Reboots have been hip this gen. Devil May Cry, Tomb Raider and SSX are a few recent examples of publishers trying to twist familiar IP in new directions to match the latest trends in gaming and what they think people want. But Need For Speed: Most Wanted is unusual in that it’s a reboot of a current-gen game.
Yet further examination shows Most Wanted circa 2012 doesn’t so much reboot Most Wanted circa 2005 as it obliterates it. The two games have almost nothing in common. Everything that defined Most Wanted when it bounced onto shelves alongside the Xbox 360 launch – graffiti stylings, muted colours, appearances by model Josie Maran – is absent here. This is Criterion’s game through and through.
Need For Speed: Most Wanted sits between Burnout Paradise and Hot Pursuit, combining the eager exploration of the former with the dramatic police chases of the latter. The idea is that you build up your car by completing challenges throughout the city, unlocking mods such as nitrous boost and sturdier bodies, allowing you to customise as you go. Other cars can be found dotted around the city and you can use those too, completing their challenges for further mods. Almost everything you do counts towards your overall points. This is perhaps the only thing that the 2012 and 2005 versions of this game have in common – earning the right to challenge the Most Wanted cars and ticked them off your list as they fall one by one.
That’s the detailed explanation, but you can also be completely ignorant to the structure and drive around the city, picking and choosing whatever activity catches your interest. Most Wanted is a remarkably passive tutor. Beyond the initial here’s-how-to-play whistle-stop tour of the city, it lets you get on with things without ever interfering and, remarkably, you never feel as though any guidance is needed.
It gets away with this for three reasons. The first is that the difficulty in Most Wanted caters for all skill levels, offering a variety of challenges that range from easy checkpoint drives to endurance tests as you try to outrun the police.
The second is the interface. When you’re in-game, you’re in-game. There’s no need to pause or cut away to another menu, as all the options you need can be called up via menus as you race. Customising, changing cars, picking events, retrying races… Everything is done with a few taps of the D-pad. It’s a remarkably simple idea but one that helps the flow of Most Wanted immeasurably, and besides a few frustrations – not being able to restart races immediately until the ‘race failed’ screen passes, for example – it does make you wonder why it’s never been done before.
The third, and perhaps the most important, is Autolog. Its inclusion in Burnout Paradise and Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit was smart, essentially filling the road with in-game leaderboards for you to track and keep your eye on. Most Wanted seems to have been built entirely with Autolog in mind – the entire city is rammed with leaderboards and challenges, seamlessly woven into the fabric of the metropolis without feeling obtrusive or unnecessary. It’s why Most Wanted 2012 can get away with no having a story driving you along. Instead of an overarching narrative to drive you forward, you have hundreds of smaller compelling challenges instead. Given the enormous size of Most Wanted, both in scope and content, there are plenty of those smaller challenges too.
The handling has a nice weight to it, although there’s now a slight hint of OutRun and Ridge Racer in the feel of things. Tapping brake while turning into corners sends you drifting with ease, as you control how shallow or deep into the turn you are as your car glides over the tarmac. It’s an unusually arcade-like nod yet it fits perfectly, the dramatic powerslides slotting in neatly alongside the sense of speed and giving you the tools you need to make police chases feel exciting and empowering. The handling isn’t quite snappy enough for last-minute swerves out of the way of spike strips or sudden roadblocks, but these are both signalled far in advance as you approach. There’s little to get frustrated or annoyed at here, little to get in the way of you having fun and enjoying yourself.
In theory, racing games seem like a genre that allows little room for developers to stamp their own personality and individuality without drifting too far from grounded realism, yet this is undeniably a Criterion game. The blazing orange sunset that almost blinds you as you powerslide around corners. The sophisticated classiness of the UI. The weight to each car and shower of sparks when metal rubs against metal. Even the city, which soon becomes familiar thanks to the character and personality each area has. Everything has its place. Most Wanted might not have the same high concept that The Run did, but this is infinitely more memorable.
You could argue that the crashes don’t match the drama of the chase, the camera angles often failing to relay the complete destruction of your vehicle. The handling might feel a little too forced towards the arcade side of things and perhaps some players will feel that they’ve played this game already thanks to the many hours they put into Burnout Paradise. But there’s no denying that Criterion is the master of its craft, and Most Wanted is its biggest and best effort yet.