Spoiler Alert: a Need for Speed: Most Wanted Review
This article is part of a series called “Reviews You Can’t Use”, in which the author reviews a video game and lets nothing get in the way of his journalistic integrity unless there’s at least a 30% chance it would be funny.
Need for Speed: Most Wanted is a game that will need some context. So grab a jacket, put on some sensible shoes, and come walk down memory lane with me.
I remember my introduction to the Need for Speed series back in 1998 or 1999. One day, I was brought over to the house of a family friend. Her new boyfriend was (and is) really into computers. He showed me this:
It was called Need for Speed III: Hot Pursuit. Nowadays, it looks like a game you would get for free for your iPhone that charges $5 to unlock new cars, but I assure you that this was played on a desktop. It was a different time then. WinAmp, still the media player of choice, had only reached version 2. 3dfx’s Voodoo graphics chips were the best on the market. Rosie O’Donnell still had a TV show and was still in the closet. Mark, the boyfriend I mentioned, saw how taken I was with the game and burned a copy for me (which blew my mind because CD burning was still a novel thing).
So much has changed. WinAmp made it to version 5.5 before AOL gave up on it. 3dfx exploded with the tech bubble and was absorbed into Nvidia. Rosie O’Donnell is a known lesbian, and no one cares anymore. Mark the boyfriend ended up marrying said family friend. CD burning is almost obsolete.
One thing that hasn’t changed? They’re still making Need for Speed games. But today, they look like this.
The Need for Speed series is a long-running guilty pleasure of mine. It’s just not something I should like. It’s brainless, twitchy fun, and it’s not even self-aware about it. The series takes itself so seriously. As much as I dislike the American marketing assumption that life as a man is about beer, sports, and cars, when presented with the opportunity to ram through a police roadblock with an Italian sports car, I say, “OK.” When they mention that the police cars are Corvettes, I say, “Yes, please.”
I’ve stuck with this series through a variety of twists and turns as EA tried to reinvent it and keep it popular. High Stakes followed Hot Pursuit, and added the game mechanic of winning your opponent’s car if you beat them. (I don’t know why I bother with the gender-neutral pronoun. There are at most two women in any NFS game.) There was some other Porsche-themed one after that. I started to have money around the time that Hot Pursuit 2 hit, for the PS2. I bought it and loved it. Underground came after, and it was fun, but strictly rental material. There were no police chases, but it did introduce what would be the most striking feature of NFS games for many games to come: a story mode… with terrible, terrible acting. Most Wanted hit at the end of the Xbox era and reunited the street racing and campy acting (have a little taste) with police pursuits. I was back in. I won’t lie. I enjoyed it. It wasn’t Proust, but then, I’m not Kierkegaard. It was followed by Carbon, which was the same game, but prettier and set in a city called Palmont, which was Los Angeles, but without the trouble of actually being LA. Shift and ProStreet happened at some point, but they were supposed to be realistic. I wasn’t interested. Undercover looked promising, but it turns out that they doubled down on the acting and slacked on the gameplay, and the result was something I didn’t care to play for any longer than an hour. This was followed by Need for Speed: World, which looked pretty, but it was entirely online, and I don’t buy video games to talk with strangers on the Internet.
It was around this time that the NFS franchise was in trouble. It just wasn’t making the money it was supposed to, and critics were accusing EA of just remaking the same NFS game over and over for money. Also, the acting wasn’t helping. That’s when EA decided to turn the series over to Criterion Games, a UK studio responsible for the Burnout series. For the uninitiated, Burnout is a series of racing games with a focus on wrecking your opponents. One game even features a mode where your goal is to launch your car into a busy street and cause as much damage as possible. The last Burnout game had been well-received. The last NFS had not. So EA decided to have Criterion take a shot at making an NFS game. The result was called Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit. Yes, again. It was, predictably, focused on police chases, and it brought back the ability to play as a cop, something I’d missed. Violence with self-righteousness is the best kind of violence. Gone were the actors. That’s not Criterion’s style. Their cutscenes are instead about cars, scenery, and a disembodied female voice telling you what you’ve won. Black Box, the studio that made Underground and Most Wanted, made one more NFS game after that. It was called Need for Speed: The Run. In what I can only assume was a desperate attempt to justify their past attempts at plot and dialogue, they hired Michael Bay to direct the game. This was the last NFS game Black Box made before they were “restructured”.
