Review

Need For Speed: Most Wanted

Pedestrian Traffic

Need For Speed: Most Wanted has the cars, but where’s the soul?

By Derrick Sanskrit • November 8, 2012

Maybe I just never “got” car culture. Born and raised on the outskirts of New York City, cars were always that thing that ran over my friend’s bike and interrupted our games of stickball. (Wait a minute, how old am I?) Public transit was the way to be. I always assumed middle America loved cars because they didn’t have the endless activity of New York and craved a way out. This theory conveniently explained away NASCAR culture as well.

Then I played Burnout Paradise. Released in 2008, Paradise romanticized the absurdity of motor vehicles. All of the grossly irresponsible things drivers should never ever do were suddenly the whole point of the game: Leap off the edge of a bridge! Push other cars off the road! Do a barrel roll! Driving wasn’t the fun part; everything else was the fun part. The developer, Criterion Games, works under the philosophy that “not playing the game is the game”—in other words, it’s the extracurriculars and not the compulsories that make the experience—a belief that resonated with fans of Paradise and carries on in this year’s Need For Speed: Most Wanted.

In Most Wanted, you control a nameless, faceless driver as you compete to be the most reckless speed-freak motorist in town, climbing to the top of local law enforcement’s most-wanted list. Like any good rebel, the driver in Most Wanted doesn’t play by other people’s rules, man. The loosely organized set of street races can be tackled in any order the driver chooses, new cars are collected by simply driving up to them on the side of the road and hopping in, and climbing up the leaderboard can be as simple as smashing a few billboards or outrunning Johnny Law.

Need For Speed: Most Wanted

“What happens next is up to you,” the flirty narrator suggests after you’ve learned the basics. This wanton disregard for convention is a refreshing glass of lemonade in the unsweetened tea factory that is racing simulators. Most Wanted wants you to explore and forge your own adventure. Make your own memories. The only thing holding that noble ambition back is that the game seems to go out of its way to be unmemorable.

Fairhaven City is a confusing stretch of intersections and steel towers that look largely the same, with nary a landmark to leave a lasting impression. Highways feel like they go on forever without any surprise, and back alleys redirect to the main road almost as soon as they begin. There’s never the opportunity to sit back and reflect on the time you crashed through the billboard above that coffee shop because, well, where the heck was that coffee shop again? Every mile of Burnout Paradise felt alive, from the winding roads of the countryside to the straightaways of the naval yard, and Fairhaven City feels claustrophobic by comparison. Oh right, wanting to get out of a town with nothing to offer—there’s that motivation for car culture again.

Aesthetically, Most Wanted plays by the latest edition of the modernism textbook. Everything is slick chrome gradients and stark white text set in Gotham, the typeface used since 2005 by businesses that want to say “we’re serious” and “we’re hip, we’re with it!” at the same time. (See MSNBC, the Criterion Collection, Chip Kidd’s cover to the American edition of 1Q84, everything Martha Stewart, and even our own beloved Disqus commenting system.) Everything is pleasant, but nobody will ever see this design and think “Oh yes, that reminds me of that time in Need For Speed: Most Wanted…” because it looks and acts like every car commercial in recent history. Drop7 had a more distinctive presentation, and that was just muted colored balls on a grey screen.

Need For Speed: Most Wanted

The lack of personality is a shame, because Most Wanted is a game that promises more each time you come back, with challenges from your friends continuously streaming in. Sure, there are the races, but playing through those is monotonous enough the first time. There’s no room for experimentation in these events. You just go really flippin’ fast. No, no, the good stuff is everything else: blasting faster past speed cameras, flying farther over gaps in bridges, and generally being a sillier and more unrealistic racer than your friends. But without any distinct identity, these pieces don’t cohere into anything more lasting—instead, it feels like just another car game.

Most Wanted demonstrates perfectly Criterion’s belief that “not playing the game is the game.” Dicking around town, smashing billboards willy-nilly and doing doughnuts is a heck of a lot more fun than progressing through the repetitive slog of races that make up “the game.” It’s the high-definition equivalent of a child laughing as they imagine that the cardboard box is a spaceship while the expensive toy that lived inside sits languished and unloved in the corner. You’re glad the kid is happy, but you know they could have gotten that same cheap thrill from any other box.

