Editor's Note: The following review pertains only to the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC editions of Need for Speed: Most Wanted. Please see Page 2 for GamesRadar's review of the PS Vita edition.
There's a moment an hour or two after you start Need For Speed: Most Wanted when everything seems to click into place. Before this happens, you'll be constantly slamming into walls and oncoming traffic, wondering how you'll ever manage to escape cops that drive tricked-out Corvettes, and unsure if the cars you're racing against consist of anything other than tail lights, objective evidence to the contrary not being easy to come across. But then, you find a car you like, you nab a few hard-earned upgrades, and you finally manage to get the hang of the game's sensitive drifting mechanism. If you can manage not to destroy your controller before you reach this meeting point of skill and experience, you'll be able to take in Most Wanted for what it is: a very engaging, if not ground-breaking, open-world racer.
Taking place in the city of Fairhaven, Most Wanted tasks you with becoming the most notorious street racer in the land by challenging the ten racers on the city's Most Wanted list. As with developer Criterion's Burnout: Paradise, you're free to explore the entire city as soon as you begin play, and there's plenty to find if you do so, including speed cameras, smashable billboards, and, of course, vehicles. The bulk of the 41 cars in Most Wanted are available from the outset; all you have to do is find where they're parked around the city and hop into them.
Mechanically, Most Wanted threads an interesting line between arcade looseness and simulation purity. No one's going to confuse this for Gran Turismo or Forza, but neither is it as forgiving as previous Burnouts or Need For Speeds. Keeping your car under control can be a task, especially in turns; emphasis is placed on controlled drifts to maintain speed while avoiding collisions and obstacles. What rubber-banding the game has generally favors your computer opponents rather than yourself, and there are plenty of races where you'll be matched up with cars that are straight-up faster than you are, forcing you to rely on proper turning and smart use of nitrous boost to make up ground. Most Wanted feels like a noticeably more challenging game than many recent arcade racers, especially in the early going, but it’s a challenge that rewards skill and patience rather than luck.
"Challenging" can be a synonym for "frustrating" at times, of course, and Most Wanted does sport a fair amount of that. While civilian traffic can be a fickle mistress, more concerning is that the game does a downright poor job of indicating upcoming turns to you. Upcoming checkpoints are represented by a white line extending into the sky, but this will often be obscured by buildings if you're in the city, and while there are green markers that appear in your path to indicate sharp turns, these aren't always placed where they're most needed. The minimap will show you the path you're intended to take, but it's zoomed in far enough that you'll have to check it almost constantly if you're actually worried about an upcoming turn, and has the frustrating tendency to unnecessarily reroute you into oncoming traffic to boot. Discerning subtle turns on it, such as when you’re supposed to hit a freeway offramp, is a difficult task at high speeds.
For an open-world racer, there are surprisingly few types of events in the single-player portion of Most Wanted. The bulk of the races are straightforward, finish-first affairs, with some complicated by the presence of police attempting to break up your joyride with spike strips and roadblocks. There are also events that drop you into the middle of a police pursuit and ask you to escape, as well as challenges that'll task you with keeping your average speed above a certain mark, but there's little variety beyond that. Since the game already includes takedowns, drifts, and the ability to pop big air off of ramps, it's curious that there aren't more events that focus on stylish racing, but for whatever reason this a game that feels like it offers fewer single-player draws than Paradise did four years ago. Once you conquer the ten cars on the Most Wanted list (which should take seven or eight hours), there’s little to do for offline players other than go back and trick out the lower-powered cars that you previously unlocked, which is a decided anticlimax.
If the game doesn’t offer a compelling value as a single-player title, that’s more than compensated for by a wide array of genuinely enjoyable modes that are exclusive to multiplayer. You’ll be asked to perform lengthy drifts, race to small elevated areas and attempt to stay atop them while everyone else is trying to knock you off, perform the longest jump off a ramp, race as part of a team, and plenty of other esoteric tasks, all while trying to avoid getting slammed into a wall by your competitors. The proceedings are absolutely chaotic, but in a way that seems joyful and unrestrained. Many of the events encourage wanton carnage, such as a race through figure-eight alleyways that result in massive, hilarious crashes at the midpoint, or a challenge to get the longest jump off a pair of ramps that face each other, ensuring that more than a few of your attempts will result in mid-air collisions.