After The Run, Criterion decided to make another spiritual successor. They produced Need for Speed: Most Wanted. A new one. That’s the game this review is about.
Need for Speed: Most Wanted, like its predecessor, Need for Speed: Most Wanted, has a single-player campaign that revolves around rising to the top of a list of racers called the “Most Wanted” list. You do this, of course, by racing them and beating them. The main difference between the two Need for Speed: Most Wanteds is that the older one, Need for Speed: Most Wanted, had people in it. In addition to Sgt. Cross and Lt. Eye Candy from the clip linked above, you meet Razor Callahan, best known for theatrically betting five grand—FIVE GRAND—on your race with him. There’s Mia Townsend, who very importantly calls things “hot” and makes that face where her mouth is open enough where you can see her teeth but not anything else but she’s also not really smiling. Each of the racers on the list has a name, a picture, and about five seconds of animated video in which to taunt you. In contrast, the newer game, Need for Speed: Most Wanted, has no people. The Most Wanted list is a list of cars. There are, of course, no pedestrians. And even when you drive a convertible and the game is obligated to render a driver for it, you get an unremarkable man in a black helmet. The only voices you ever hear are police chatter on the radio and Disembodied Female Voice explaining the game and congratulating you on winning something. When you beat a Most Wanted “racer”, you just beat “Porsche 911 Spyder Concept”. You don’t beat “Sonny”, who uses his connections to get new parts before they hit the street or has some other worthless flavor text thrown in. I never thought I’d be defending the shallow stories of Need for Speed: Most Wanted (the elder), but here I am. I miss them. They weren’t much, but they were something. Razor Callahan was flatter as a character than a piece of paper that hasn’t hit puberty yet, but at least I wanted to beat him. He took my car. He upset Female Character 1 of 2. He’s a jerk. Why am I racing Koenigsegg Agera R? Maybe he volunteers at the animal shelter on the weekends. Maybe he’s a great guy. Maybe he’s actually the second female character! All I know is I’m supposed to beat this car so that I can be the “Most Wanted” in Fairhaven, a title that would seem to carry few rewards and make it very hard to go to public places.
Look, I’m going to save you some time and spoil the ending for you. Disembodied Female Voice congratulates you on becoming Most Wanted and gives a brief but accurate synopsis of who you have beaten and what one can thus deduce about your driving talents. A montage of cars racing and being chased by the police plays on-screen. Roll credits. Then, you go downstairs, pour yourself a glass of water, sip it, and look out the window and ask yourself in a half-sigh, “Why did I do that?”
The setting of Need for Speed: Most Wanted is a richly detailed city called Fairhaven. I found it immediately tantalizing to try to pin down which city Fairhaven was, because the NFS series likes to base its cities on real cities. Need for Speed: Most Wanted (the first one) had Rockport, which echoed New York. Carbon had Palmont, which is clearly Los Angeles (with a bit of Vegas mixed in), and Hot Pursuit (the new one) took place in Seacrest County, which was an amalgam of the California wilderness. Fairhaven is a city of brick buildings and coastline, receding into forests and cliffs. This, combined with the American flag motif on the license plates, had me thinking of Boston, Philadelphia, or DC. I decided it couldn’t be DC because there weren’t enough monuments. Then, I discovered the best clue someone could ask for. It was a sign, briefly displayed in close-up, that said “NO PARKING EXCEPT MASS STATE POLICE”. So there you go. It’s Boston. Maybe it’s a good thing you never hear anyone talk in this game. (For what it’s worth, the police and Disembodied Female Voice talk with a Midwestern/Californian accent.)
Fairhaven is nonetheless quite pretty and offers varied landscapes in which to race. Wide highways, tight city streets, country roads, and pavement-free rally courses are all available. You navigate between them in an open world littered with billboards and security gates to smash, adding a fun collectible element to the game. New cars are unlocked by finding them in the city and driving up to them. They’ll just be sitting there, lights on and engine running. It’s fine. No one will steal them. There are no people in this city. The only exception to this is the cars on the Most Wanted list. You can’t drive those until you beat them in a race and then make them crash. Fans of the series will note that this is a departure from the car purchasing model utilized in Need for Speed: Most Wanted's predecessor, Need for Speed: Most Wanted.
