Need for Speed is one of the most enduring racing-game franchises in the history of the industry. Since the first, way back in 1994, the franchise has spanned dozens of platforms, nine studios, and is about to mark its nineteenth iteration. In a highly transient industry, that's no mean feat; gamer tastes change, and the market is constantly looking for something fresh - often casting aside everything that came before it in the search for the "new cool".
While the core interaction of car and road has remained intact throughout the series, EA nevertheless haven't been afraid to reinvent the franchise from time to time. Not all of their experiments have been successful; the most recent - Need for Speed: The Run - was perhaps the most divisive, netting a pretty mediocre metacritic rating of just 64 out of a possible 100.
So where does this new Most Wanted fit into the series? A return to open-world gameplay, the title is also the second iteration to bear the Need for Speed name from seasoned racing-game developers Criterion. Their last, Hot Pursuit (2010), was extremely well received, but you might be more familiar with their other racing franchise: Burnout. And if you are familiar with that series, the structure of the new Need for Speed: Most Wanted title might seem quite familiar indeed...
Does that mean this new game started out as Burnout Paradise 2? "No," said Leanne Loombe, one of the Producers on the team at Criterion, dispelling a popular rumour about the title. "Of course, there are similarities, I mean; it's in our DNA. Every game we make, we bring the best parts into our new games. Burnout is Burnout, because that's what we were working on, but this is Need for Speed."
The Burnout Paradise comparison, far from suggesting Most Wanted is derivative, is both immediately apparent and complimentary. Criterion's DNA is instantly recognisable, and picking up the controls to Most Wanted for the first time felt like sliding into the well-worn leather seat of a high-performance racing car that I'd driven many times before.
Within a few hundred meters, I was in complete control of my Porsche; cornering felt natural and powerslides came as easily as breathing. The fact that it did was helped in no small part by the seemingly effortless finesse applied to creating the vast open world in which the game is set; corners and straights just flow into each other, and shortcuts (be they jumps between barges in the harbour or crashing through a fence to drive under a smokestack) are both obvious and fun.
The risk, of course, is that - like Burnout Paradise before it - this Need for Speed might confuse fans of the franchise, by presenting the formula in a (relatively) new way. "I think it caters for everyone," Leanne countered when I suggested as much. "It caters for people that are Burnout fans, it caters for people that are Need for Speed fans, and it caters for people that are general racing game enthusiasts as well."
To help ensure it attracts that wide audience, the game is also structured in a very open way, and Criterion have gone to some lengths to ensure that it works how they want it to. While the core formula of "racers and police, and their uneasy relationship" remains, this isn't a direct follow up to the 2005 game of the same name (which was developed by EA Black Box).
"It's not a sequel," Leanne explained, "it's our re-imagining of Most Wanted; what we think it should be. We really like the premise of Most Wanted, and it's [about] becoming the most wanted of your friends. Racing, chasing, exploring, and really having that connected social gaming experience with your friends". To enable that vision, narrative is out; if you're expecting a story driven game (like the much maligned The Run), you're out of luck. The sandbox theme is carried through to the story, which you'll craft in your imagination as you burn rubber wherever, and whenever, you choose.
That doesn't mean there's nothing to do, of course; far from it. Like Burnout Paradise, the game's open world is full of challenges for you to first discover, and then complete. Here, they take the form of cars you'll find dotted around the map (at "jack spots"), each of which has its own unique set of missions to complete. "Each car has, roughly, around five events for you to play; we've got 40 plus cars in there at the moment," Ms. Loombe stated.
Tracking which of the challenges you've completed and which you haven't is made easy thanks to the inclusion of Burnout's "Easy Drive" feature, an in-game tool that also helps you track which cars you've found, and gives you a start-of-game recap feature to help remind you where you're up to when starting a new session.
Get a record distance when jumping through a billboard and the image that appears for your friends in that location from then on will be your smiling face, no doubt encouraging them smash into it in turn
This focus on usability and interface design isn't just apparent in Leanne's description; it's obvious as soon as you pick up the controller. Everything works the way you think it should, and every car has its own, unique, pre-event introduction camera sequence. It all looks and feels like the polished, big-budget game that it most assuredly is; an impression that never once let up during my extended play experience with the title.
Something else that was obvious was just how much fun the game is to play. In addition to the previously discussed ease of control, which brings with it a feeling of freedom and speed, the core structure of the multiplayer mode (which is where we spent our time) helped to ensure fun was not only present but that it was also emergent.
A set of five different events, not only do you compete in them, but you also earn bonus points for making it to the start of the next one ahead of your friends. The events themselves varied considerably, from straight point-to-point races, to drifting and even distance jumping competitions. Competing in each, and taking down opponents Burnout-style, earns you points that help you become both the most wanted in that multiplayer game as well as contributing to your overall place on the leaderboard. I enjoyed the experience so much that, as soon as I'd finished, I wanted to sit back down and do it all again.
If you're hoping to play the game on platforms that aren't connected to your TV, you're in luck. I was able to go hands-on with the universal iOS version (I played it on an iPad 3) which, while it was more traditional in structure (thanks to the limitations of the platform), still looked and played great. In particular, the control system (a mix of tilt to steer and simple touch to brake / touch somewhere else to slide) worked much better than I had expected.
While it wasn't on display, the word elsewhere in the media is that the Vita version is also very impressive, packing in all of the content of the console version - including its vast open world. If you're a fan of Sony's newest toy, rest assured that we'll be paying particular attention to Most Wanted on Vita when the game releases in November.
Interestingly, every version of the game, on every platform, has a universal (powered by Origin) login system, allowing you to continue to amass speed points (the measure used to determine who is Most Wanted) from multiple locations, should you wish to. There's also a PC version, which Leanne assured me would take advantage of modern PC-only technologies like DirectX 11 and high resolutions.
As to a Wii U version? Rather than state "No, there is no Wii U version planned", Leanne replied to my query about it with the rather more interestingly phrased "No, we're not talking about Wii U at the moment"...
Need for Speed: Most Wanted is headed to PC, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PlayStation Vita on November 2nd. Look out for our full review soon.
Pros: Criterion: this is a team that knows racing games.
Cons: Waiting for it. November seems like ages away.