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Need for Speed: Most Wanted review: Ambitious, beautiful, frustrating

Criterion's Inner city racing comes with a congestion charge...

You're bombing down a motorway when a lane-divider comes up fas - crash. The game instantly restarts in the position you ended up, and after slowly reversing back onto the road you see a pair of headlights quickly appro - crash. Later you drift into an underpass and nick the bridge suppor - crash. This is a typical session with Need for Speed: Most Wanted, Criterion's open-world racer that does everything in its power to stop you racing.

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After 2010's Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit perfected car-based cops and robbers, the Burnout Paradise creators take their formula to the built-up hub of Fairhaven. It's a gorgeous urban area styled after an east coast American city: steel and glass, smoggy industrial zones, billboards to smash, speed cameras to blaze past, even modern art installations to ramp off. Yet, all this, despite its scale and beauty, is to Most Wanted's detriment.

The aim is simple: compete in sprints, time trials and circuit races, unlocking car parts and one-on-one's against exotic vehicles like the Koenigsegg Agera R and Hummer H1 Alpha. Wins notch you up a notoriety scale, edging you towards the ultimate goal: Most Wanted.

Easier said than done - and not because of rubber-banding safety measures preventing players getting too far ahead (or behind), positively rendering effort futile until the final mile. No, it's more to do with congested roads that crisscross and, in the end, confuse.

WORLD WITHOUT END

This issue is a fundamental design flaw inherent to open world racing, a hangover from Burnout Paradise and, sadly, completely without remedy. Right up front, familiar woes rear their head even before you get going. Rather than selecting events from a menu, you'll journey multiple miles finding them. En route you might get pursued by cops for speeding, unable to begin until you either shake them or get arrested, and you'll almost certainly crash several times over.

Problems permeate races themselves too. One had us lapping a makeshift course that cut along the shore and veered onto a junction. Speeding into sunshine blocked the road with blinding glare while sand spat up tall plumes of thick cloud - beautiful but hardly helpful. Neon flare from a full boost meter and violent camera-shake while you empty it, didn't help either.

But there's something more damaging than effects. Due to a lack of dedicated tracks - instead fashioning impromptu lines from an open-world layout - it'll take several attempts before you remember not to take the shortcut that inexplicably leads you out of the race.

A green trail on the map shows where to go but having to constantly reference it were problems definitely not shared by Hot Pursuit, with its long sightlines and wide open roads. The D-pad at least helps, dropping down an 'Easy Drive' menu so you can swap cars, customise on the fly with nitrous, reinflate tyres - and thankfully, warp to events already discovered.

Zoom

It feels dangerously exhilirating at times, the sight of flipping cars never failing to entertain...

Nevertheless, despite races with confusing routes and the tedious time it takes to find them, Most Wanted is still fun when you're in the driver's seat.

Cars handle weightily, with a tap of the brake instigating a sort of meta-handling mode allowing the fine-tuning of drifts with the analogue stick. Shoulder-barging competitors down dense city streets feels dangerously exhilarating, and though takedown highlights are strangely absent from all crashes except your own (probably a concession towards consistent pace, but a waste of a good physics system), the sights of flipping cars and ejected windshields never fail to entertain should you be lucky enough to catch them.

Cops ironically lessen damage limitation. They'll sometimes pile-in mid-race to pop tyres with spike strips or block routes with barricades, and special events see you evading them for a set amount of time. It feels strangely one-sided given you lack a similar bank of weapons, but nicely chaotic all the same.

All problems levelled at Most Wanted can be traced back to its setting. Physically navigating towards an event rather than warping to it from a menu? Criterion want to show it off. Crashing lots? That's what happens when you smash the speed limit in a city centre. Getting lost mid-route? A side effect of having multiple routes. The trouble is, in the end, it stops Most Wanted from being what it almost is: a gripping, visceral racer.

The verdict

Fairhaven is less a race track and more a playground - but a race track is exactly what Most Wanted needed most.

  • Multiplayer is manic fun
  • Fairhaven looks incredible
  • Cars balance arcade and sim handling
  • There's just not enough room to race
  • Having to drive miles to events
  • Lack of crash camera
7.5
Format
Xbox 360
Developer
EA Games
Publisher
EA Games
Genre
Racing / Driving, Action, Adventure

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