Four years have passed since Criterion Games delivered their first open-world world racer, Burnout Paradise, to a lot of head-scratching praise. They kept their patented high-risk racing mechanics intact, but many were confused and turned off by how poorly streamlined the experience was. Racing fans sometimes just want to jump behind the wheel to race and not bother exploring an open city or being forced to drive across a map to reach a starting line that a simple menu would have made more readily available.
Instead of listening to feedback, Criterion initially fought back against the backlash, defending their decisions to exclude even a simple "retry" button and told gamers they were going about the game the wrong way. Even as late as this year, Criterion's frequently outspoken VP Alex Ward claimed he made a "pretty revolutionary game nobody understood." But looking at the legacy of the series, Paradise's solid reception was a far cry from the universal praise given to their menu based arcade racer Burnout 3: Takedown.
Since then, Criterion has taken control of EA's most profitable racing series, Need For Speed. Their sophomore outing with the series, a remake of Need for Speed: Most Wanted, bears an inescapable comparison to Burnout Paradise thanks to many similar decisions and gameplay ideas. With a slightly more earthen tone and electrical coat of paint, this could easily be Burnout Paradise 2. The big question is how well do they streamline this new experience into something those who just want to race can enjoy, yet still keep their dream of an explorable city alive.
Building on old ideas.
First of all, they have started playing ball nicely with the whole "retry" button option for a failed race. They made that concession through an eventual patch in Burnout Paradise and won back a significant amount of fans overnight. Mission accomplished there.
The same can also be said for starting a race. Races that have already been found and completed can be easily accessed through the ingeniously implemented Easy Race menu found in the top left corner of the map. Of course, you'll have to drive across the map to find the race the first time, but the Easy Race menu allows for a simple way point to be set at the touch of a button.
In fact, there is not a lot you can't do with the Easy Race menu. Switching vehicles, customizing parts, and quick repairs all required gamers to drive to pit stops in Burnout Paradise, but now they can be accomplished with this one new feature.
Beyond that, Most Wanted doesn't deviate too far from the blueprints Burnout Paradise laid out. Billboards are still waiting to be jumped through. Shortcuts are waiting to be uncovered. Hot-rodders will sneak up behind you and challenge you for possession of their vehicle. And, of course, down and dirty racing is still the main spectacle. It's been grounded in a little bit more realism than Burnout Paradise, but don't be mistaken, this game is still beaming with intensity Criterion is known for.
Races have also been made easier with the help of more noticeable checkpoints. Burnout Paradise fans know the frustration of navigating an open world race through memorizing turns and glancing at a map while driving break-neck speeds through crowded city streets. Criterion claimed it was a design choice to allow gamers the freedom to find their own tracks, but it required a certain level of dedication and memorization to the casual racing fans.
Exploration has also been made more practical as the sole way of unlocking cars. With the proper licenses, Criterion can finally include real brand names like Ford and Mercedes, giving car nuts something to drool over in the game. I kind of preferred the simplicity of "red muscle car" or " blue stunt car" or even Paradise's clever fictional brand names, but it's not a big complaint. The racing vehicles are spread throughout the map and all are available from the beginning of the game, so there is nothing for stopping you from finding your dream car right off the bat.
Beyond that, Most Wanted doesn't deviate too far from the blueprints Burnout Paradise laid out.
Quick, it's the coppers!
The other big addition to Need for Speed: Most Wanted is the fuzz. Police are strict in Fairhaven City, and they are tasked with putting an end to illegal street racing. Most of the time, they are avoidable, but quite often they will turn up in a scripted race, most likely while competing against a top Blacklist racer. Shaking them grants more points, but while they might provide an extra exciting and dangerous element to the races, they are more of an annoyance if you are just trying to explore or find the next race.
The best of both worlds, Criterion has done a magnificent job blending their ideas with the traditions of an established series. The new gameplay ideas alone are enough to recommend this over Burnout Paradise, but as I mentioned before, the effort Criterion put into streamlining the entire affair brings them one step closer to perfecting their vision of an open-world racing game.
Need for Speed: Most Wanted is a racing game that can satisfy all colors of the spectrum. Adamant about exploring every last corner of an open map? Fairhaven has miles and miles of pavement available from the get go. Need just a quick racing fix? The easy menu system has each race available you've already completed at the touch of a button. Like your fancy cars porn? Most Wanted has the hottest, fastest, licensed models in the world in their game, each customizable to your liking.
Besides full-on driving simulation, Need for Speed: Most Wanted touches on just about everything one would look for in an arcade racer. If you can get over the repetitive nature of race after race, there's a lot of fun to be had with this.
We purchased a copy of Need for Speed: Most Wanted for the PlayStation 3 with company finds. We found most cars and finished all races before starting this review.