frames per second is just sitting there waiting for you if you've got the horsepower to run Most Wanted properly, while the console versions push half the pixels at half the speed. One interesting thing is that for this game, EA has distributed some Origin tech to all platforms, so you actually can migrate save data back and forth between PC and consoles and even the Vita version. I haven't tested it myself since I'm only reviewing the PC version, but it sounds pretty great.
The biggest complaint I can leverage against Need for Speed: Most Wanted is that the city races are so fast, with so many turn-offs and needle-threading routes, that you'll have to constantly be glancing at the minimap to see where to go, especially on your first time through a race. Doing so can put you in harm's way with regards to police, traffic, or obstacles as that split-second can easily cause a huge collision. Sure, if you're not in first, you can just follow the guy behind you, and frankly, not braking enough leading up to a turn isn't really that big a deal since you can induce a drift to navigate near-hairpin turns on a whim, but sometimes you'll simply miss your exit and have to restart. Sometimes the game puts up big green arrow-wall barriers in the world to tell you when to break hard left or right, but it doesn't do this nearly enough for you to rely on. Beyond that, Criterion is borrowing pretty heavily here from what they made in Burnout Paradise, but there's a mix of that game's action-based racing and most standard emphasis on just-plain-speed that NFS has had. It straddles the fence, which might frustrate gamers who are looking for one or the other in particular. (To be clear: those looking for an honest-to-goodness new Burnout game are going to have to keep waiting.) Finally, I'm still wishing that the SHIFT sub-series would have been able to continue and get more love, but that ship has apparently sailed and Need for Speed, at least for the foreseeable future, will be an arcade racing series. Period.
This fall, there are two great choices for racing games, both with open worlds to drive around in. You've got the Xbox 360-exclusive Forza Horizon, which is absolutely wonderful and pulls in just enough sim elements to keep serious race fans entertained and intrigued, and then you've got Most Wanted which delivers solid arcadey action that's fun but not terribly realistic. This review isn't intended to be a face-off between the two, but I have to say that if you're even remotely interested in the feel of driving an actual car, get Forza Horizon (and if you can afford it, also drop three bills on a nice wheel and some accessories for the full effect). If real-world handling and precision aren't remotely your concern, then Most Wanted should be your game of choice. And if you want realism and would rather stay on the PC, consider a more serious racing games like Project CARS, iRacing, or even last year's SHIFT 2 Unleashed.
Disclaimer: This review is based on a download-only version of the final game provided by the publisher.