Need For Speed: Most Wanted (2012) promised to be a return to open-world racing, and was lauded as a spiritual successor to Burnout Paradise. Why then does it seem to be a shadow of its predecessor?
Criterion Games have a knack for hitting exactly the right sense of speed and exhilaration that I look for in a racing game. It’s been this way since I first played Burnout Legends on PSP in late 2005. Even then, on a smaller screen, the mix of infectious music and fast, drift-heavy races, punctuated by the scrapes and spills of takedowns grabbed my attention like no other racing series had before or would in the future. To this day, Criterion’s splash screen makes my ears prickle with anticipation for the rumble and roar of an engine, the screech of tyres and the grind of a chassis being crumpled into a battered metal husk.
To my surprise, several hours into Need For Speed: Most Wanted, that frisson of anticipation has fizzled out to leave only a dissatisfying ache, nay a longing, to play Burnout Paradise.
Putting one’s deductive reasoning to work on a dashed hope is not a pleasant way to spend time; I wanted to understand what it was that Criterion’s Burnout Paradise had, but its Need For Speed: Most Wanted was sorely lacking. Truth be told, I’d had this feeling some two years before when I sat down with Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit. That time around I eased any disappointment I had felt with the soothing notion that the simple absence of an open world to rival Paradise City was to blame. But here I was, driving around Fairhaven, the beautiful open world I craved, and still my desire for a game like Burnout Paradise was not sated. What was missing? Not billboards, nor smash gates. Not ramps, nor events laying in wait, city-wide, to be discovered. There was something which was notable by its absence, but it’s a bit nebulous and I’d rather stick with more concrete considerations for now.
It transpires that my accusing finger fell on, not a missing ingredient, but an unwelcome addition – well, three to be precise. Two of these interlopers were actually introduced in the long period Criterion spent adding excellent new content to Burnout Paradise, and all three have been stowaways on both of the Guildford developer’s Need For Speed games. The first is critical in both Hot Pursuit and Most Wanted, and is my most objective complaint: cops. The cat and mouse-style Cops & Robbers add-on to Paradise City worked so well because it brought an entirely new dynamic to the game’s multiplayer. Players would be divided into two teams, one on either side of the law, with the robbers racing towards an escape point and the cops mustering all of their horse power to stop them… and magnificent carnage ensued.
Fast forward two years, and cops are now the focal point of the game in Hot Pursuit. The problem this presents is that in a significant proportion of the events the cops are controlled by an incredibly aggressive AI model. Burnout has long had takedown-focused events that utilise such crash-happy AI behaviour to hound the player at every turn, but bringing this into races against AI-controlled racers provides a frustrating obstacle to fluid, fast driving that tipped the scale too far for my enjoyment. When the objective is to survive a Marked Man event in Paradise, time and speed have to come second to careful, clever driving. In Hot Pursuit, I too often found myself pinned at a standstill by multiple police cars whilst my competitors raced by, and I found it happening again in Need For Speed: Most Wanted.
This has been exacerbated in Most Wanted as the cops will continue hunting the player beyond the finish line and outside of events, in response to speedy or dangerous driving in Fairhaven. Driving around Paradise City was the come down from the intensity of an event. Often a series of races would be punctuated by a relaxing drive or a run at an elusive billboard. In Most Wanted this time is spent marching to the beat of a not-so-soothing siren call.
Second on the list is the introduction of an instant retry menu option. Another patch into Burnout Paradise, retries were added to popular reception from fans of the game. However, I have noticed that the ability to instantly reset an event has a particularly negative effect on the way I play. So plentiful were the ways to pass time in Paradise City, that if ever I failed an event I would be no more than a few feet from some other distraction. Treating Paradise City as a smorgasbord from which to sample the many events on offer, allowed me to discover, learn and love the city streets in a way that few games have managed. Driving between events, too, helped create a sense of place in Paradise City, something that can be, to a massive extent, bypassed through the Easydrive menu in Most Wanted. Thankfully it’s optional, but I can’t help feeling that event-hopping is missing the point of the open world.
Having the option to immediately retry any failed event seems sensible enough, but in both of Criterion’s Need For Speed games I have found myself abusing the privilege. The problem is that it’s too easy to give up at the first crash or missed corner. If, halfway through a race, I know I cannot reach the time or placing that is asked of me, then my impulse is to wipe the slate clean. A personal shortcoming, certainly, but I’ve found that retrying breaks the flow of what should be an exhilarating driving experience and turns it into an increasingly frustrating groundhog race. This is made all-the-worse by the last of the ghosts haunting Need For Speed: Most Wanted.
A cross-platform leaderboard that provides constant challenge and competition without the need for friends to be online at the same time is truly an incredible achievement, and Autolog 2 is worthy of such a superlative. Unfortunately, being shown (in excruciating detail) exactly how many of my friends are better at the game than I am irritates my already red and bleeding habit of restarting events over and over until I am either, (a) happy with my performance, or (b) ready to BURST like Asura. Knowing that I have dropped five, maybe ten seconds in a race is all the impetus I need to scratch that itchy ‘retry’ button, and scratch it I will until it is raw. Clearly the sane, if acerbic response, is that I should be better at playing the game, but nonetheless I succumb to my own personal weaknesses, to the ruin of Fairhaven.
I do not expect that many people will share my dislikes of these particular facets of two such wonderful games. Perhaps the tenacious cops inspire similar ire in others, but retries and Autolog are my crosses to bear – I do not lay them at the feet of Criterion Games. That said, I cannot ignore their effect on my enjoyment of the games. In my eyes, Burnout Paradise was free from the sorts of frustration that I have found in Hot Pursuit and Most Wanted. I see in them what could have been, and that undermines their virtues. Need For Speed: Most Wanted was put on the shelf even quicker than Hot Pursuit was, and I’ve had no desire to take it back down again.
To that ‘missing something’ that I mentioned earlier, I sought to confirm that my memories were not preserved in rose-tinted formaldehyde, so I sank back into the comfy, adrenaline-fuelled streets of Paradise City and my assertions were confirmed. Burnout Paradise has more charm than either of Criterion’s Need For Speed titles. From DJ Atomica, to the colourful and recognisable landmarks that greet the player at the finish line, Paradise City feels vibrant and alive in some strange way that has not been recaptured in those games. Ultimately, my time with Burnout Paradise was just more fun.