Speaking of cars, there is a dizzying array of them available. Criterion did a good job of modeling them, too, so they look as expensive, powerful, and overall fetching as they do in real life. As you accumulate bumps and bruises, the car will show damage, though you can drive through a repair shop to instantly repair and repaint it. This is obviously grossly unrealistic, but then, there’s no whiplash, either, so I’m not about to ask questions. The cars all sound different, which makes me think they put a lot of work into making the sound realistic, but I’ve never been around any of these vehicles, so I really have no idea. You can customize the cars using a system called “Easydrive”, which is a small menu in the upper-left that you can use while driving. Theoretically. This menu uses the control pad, which is located below the joystick on most controllers. This means that you can use the menu while driving, so long as you don’t need to turn. In case some of you don’t have much experience with driving games, turning is something you occasionally have to do in them. Oh well. It’s still a way to change your tires after running over a spike strip. Did they have to call it Easydrive, though? I guess Cumbersomedrive doesn’t quite roll off the tongue.
The music selection is good. I actually discovered a couple new favorite albums from this. There is a slighly English bent to the selections, since Criterion is a UK studio. Criterion’s Britishness does not show up very often, and Fairhaven is a convincing facsimile of America. However, every once in a while, you can detect a slight tinge of Britishness, as if the game had been sprinkled lightly with the crumbs at the bottom of a bag of prawn cocktail flavoured crisps. Criterion’s biggest contribution is the game’s crash system, lifted from the Burnout series. You can earn extra nitrous by wrecking other racers and cops, and if you crash, the game simply shows your crash in slow motion and sets you back on the track. Criterion wisely deduced that if you’re going to give someone such rich masculine fantasy, then don’t waste their time making them undo their mistakes. In Need for Speed: Most Wanted, if you crashed, you had to back up, get back onto the road, and pray that no other racers hit you as you begin to accelerate again. Not so in Need for Speed: Most Wanted. A close second to the crash system is the intros that are played before each race. They are, for the most part, shots of the city and your car with artful camera angles and color shifts, but they show off the beautiful surroundings and set the stage. Most Wanted races are preceded with a pre-rendered video that usually pays tribute to the car design and manufacturing process in some abstract way. Ambush races easily have the best intros, though: surreal chase scenes that probably look like a police ambush would look if you were on LSD. Cop pyramid, anyone? Cop tornado, perhaps? Cop Voltron?
This game’s primary problem, in my eyes, is that I don’t know its audience. Its biggest selling point, back when it came out, was that you could compete with your friends. There are hundreds of leaderboards where you could compare your time to all of your friends’. One for every track, billboard, and speed camera. You could play live against them, too. But I don’t have any friends that like this series. I’m kind of ashamed of liking it myself. I cannot see telling one of my friends, “You should buy this $60 game so that we can race each other. But probably not anyone else, because I don’t know anyone else that likes these games.” I suppose one could have also played with strangers from the Internet, but I don’t buy video games to talk to strangers on the Internet. Now, I’m not saying no one enjoys that, but it’s not my cup of tea, and of the people I know that do, none of them like this series. I’m kind of wondering who bought it in the first months after it came out. Need for Speed: Most Wanted must have leaned heavily on its online support, because the story wasn’t keeping anyone around. Oh, and you might have noticed my deliberate use of the past tense in this paragraph. That’s because EA shut the servers for this game after 2 years, so none of the online stuff works anymore. Come on, EA. I’ve been to Redwood Shores. I’ve seen your place. You have some money to throw around. You can keep a server running. No one’s playing it anymore, so you’d only have to run one server.
So there you have it. It’s pretty. It’s fun. Until you realize that there are no people… just an endless stretch of expensive cars seemingly driving themselves incredibly dangerously.
Maybe this game was set in LA after all.
Final Score: Ford Mustang Boss 302/Shelby Mustang GT500