Need For Speed: Most Wanted
Developer: Criterion Games
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Platforms: PC, PlayStation 3, PlayStation Vita, Xbox 360
Reviewed on: PlayStation 3
Price: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360—$60; PC—$50; PlayStation Vita—$40
Rating: E

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  • William Hume

    hehe interesting

  • Ack_Ack

    Good analogy.  I feel the same way about racing games though – I’ve tried to enjoy them in the past, but I just don’t get people who love cars.  I think that they’re nice, but if I had to buy one, it would be something fuel efficient and sensible. 

    The Need For Speed games I’ve never enjoyed – you’re just trying to race around town, having fun, and asshole cops keep coming out of nowhere and wrecking it for you.  Cops in Lambourghini’s are stupid – the whole point of having a Lambourghini is so you can outrun cops in their stupid Chevy’s.

    • Fyodor Douchetoevsky

      Have you played Burnout 3? Because holy shit that game is amazing.

      • Ack_Ack

        I have played Burnout 3, and loved it.  Was much less impressed with Paradise, as I could never figure out how to get certain events started.  Burnout 3 was much easier.  What would you like to do?  Smash stuff?  Here’s a list of things you can do.

        I also got the Xbox Live Burnout game that came out earlier this year, but it was not that great.  Burnout 3 is still the champ!!

      • Fixda Fernback

        Man, the Burnouts were just one of those series of games that had something special to them. Especially 2 and, definitely, 3–one of my favorite games ever. I had multiple friends in college around ’04ish that weren’t big fans of video games; you know the type, always giving us shit for playing them so much, blah blah blah. Except, even those guys got completely sucked into Burnout, especially the Crash mode but the entire game was something they enjoyed. The only other game these people ever picked up and enjoyed in my presence (aside from classic NES/SNES/Genesis stuff they grew up with) was Guilty Gear XX. Weird.

  • Moonside_Malcontent

    “Fairhaven City is a confusing stretch of intersections and steel towers
    that look largely the same, with nary a landmark to leave a lasting
    impression.”

    Finally, the game set in Dallas that nobody wanted!  Complete with a feeling of soulless corporatism and menus that you’ve seen everywhere else on the planet but with higher production budgets.

  • http://twitter.com/HttpLovecraft Http Lovecraft

    I wanted this to be Burnout Paradise 2 sooo badly.  The loading and intro scenes are interminably long, the ‘goal’ of the game (becoming number 1 Most Wanted driver) is boring and based around accumulating points(?), and I somehow prefer the grind of beating races to unlock better and better cars than just finding the ‘best’ car in the first 15 minutes of the game and using it for everything. 

    • http://twitter.com/marlowespade Chris Howly

       This – I can’t play a racing game without meaningful progression, and I definitely prefer to unlock cars via playing the actual game. Gives me a cool visible goal to work towards that adds to the gameplay once I reach it.

      • http://twitter.com/HttpLovecraft Http Lovecraft

        I tricked out the first car I could find with a high ‘control’ rating with all the mods I could get in about 2-3 hours, and I’m already feeling like I’ve ‘beaten’ the game.  I know I am supposed to repeat the process on a bunch more cars and climb up the Wanted ladder, but, I have a perfectly good car NOW.

        I’m thinking this weekend I reset my progress in Burnout Paradise and just start that over.  In Most Wanted the crumply, easily-wrecked cars are a detriment, in Burnout, they’re a delightful feature!

        • http://gameological.com/author/derricksanskrit/ Derrick Sanskrit

          My launch PS3 died last year, taking all my old pre-PS Plus save data with it. I replayed Burnout Paradise from the beginning and got my elite license in a little more than a weekend. Man, was that fun the second time around.

      • http://gameological.com/author/derricksanskrit/ Derrick Sanskrit

        I think the way cars are acquired/found in this game was a cool idea and another welcome buck against conventions, but yes, once you’ve found and tricked-out your Aston Martin, there’s no reason to drive a Ford except being a completionist.

        • http://twitter.com/HttpLovecraft Http Lovecraft

          Is the Aston Martin the ideal/most balanced car for this game?  

          I’m driving a very non-exotic-looking Nissan because it had the highest control stat of the initial 20-30 cars I stumbled across and now that I have all the mods for it it trumps everything else I find, stat-wise. (can you tell I know nothing about cars?)

  • KidvanDanzig

    Scramble the jets, we have a priority 1 typography nerd alert

  • http://autodoorglassdirect.com/category/jeep-auto-glass/ Jeep Auto Glass

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