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.
“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.
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.