Game Picks: Need for Speed: Most Wanted - A Criterion Game

CorrespondentDecember 6, 2012 

As with films, video games have their own conventions within certain genres. When you go to see a film noir, you can expect hardboiled crime drama, dark and cynical heroes, maybe a femme fatale or two. If you play a certain genre of video game – survival horror, for instance – you can expect stealth-based combat, limited resources and, of course, zombies. Lots and lots of zombies.

Racing games are one of the oldest and broadest genres within video games, spanning a wide range of styles from detailed vehicle simulations to cartoon kart racers. But certain conventions endure: You race on pre-designed tracks and you earn vehicle upgrades as the game progresses.

“Need for Speed: Most Wanted – A Criterion Game” (multiple platforms; $59.99; rated E10+) tosses both of those conventions out the car window. By crossing the city driving game with the open-world paradigm of sandbox-style RPGs, “Most Wanted” breaks a lot of rules on purpose.

The first difference you’ll note, in single-player mode, is that almost all of the vehicles in the game are available immediately. You don’t have to earn your new set of wheels by winning races or climbing up a leaderboard. Instead, cars are scattered around the sprawling city of Fairhaven at so-called Jack Spots, indicated on your mini-map.

In other words, you don’t earn your new car. You steal it. Such is the sad trajectory of moral accountability in today’s kid-friendly racing games. (Thanks, “Grand Theft Auto.”)

“Most Wanted” also dispenses with the idea of pre-designed tracks, unlocked in sequence, which you conquer one at a time. The tracks are instead threaded through urban environments throughout Fairhaven. You just roll up to a designated Startling Line (also indicated on the mini-map) and start spinning your wheels. Other interested drivers will converge and you’re, yes, off to the races.

Both of these changes are designed to facilitate action in the online multiplayer mode, which is what “Most Wanted” is primarily geared toward. You can race with friends or strangers in individual or team races, plus one-off stunt challenges. The persistent scoring system leverages the open world concept by letting you just roam around the city together, if you want.

Jump into a sprint or challenge and the game keeps score among all the essentials. Every race and stunt earns you Speed Points, and the game tracks individual records in a dizzying number of categories. Who’s got the top speed on the bridge? Who made the farthest jump off that parking garage ramp?

For outlaw racers, the real fun can be found within the “Need for Speed” signature experience – police chases. Outrunning the law is bedrock American car culture fantasy, and the cops giving chase in Fairhaven are smart and persistent.

Once a squad car gets on your tail, radio chatter will inform you of arriving backup. Police erect roadblocks, which you can ram through or try to circumvent by going around or – preferably – over. These scenarios reward lateral thinking (and lateral drifting). For example, when approaching a police barricade with more cops in pursuit, use the handbrake to pull up and 360 at the last minute. The pursuing cops will punch a hole for you and you can circle around and casually drive on through.

Control and handling in “Most Wanted” feels responsive and authentic. Vehicles of different styles and weights respond appropriately – trucks are heavy and hard to handle, while open-wheel racers turn on a dime. With the open world, steal-your-own-car system, your options feel endless.

You can drive an everyday vehicle like the Ford Focus, but why would you when you can hop in a Porche 911, or a classic Dodge Challenger, or a Tesla Roadster?

“Most Wanted” is safe for kids, as long as you don’t mind them smashing up cop cars for fun. There’s no bad language, no blood – no people at all, actually. Just fast cars careening around an indestructible city. May as well let the kids get it out of their system now before that learner’s permit rolls around.

New This Week: More open-world FPS action with “Far Cry 3” (PC, PS3, X360), the DLC adventure “Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim – Dragonborn” (X360) and “The Hobbit” movie tie-in madness with the arena battler “Guardians of Middle Earth: (PS3, X360).

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