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.
This is not the first time I’ve heard the cops called into question in NFS: Most Wanted, many seem to find them a real annoyance. FO me they add to the experience, it seems more realistic for the cops to continue the chase after an illegal street race, and the rewards for extending the chase before you escape in SpeedPoints are quite high. I rarely find them too much of an issue in the race as they seem to pick on all the competators pretty equally. I should state however that I am held early in the game, as due to me trying to get my autolog accounts synced up across platforms I can no longer connect to Autolog and so must drive around seing only my own times on events. I will say that this removes pretty much all of the fun from the game, without Autolog it is an empty shell with zero impetus to do better than place first in events, or to even bother running up to a billboard. I may have to rebuy it on 360 just so I can get back to the fun I was having, I only hope the end result isn’t to eventually fall out with it once again due to high end content becoming as annoying to me as others have found it.
This was a good article. In recent years NFS games have been getting better reception from critics after their slump, but I feel like that it’s not really deserving of its praise. The games are certainly more polished than they used to be, but their gameplay is still sorely lacking in quality. Yet somehow they’ve gotten a free ride.
I played the demo of this game and I agree very much about the aggressive A.I. The cops felt like an aggravating annoyance that wouldn’t leave me alone instead of a fun chase. The handling feel, the most important part of any racing game, was also pretty awful.
I also don’t think it’s entirely your fault that you were constantly restarting in this game. You could say the way the game is designed it makes you feel like you have to restart all the time. Like if you crash just once then the entire race becomes a waste of time because it’s constantly reminding you of how badly you’ve done, or getting caught up by the cops ruins your chance at winning a race. In Burnout you could always come back from pretty much anything if you drove well enough to catch up and then took out your opponents. But it seems MW is designed so that any failure is irredeemable unless you start over.
But I want to go back to the overall quality of the game. Actually I want to talk about the quality of all recent games in general. Maybe I’m just getting tired and jaded with the tail end of this console generation, but I get the feeling that many games released now are kind of empty and lacklustre. While Paradise felt like a driving heaven bursting at the seams with fun and excitement, MW feels like it’s all show but no go. It’s got the cutting edge graphics and boasts all the latest features, but it doesn’t feel like any love has gone in to it. I don’t know how long the game is but if you’ve already finished it then it can’t be that long either.
I also recently got the new SSX and it feels like there’s something missing from that too. It feels like it has no soul and everything is just for show. It’s missing the spark of older SSX games. Halo 4 is another example. Although I had fun with it, it felt like it never delivered on the goods, narratively that is. It was also incredibly short. The campaign lasted me about 6 hours when previous Halo games have lasted much longer. Forza Horizon is a similar story to Halo 4. The game was great, but I was done with the career in just over a week. I still play it but when I finished the career I had a nagging feeling of “is that it?”
I just feel like I’m seeing games going unscrutinised for problems that they would have been called out on only a few years ago, and too much emphasis being placed on unimportant things. I think we really need a new hardware cycle to shake things up again. We need to hit reset.
Thanks for the replies, guys, and for reading. It’s an odd one, because I really want to like the game and I struggled to put my finger on why I didn’t.
Like you, Russell, I’m coming off another game I didn’t enjoy in Hitman: Absolution. Whilst I’m not necessarily feeling the slump like you are, you nailed my feelings that these games are a little empty.
Thanks again. Hope to see you on the streets of Fairhaven (if I can ever get my groove back with Most Wanted).