The fundamental difference between the sub-genres within racing games is best explained with a culinary metaphor. If racing sims are the caviar of the genre, arcade racers are more like burgers. Simulations work well on their own, much like the expensive pickled eggs that the rich swear by. However, just like burgers need a lot of ketchup, arcade racers' lack of technical depth calls for gimmicks to make the experience more palatable. These games, you see, do not have the luxury of banking on gameplay alone. Over the years, nearly every possible permutation and combination of open world settings, vehicle combat, bombastic set pieces, destructible environments, illegal street racing culture and Japanese drifting craziness has been done to death in this jaded arcade sub-genre.
Released almost seven years back, the original Need for Speed: Most Wanted was one of the best in the series. It had nailed down the cops and robbers gameplay of the NFS: Hot Pursuit in an open world setting akin to that of Underground 2. Criterion therefore has huge shoes to fill with its Most Wanted reboot. Toying with new gimmicks clearly is a risky proposition in this case. Fortunately, the Burnout maker went about it the smart way by keeping the core mechanics unchanged, but instead chose to improve upon and fine tune existing gameplay. The ten crore question is: does it succeed in striking a fine balance between staying true to the franchise and bringing something new to the table? In a word, yes.
What would a Most Wanted be without the cops?
Back to the Roots
True to its arcade roots, you get a limited number of camera angles. The cockpit mode is conspicuous by its absence, but the ideal way to savour the game is in the third-person view, with a bumper cam thrown in for good measure. Try to hook up a steering wheel and the game scoffs at you. In fact, Most Wanted has, beyond doubt, the worst implementation of the Logitech Driving Force GT wheel I have witnessed in a contemporary game. That surprisingly isn't a bad precedent because this game is meant to be played with a gamepad. Once you come to terms with that fact, it is apparent how the reboot smartly cherry picks elements from the twitchy arcade controls of Burnout and a relatively complicated physics model. What you end up with is a vehicle handling scheme that's accessible to the lowest common denominator, while also providing a challenge to those willing to put an effort towards learning how to use nitrous boost and drift in a smart manner.
The general setup has been carried forward nearly unchanged from the original. It's an open world romp through a fictional setting dubbed Fairhaven as you challenge ten of the city's most wanted racers to claim the top spot. However, Criterion has deftly done away with the underground race culture for an unadulterated racing experience. You will neither find any rivals talking smack in the cutscenes, nor will the streets have sexy girls flagging you off at the starting grid. In fact, there is no starting grid at all, as all races have a rolling start. Criterion draws inspiration from Burnout: Paradise in the way how the races have a fixed start and end markers, but the choice of the route is left upon you. Unfortunately, navigation forces you to squint at a mini map at the bottom of the screen, but this stops being a problem once you familiarise yourself with the city.
Damn you, Rhino Squad!
A Seamless Experience
Criterion's push towards a seamless racing experience is evident from how the entire city is accessible right from scratch. The game itself has no currency that can be used to buy and upgrade cars. The idea is to find all 41 of them and then they are yours. Some are hidden in plain sight, whereas the more exotic ones are harder to find. Most Wanted deliberately fosters exploration of the city over haggling with menus and cash management. Instead of introducing its own currency, the game incorporates an experience system dubbed Speed Points. These can be earned by winning races, completing challenges, racking up near misses and through takedowns. You need these points because they unlock the most wanted racers, beating whom forms the spine of the main missions.
While most such open world racing games limit your car choices due to paucity of cash and the tendency to stick to your expensive upgraded ride, Most Wanted gets around this tendency in a rather clever fashion. It achieves this by clubbing cars with their own unique races, and the only way to upgrade them is by beating these challenges. These range from the usual Sprint and Circuit races to crazy ones such as Speed Runs that require you to weave in and out through traffic while maintaining a ridiculously quick average time. The upgrades get you goodies such as stronger chassis that can blow through police barriers and inflatable tyres capable of shrugging off tyre deflation devices.
That's going to hurt
Speaking of which, the classic cop chase element is incorporated in Ambush events, where the objective is to either outrun the police or break line of sight and disappear under flyovers. However, the coppers involvement isn't just restricted to these events. They may pop up uninvited in regular races and make your life hell in the bargain. Their aggression, the number of roadblocks and the sophistication of the toys used against you increases with your heat level. Get enough attention and you'll soon find an unhealthy number of high-powered cop cars ramming into you from all directions.
Looks Good, Plays Better
One of the most innovative improvements to Most Wanted is its rabid pursuit of streamlining the experience and letting the player concentrate on racing. The best example of this is the modding system. Prepping up your car is a dreary UI addled affair in these types of games, where a lot of time is spent in complicated menus listing out upgrades. Criterion does away with this chore by using a real-time menu overlaid onto the screen that can be accessed even as you drive along. Dubbed Easy Drive, this implementation lets you apply mods on the fly, while also letting you switch cars or select routes for a race. Now that's what I call a seamless experience!
Speaking of seamless, the city hasn't been chopped up into sections bearing annoying load times. The only time you encounter a loading screen is when you enter races, initiate a multiplayer event or change cars. Even then the time required is delightfully short. Its technical achievement extends to the graphics department as well. Everything looks crisp and highly detailed. Texture work is high in resolution as well as in quality. The stunning lighting effects combine with complex car and object meshes to create very realistic visuals. The damage effects could have been done better, but that would be nitpicking in the face of a package that works so well as a whole.
The PC version looks especially fine
A Fitting Reboot
EA's much vaunted Autolog feature sees a tighter integration this time around. It makes a jump from a passive menu-based system to being actively intertwined into the game world and manifests itself through seamless notifications through, say, the billboards contained within the city. The feature passively informs you of your friends' achievements and eggs you on to pick up the gauntlet. The multiplayer challenges themselves are strewn across the city and can be engaged in a hassle-free manner. These vary from simple races to challenges that require you to attempt long jumps and other crazy stunts.
Need for Speed: Most Wanted essentially shows why Criterion is considered one of the most respected developers out there. Rebooting a game as accomplished as Most Wanted is a herculean task, considering how accomplished it was in delivering a compelling open world racing experience. Nevertheless, the developer deftly picks the right elements from the original, and does away with the flab to give a focussed and fun arcade experience that still maintains the essence of the original. The vehicle handling is fun as well as deep, whereas Fairhaven bustles with stuff that you want to indulge in rather than doing so just to plough forward through the game. Criterion's reboot then easily ranks among my favourite NFS games, standing second to only the Shift.