Before we start – isn’t there already a Need for Speed game titled Most Wanted? The game that in 2005 ushered in a fast and furious genre that shaped every racing game in the last decade? Good, so it’s true these two games share a title, but this time around it’s a new developer behind the wheel: Criterion Game – the studio that made the Arcade driving game what it is today. EA has seen the sorry state of its Need for Speed series, and decided to call the fastest, most furious studio around to try and save what’s left of this once proud franchise. Thanks to Criterion, the Need for Speed name is no longer dragged through the mud, but does this new game feel like its 2005 iteration, or more like 2008’s Burnout Paradise? Will Criterion be able to rule the highway the way they did with NFS: Hot Pursuit?

Unfortunately (or not, depending on your point of view) the 2012 version shares very little with the original Most Wanted. They both start with high-speed chases through a huge open city and end with the player’s quest to become the number one racer, and the most wanted man (or woman) on the road. There’s no story, no characters – just a sexy narrator that explains where you need to go and what you need to do once you get there. If you were expecting live-action cut-scenes, sticking your victory in your opponent’s face or any other goal then to be number one – you’ve come to the wrong place. Instead you’ll find weird, out of place videos before every race or police chase. There’s no actual story, just cop cars flying everywhere. This is a game by the folks who set a new standard for mayhem and destruction on the road, not of driving around in cars with cool stickers and colorful light.

And mayhem and destruction ye shall find. Fairhaven is a huge city with countless highways, back alleys, ramps and intersection. Whether you’re cruising through the streets or trying to shake off the fuzz, you’ll never feel like you hit a dead-end; there’s always a back road to take or a bridge to fly off from. Along the great design of the city itself (something Criterion Games has already fully mastered), the graphics engine has received a tuning since the previous NFS game. The wet roads reflect the surroundings perfectly and the level of detail of the building and other road-side objects, just wait for you to crash into them, is impressive. Day-and-night and weather transitions feel authentic as well. And the cars – wonderfully detailed, even after meeting the rear end of another vehicle in a spectacular lightshow. Like in so many other games, Most Wanted starts you off slowly, but when “slowly” means driving around in an Aston Martin and jumping into a Porsche a second later, you can only imagine what’s heading your way later on.

So how the cars and the big city work together? It’s true that competing with a Porsche against a McLaren is not an ideal situation, but driving around the city, completing races and events with the same car, will unlock more upgrades for it; longer gears, all-terrain tires, aerodynamic body and more. Each upgrade come in two levels, when level two is only obtainable after complete a certain challenge, like driving against traffic or races above a certain speed limit. If you find that violating every traffic law in the book is not thrilling enough, the boys in blue will always be there to help. It’s not usual for the police to join in and add a little challenge, and a lot of action, to any illegal street race. Police vehicles are at least as fast as yours and work together quite efficiently. Even when you thought you’d managed to shake them off, a patrol car will emerge from an alley in front of you, and the whole thing starts anew. These chases are the biggest contributors to the whole “mayhem and destruction” bit I mentioned earlier; while trying to maintain 1st place in the race, you’ll have to bust through the ever-improving police roadblocks. Spike strips, helicopters and police race cars are all there to make your life difficult, even after winning the race.

It’s too bad then that what the game wants to do and what it actually does are two different things. Such action-filled moments are rare and far-between, mostly because the A.I. isn’t up to the task. Both the police and your competition will fly off the road all by themselves, and it soon becomes apparent that the only thing standing between you and victory are the civilian vehicles in your way. The controls feel polished, even though it seems Criterion has taken a step back. While there’s nothing that prevents you from showcasing grace and finesse that rival those of a seasoned ice-skater, there’s this underline feeling something just doesn’t quite click.  This isn’t a driving simulator, so don’t expect to use your wheel controller either. As with most arcade racing games, drifts in mind-bending speeds and massive hang time become the routine pretty quickly, and you’ll soon realize the real challenge lies not with the single-player experience, but the multiplayer.

The game’s multiplayer mode is too a double edged sword. On one hand, some of the funniest situations will happen to you when playing it, as players try to sabotage each other at every turn. Going at full speed through another car just to crash into a wall in an orchestra of sparks and broken glass, or taking down a player as he sticks an impossible jump will make even the most jaded gamer smile. On the other hand, the actual goal of becoming the most wanted racer among your friends can only be achieved by participating in certain events, and not by the much more fun free-roaming. You can’t really choose what type of event you enter, since each multiplayer competition takes you through predetermined set of events, from checkpoint races to speed and jump competition. These sets mostly serve to highlight Most Wanted biggest weakness: variety.

So now what? You can smash every giant billboard on the map, break every speeding record, jump as far as you can and more; everything here is straight out of Criterion Games’ book of tricks. The game suffers from a major case of “feels like Burnout Paradise, but doesn’t want to be like Burnout Paradise”. The more observant of you will even notice locations in Most Wanted very similar to some on the aforementioned game; even the airplane graveyard stunt track makes a comeback. This is where problem starts and ends. Whereas previous games by Criterion had plenty of goals and activities to conquer, here the way to the top is paved with the sameraces and the same ramps – variety is not the name of this game.

Comparing Need for Speed: Most Wanted to Criterion’s previous games is unavoidable, since every game the studio made so far was better. The feeling you’ll associate the most with the game is one of “what could have been” – Most Wanted feels like a small taste of a much bigger game. If you were expecting a game with the scope of Burnout Paradise, you’ll be sorely disappointed. Despite the gloomy tone this review might set, there’s no better place to take your Nissan GTR and race it with style and panache. If you’re looking to experience a police chase through busy streets, or to show off your drifting skills with some friends – this game should make your most wanted list.

Written by Tomer Blau.

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