If you’re not big on multiplayer, there’s little reason to pick up Most Wanted over, say, heading to the bargain bin for a copy of Burnout Paradise. If you’re willing to invest a few hours to learning the game’s quirks, however, and are at all interested in racing against your friends online, this suddenly becomes one of the most recommendable arcade racers to come along in the past few years. It’s a shame that Criterion couldn’t find a way to make the solo play more compelling, but after a few hours of fooling around with your friends online, the point quickly becomes moot, as you’re unlikely to want to play by yourself after you get a taste of the legitimately great multiplayer on tap in Need For Speed: Most Wanted.
The PS3 version of Need for Speed: Most Wanted was used for this review.
Editor's Note: The following review pertains only to PS Vita edition of Need for Speed: Most Wanted. Please see Page 1 for GamesRadar's review of the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC edition.
EA has thus far found success with its decision to hand off its uneven Need for Speed franchise to Burnout creator Criterion Studios. In addition to the console version of Need for Speed: Most Wanted, Criterion was also charged this year with crafting a PS Vita installment, and the results play like a Greatest Hits. The beautiful open-world city, which features multiple vistas, slow-motion crashes, and Takedowns, are lifted straight from Paradise City, while the focus on real-world luxury vehicles and intense police chases is pulled from 2010's Hot Pursuit playbook. This excellent design choice makes Most Wanted on the Vita a spirited effort.
Your goal is to get to the top of the Most Wanted list of Fairhaven, the setting for all your exploits. To do so, you’re put behind the wheel of a variety of licensed high-performance cars and tasked with accumulating points that allow you to climb that ladder. To get those points, you’ll enter races for each vehicle you come across or engage local law enforcement in high-speed pursuits; it’s a simple and straightforward process. Autolog makes it even better, as you’re not only battling in-game racers but chasing your friends’ best scores as well.
Many of the races are spectacularly intense, and the variety of modes and settings is impressive. Circuit and Point-to-Point races tend to be the most fun, as you’re pitted against other racers as well as the Fairhaven police in an effort to finish first. You’ll use any and all options to take out your opponents and the cops, whether those are other vehicles or the natural obstacles that present themselves along the route. Other races will charge you with averaging a particular top speed along a pre-defined route, achieving a specific time, or taking on someone one-on-one. Locales are constantly shifting, from heavily trafficked tarmac city streets to twisting mountain roads to dirt-based abandoned airfields.
Each race typically takes a few go-rounds to win, as many of the courses have nuances that take a bit of learning to maneuver. Whether it’s a particularly tight turn with a well-placed concrete barrier that you (repeatedly) crash into or an aggressive competitor that simply won’t give up, it’s clear that each path was carefully designed to challenge you without ever feeling cheap. Conversely, the most challenging races are those where your only competition is yourself, as no amount of assistance can help you achieve a specific time or speed average if you keep smashing into things.
The controls are feel natural and are responsive. Upgrading your car is easy, too; as you win individual races, different options become available for the vehicle you’re driving at the moment. These include multiple types of tires, nitrous boosts, transmission upgrades, and so on. The elegant way to configure your vehicle is particularly welcome as well; a click of a button gets you on your way.
Simplicity is a theme in Most Wanted, as it recognizes that it’s on a handheld platform and uses that to full advantage. One of the game’s best features is the well-named Easy Drive system. Controlled by the directional buttons, you pull up the Easy Drive menus at any moment to change cars, start an available race, modify your vehicle’s upgrades, and more. Many games could learn from Easy Drive’s format to provide instant access to anything you’d want to do. Free-roaming is a fun option as well, which helps to accumulate additional points based on escaping from police chases, smashing through the billboards and fences strewn throughout Fairhaven, and spotting parked cars that you can hop into. In addition to the intuitive navigation, the vast majority of the races are relatively brief and the ability to hop almost anywhere in a moment’s time is extremely welcome in a mobile situation.
Overall, Most Wanted looks and sounds great; the cars have a high degree of detail and sound distinctly different from each other. However, headlights of oncoming vehicles are highly pixelated, a stark contrast to the otherwise crisp visuals. The biggest disappointment, though, is that there’s little momentum to keep pushing forward through the single-player campaign after awhile; the sameness of the pursuits begin to blur together. Without a story or character arc (just why is it you’d want to become the most wanted criminal in Fairhaven, after all?), Most Wanted relies on your competitive nature to make it to the top of the list as opposed to anything else.
With an impressive list of real-world luxury cars, intense races, solid visuals, and a seamless social connection that drives you to continue, Need for Speed: Most Wanted vaults itself to the top of the Vita racing games list. While it gets a bit repetitive after awhile, the astoundingly powerful vehicles provide an impressive amount of racing fun with a great balance of challenge and accessibility.
Score: 4/5 stars