Rather oddly not we haven't been given review code by EA, even after it was released in America, but we've finally been able to get our hands on Need For Speed: Most Wanted. Criterion's latest take on the long-running series is a thinly veiled sequel to their classic Burnout: Paradise. Does the arrival of the police make things a riot? Here's wot I think:
It's Burnout Paradise 2. It's Burnout Paradise: This Time There Are Cops. And that is the best possible news. One of the most purely fun games ever, a driving game that embraced arcade fun over realism, and overwhelmed with all manner of events, races, activities and collectibles. And most of all, smashing stuff. Which was smashing stuff. There were faults, there were issues (not least for the PC version), and there was DJ Atomika. But it was predominantly a rollicking piece of entertainment. So it does make it a bit odd that this spiritual successor should have worked so hard to accentuate the original's faults.
I want to focus on positives because they are many, but the game really slaps you in the face with the negatives straight away. It's important to keep things in balance - this is overall a great game, genuinely. But it's one of those circumstances where what would usually be the issues mentioned near the end of the review get a great deal more prominence, since people have been pointing most of them out for the last five years.
Pretty much everything BP offered is here, mostly with incremental improvements. A vast city, ridiculously detailed and lovingly crafted, packed with races, cars, jumps, barriers and advertising hoardings. You have a huge array of cars very quickly available to you, all of which drive ridiculously fast (0 to 60 in around a second, generally), skid splendidly around corners, and hugely varied in handling. There's a soundtrack of horrible, horrible songs, sun glare like you're actually on the Sun, and AI racers with proper skill and smarts, accompanied by precision perfect rubberbanding to ensure races are always thrilling. Criterion know how to make racing games properly fun. They also know how to incessantly interrupt that fun.
Do you know how many times it's fun to lose a race because an NPC driver pulls out into oncoming traffic and causes you to crash? None times. It is none times. Do you know how much less fun it is to then be forced to watch a long, boring, poorly captured crash animation that you can't skip, rather than getting back to the race? It is a hundred thousand less fun.
The very worst part of BP - those slow, frustrating and unskippable crash sequences that everyone in the whole world, including babies and Vladimir Putin, said were stupid and horrible - are back. And so much more frequent. For reasons only known to Criterion, or the demonic evil that controls them, the decision has been made to make most of the cars far more vulnerable. Where once you could bounce sideways off barriers, now it's a crash animation. Where once you could clip an oncoming car on the very corner and get away with it, now it's a crash animation. Where once you could role incredibly slowly into a stationary vehicle, now it's a crash animation. And they're just as badly filmed as before, the action always just on the edge of the screen, and this time for some reason with the lighting dulled so they're not at all fun to look at. Of course you can't skip them. And it's maddening.
All you want when you've crashed in a race is to be racing again. You want to be playing. The obsessive need to punish you because a non-racing car decided to slam into you is agonising. And it's never, ever more infuriating than when you've just finished a race and upgraded your car, where when you're finally free of the slow, barely comprehensible screens of data that follow, and it puts you back on the road at 80mph in front of a wall. Here, rather than showing you the crash animation, it insists first on displaying a bunch of icons on screen that you can't understand and don't want to see, taking away even your ability to pause the game until it's finally done. And then, when it is, now it's a crash animation.
If you think I'm dedicating rather a lot of this review to this one issue, you're right. And it's because you'll be spending rather a lot of your game experiencing it. It made sense in earlier Burnout games, where crashing was the central theme. It made less sense in Paradise, where it really wasn't a theme. And it makes absolutely bugger all sense now it's in a Need For Speed game.
Moving on. There are some key changes, not least the police. And they're superbly implemented. What could have been an annoying niggling distraction is instead constant fun. They ramp up their pursuit of you, using road blocks, spike strips, etc, but you always know you're better than them. Escaping them is tough, but always possible. And if you fail, well, it's another unskippable cutscene, but perhaps here the punishment is deserved. There's lovely radio chatter from the police, which while eventually repetitive, is at least contextual and ego-boosting. "These guys are good - we're going to lose them."
