Last Month, former Bizarre Creations developer Gareth Williams said that racing games, maybe more than any other genre, need new technology to thrive. He argued that it's harder to convince people to buy a sequel to a racing game, even great ones such as Dirt and Project Gotham Racing, without a new physics engine and graphical overhaul, something only next-generation consoles would be able to provide. It' a bold and certainly controversial claim, but after spending a bit of time playing Need for Speed: Most Wanted, we now understand exactly where Williams was coming from.
Need for Speed: Most Wanted is a reboot of the original game of the same name, although now that Criterion has taken over development duties, it's ignoring the so-bad-it's-good story that was one of the defining characteristics of the Xbox 360 launch title. After a brief description about the core features of Most Wanted (open world, multiplayer Autolog, licensed cars), we fired up a multiplayer game so we could get behind the wheel to see how it ran.
The resemblance to Burnout Paradise was stunning. After spending a minute or two driving around the open-world city to familiarize ourselves with the controls, the screen switched to a black-and-white display to announce that an event was taking place. Following the green marker on the map, we made our way to the designating starting area along with seven other players, playfully crashing into each other as we waited for the race to begin. Once the checkered flag dropped, we sped toward the goal. Because it's an open world, we could drive down alleys or take ramps to hidden shortcuts, all while muscling each other into walls and trying to cause as much chaos as possible.
Once that event wrapped up, we started two more with different objectives. In one, a ramp leading to a suspended bridge lay in a dirt-covered parking lot, and whoever got the most air off of this structure would win. In another, top speed is all that mattered, though getting your speedometer up is mighty difficult when seven other players are trying to halt your progress.
Most Wanted controlled exceptionally well and was definitely fun, something you would expect from a Criterion-made game. But it was so familiar that it was far from thrilling. Keep in mind that we saw only a brief demo of an incomplete game, but what Criterion chose to show was so similar to Burnout: Paradise that it could have been another piece of downloadable content if it didn't carry the Need for Speed name.
Criterion is fighting an uphill battle with itself. Its previous open-world game contained most of the features we've seen so far in Most Wanted, and with excellent track design and precise controls, it was just as fun to play as well. And though Paradise is more than four years old, it was so loaded with content that those who enjoyed its destructive pleasures could easily sink a hundred or more hours into that glorious oasis. Remember, not only did Paradise ship with a huge world to explore and tons of events right on the disc, but Criterion heaped on oodles of free content during the life of the game that added significant changes.
More of the same isn't an inherently bad thing, but Criterion showed little that made us excited for spending more time in an open-world experience that's remarkably similar to its previous game. Though Autolog, an asynchronous multiplayer feature that debuted in Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit, will return in Most Wanted, we didn't get a chance to see how it would change our experience given that the demonstration focused on head-to-head multiplayer. Considering Autolog gives you easy access to your friends' times and lets you set up your own challenges in Hot Pursuit, it could offer a significant change in Most Wanted, but there's no evidence of that now.
Instead, we saw events ripped straight from Burnout: Paradise, and it's simply not as fun to compete in the same racing types in a similar-feeling city with similar controls. There's no telling if better technology would make Most Wanted a more interesting game, as Gareth Williams argues. But it's hard to deny the deflating familiarity of Criterion's latest entry in the venerable Need for Speed series. We look forward to seeing more aspects of this game in the coming months, but for now, we're left with a feeling of deja vu.'