Let’s be honest here – Need for Speed Most Wanted might as well be called Need for Speed Takedown Paradise. Developer Criterion tuned its racing credentials on the open roads of Paradise City in the Burnout series, and cruising through the streets of Need for Speed Most Wanted feels like a scenic homage to that beloved urban racing arena. It’s a surprising move considering Criterion’s debut Need for Speed title, Hot Pursuit, shifted from the sandbox to a series of lengthy linear tracks, and the pay-off was a tighter focus on more controlled, action-packed racing. Has Most Wanted’s return to open word racing sacrificed the intensity and detail afforded by Hot Pursuit’s linear tracks, or has Criterion managed to bring the best of both worlds?
While I would have loved to test the PC version of the game, PlayStation 3 preview code was the only version available at the event. It was a surprising choice of platform for EA, as most punters will agree that the PS3 tends to run cross platform titles like a 1982 Corolla firing on three cylinders, especially at the preview stage. Unfortunately the demo confirmed these fears, with a framerate that often looked like a PowerPoint slideshow. A bad case of the jaggies didn’t help the game’s cause either, with anti-aliasing undoubtedly sacrificed at the altar of draw distance.
Despite these flaws, the actual geometry of the world still shone through the blocky pixels, with the city environs packed with buildings, bridges and other urban scenery providing a tasty backdrop for the high-speed shenanigans. Car models were also exquisitely rendered, easily the equal of those in Hot Pursuit and lathered in the detail and attention these modern masterpieces of industrial design deserve.
The demo focused exclusively on multiplayer, where eight game writers were pitted against each other in the new Speed List mode. This strings together five different event types, allowing for lengthy online race sessions uninterrupted by menus and loading screens. It’s a style that Codemasters could do well to borrow, given its love of making racers wait. The event kicked off with a speed trap event, where each car was clocked going through a speed camera; the fastest speed recorded wins the event. It was here that I first noticed the odd way in which Most Wanted handles starting grids – there aren’t any.
Each racer is given a point on the GPS that they must head to; only once every racer is in the general vicinity can the event start. A short timer counts down and then the event simply kicks off, regardless of which direction you’re facing or how close you are to the starting line; cars aren’t placed into a neat, orderly starting pattern, which played havoc with my OCD.
It also meant those unfamiliar with the system were just leaving the starting line while the pros reached the half-way point, but it shouldn’t be much of an issue once gamers get used to it.
The next race was a standard point to point event, and it was here that I could really sink my teeth into the new handling model. Given that each car’s stats are tuned to reflect their real life counterpart, the sluggish, heavily-laden feel of my Aston Martin Vantage V12 was more indicative of the real car’s handling than the game’s overall feel. As expected, tapping the brakes before accelerating kicks the car into a drift, while the e-brake (handbrake for us Aussies) should only be used for extreme hairpin makeovers.
Unfortunately I couldn’t test any other cars, so it’s impossible to judge whether all of the cars feel so boat-like. According to the producer they’re not, and based on my prior Burnout/Hot Pursuit experience I’ve got every reason to believe her. My first impressions are that Most Wanted’s handling is definitely more realistic than the zippy radio controlled cars of Burnout, but by no means does it come close to simulator territory.
A novelty jumping event was up next, where racers had to launch over a large ramp to see who could hurl several tons of steel and rubber through the air the furthest. Like all events, it’s possible to sabotage other racers’ attempts by giving them a close encounter of the head-on kind. Smashing a rival out of action is called a Takedown — a name I’m sure I’ve heard somewhere before. Performing a Takedown seemed a little too easy, with even relatively low-speed shunts forcing a car to respawn, losing precious seconds.
By the end of the Speed List I’d also sampled a spot of team racing (where I managed to come second despite being grouped with the Brenna “L-Plates” Hillier) and a drift challenge, which turned into more of a Takedown trial given the intense rivalry between competing gaming critics. Despite the technical shortcomings of the PS3 version, the racing remained fast and furious throughout, and the diverse neighbourhoods of the city always provided a unique backdrop for each challenge.
Any concerns that drivers will simply be hooning through an endless Sydney CBD lookalike can be dispelled, as my brief fling saw me sliding through sewers, careening over construction sights and hurtling down hillside vistas. Whether or not Most Wanted can match the intensity of the police chases in Hot Pursuit remains to be seen, but with a release date just five weeks away we don’t have to wait long to find out.