Police will spot you if you're ludicrously speeding (they mostly don't care under 100mph), driving on the wrong side of the road, or being excessively dangerous, but shaking off a single cop is a synch. Where it's much more interesting is during events. Races will have trigger points where the police get involved, meaning each time you play through it'll dramatically change the experience. Even though they're explicitly trying to stop you, they mostly don't spoil things like the stupid, STUPID NPCs do, but instead give the races a new dimension.
Another new feature is the rather odd decision to have all races be car specific. Whereas Paradise had a couple of uniques per car, but otherwise a general free-for-all to upgrade your license, in Most Wanted you're trying to up your way through the ranks of the eponymous list of felons. To do this you earn points by completing races for each individual vehicle, as well as through absolutely everything else in the game (brilliantly smashing barriers, speeding past speed cameras, doing good skids, evading the cops, etc, all add to this points tally), which unlock new races for spots in the top 10. However, the effect of this is to mean each and every car (and there are, I think, about seventy million billion of them) has to be individually taken through its five races, unlocking nitro and improved tyres, etc, for each one from scratch. It's a very odd way of going about things, and means you lose the sense of constant progression that becoming more wanted would seem to imply. Still, it's a ton of extra content, each with its own hilariously bad intro sequence (that you can, thank God, skip), and that's more fun to be had.
However, the other big issue Most Wanted has is an inability to communicate. To the point where I... I actually miss DJ Atomika a bit. While there is the silky-voiced mystery lady, her appearances are sparse, and you can be left confused. One type of event requires that you maintain an average speed over a certain figure, but - um - never actually expresses that to you. In fact it does much the opposite, by informing you what prizes are available for coming first, second or third. Except it's not a race. It actually means for beating three separate speeds, but it doesn't tell you what they are before you start. This, combined with the mad jumble of information it slides across the screen in the race's achingly long load times (required to sit through for a restart, every time), as well as after, leaves the whole thing looking very poorly thought through.
This extends even to what's clearly the primary reason for playing: smashing through stuff. Jumping through an advertising hoarding isn't celebrated at all. Instead you get a tiny, thin bar above the (far too zoomed in) minimap, that mumbles how many you've hit now. The same for barriers, which are now a dull grey, rather than the distractingly alluring bright yellow of Paradise. It's as if they got slightly embarrassed about bringing Burnout's cartoon fun into the grimy world of Need For Speed.
But but but it's fun! It really, really is. I want to keep playing. I want to keep climbing up those Wanted ranks, and make the police hate me more. And smash stuff! Even if it is all camouflaged and less celebrated. I especially can't wait for the ridiculous US/UK ocean gap to be gone, so I can play online and explore if that's as great as Paradise's online playground.
I've found a favourite car, a Nissan that can take at least somedamage, and I've got it specced up splendidly. I'm loving that the more I drive, the more I discover of this enormous map. There are buildings you can drive inside, huge jumps to perform, and always the fun of tagging a police car and then leaving him in confusion. And rather splendidly, despite featuring all licensed real-world cars, they get properly smashed up to bits. Seeing damage of a licensed car is all too rare, and you'll be relieved to learn you can make them look a right state (even if they will continue to drive at 120mph without any tyres with their doors hanging off.)
It just bewilders me that Criterion seem to have stubbornly insisted on making all their mistakes again. Even the menus remain as horrendously badly designed as Paradise's, still taking an idiotic time to load, spread across so many pages, and then still not navigable by mouse. At least it doesn't play bloody Paradise City each time you load it. There's at least that. All they need to do to complete the set is promise an expansion for PC, and then never release it.
It's a shame that this caught the tail end of an aged console cycle, rather than the fresh pastures of the next, but it remains utterly gorgeous. They've squeezed more out of the limitations imposed by the 360 than I can believe, and I really cannot wait to see what they do when such restrictions are removed. The cars feel properly weighted, the controls as unrealistic as you could hope, while still offering a proper challenge with hairpin corners. And the racing is superbly balanced with excellent AI competition. It's a real shame that I still feel obliged to end this paragraph saying that all this stuff is great, worth playing, but you'll be putting up with niggle after niggle in between.
It's like being given a giant chocolate cheesecake, but forks that keep snapping. You're damn well going to eat that cheesecake, because by crikey it's delicious, but that won't stop you complaining about the forks.