Most Wanted 2012: Halfway To Paradise
I love a good racing game. Especially an open-world one. Collecting a wide variety of cool cars and aimlessly roaring through a game world at high speed is one of gaming’s most simple, rewarding experiences. Perhaps the quintessential example of the open world racing game is 2008’s Burnout Paradise. Criterion’s swansong mainline entry into the beloved Burnout series provided limitless intense moments, a varied and massive open world, and a genuine sense of fun and personality.
Fast-forward 4 years, and the Burnout series is all but dead (we had Crash in 2011, but we won’t talk about that). Criterion have developed a reboot of 2005’s Need For Speed: Most Wanted. This would be their second game developed for the storied NFS franchise, and, while it shares a name with the older game, it has much more in common with Criterion’s beloved 2008 work. Most Wanted 2012 is oft-lauded as a spiritual successor to Burnout Paradise, sharing many gameplay elements as well as Criterion’s signature racing game stylings. So, how does the Most Wanted reboot fare against its older half-brother?
The game plays a lot like Burnout Paradise in many ways. Race around an open world in a bevy of cars, take down rival drivers, find and smash billboards and security gates, etc. There are a few key differences from it’s spiritual predecessor, however. Firstly, the cars in this one are real, licensed cars – to be expected of NFS, but a welcome change from Paradise’s vague lookalikes. The range of cars on offer is great – muscle cars, hot hatches and exotic supercars are among the wide selection. I applaud Criterion particularly for their decision to include a few zippy kit cars like the Ariel Atom and Caterham Superlight – darting around the map in these cars is an absolute blast.
Another difference is in how you acquire cars. In this game, you just… find them. Certain parked cars (in what’s called “Jack Spots”) can be found and driven, with the car being added to your EasyDrive menu, allowing you to fast travel to that Jack Spot and set off at any time. Some of the more important cars (the eponymous “Most Wanted”) have to be beaten in an unlockable race and then taken down Burnout-style, but the majority of the cars in the game are unlocked via Jack Spots. It’s certainly a novel mechanic, but I feel like it takes an element of challenge away from unlocking the cars.
EasyDrive, by the way, is the game’s menu system. Races, car customization, the cars themselves and more are all accessed via a menu that opens in the top-left corner of the screen without pausing the game. I imagine this was an attempt to make for a more streamlined game experience without pauses, but the idea loses its lustre the first time you attempt to use it while driving and end up making friends with the nearest brick wall. A sobering commentary on phone use while driving, perhaps?
The actual racing gameplay itself is perfectly solid. It’s a little less forgiving than Paradise, and gone are the various air spins possible in that game, but it’s traded for a drifting system that feels really satisfying to master and an enhanced sense of speed. The cars all handle very differently, so playing around with every car and deciding which one you like the most is a genuinely neat experience. Returning from Burnout are takedowns, allowing you to put rival vehicles out of commission for a short time. The crashing feels a little less intense in this one, with more rigid car models replacing the satisfying softbody simulation in Paradise. It’s an unfortunate compromise, but understandable considering the cars in this game have actual people in them.
Customisation is pretty limited: you’re basically restricted to under-the-hood stat upgrades unlocked via completing races. You can recolour your car, but you can only do so by driving your car through one of the drive-thru mechanics on the map, and you don’t get to choose what colour your car becomes. This, irritatingly, is also the only way you can fix your car if it gets busted up. This is how it was handled in Paradise as well – it was annoying and obtuse in that game, and it’s the same here. So, bad luck if you get your car in the colour you want and then crash it. At least in Paradise you could choose your car colour when you select your car; not so here.
Presentationally, the game is actually pretty superb. Graphics are crisp and impressive even after 8 years, especially compared to the much muddier-looking Paradise. The UI is a little overblown, and I could’ve done without the rain-mark effect dirtying the screen at all times, but generally this game looks fantastic. The game excels in the sound department too, with rich and satisfying sound design tailored for each car. The soundtrack is the standard mix of high-energy rock & electro stuff you’d expect from a game of this type from this era, and it gets the job done reasonably well. I found myself turning the music down for free-roam and blasting the tunes during races.
My praise for the game’s presentation does come with a pretty large caveat, however: MW 2012 really lacks a lot of the personality that Burnout Paradise had in spades. It’s got that sanitised, crisp sheen typical of the later NFS games in place of Paradise’s more grungy style, which is a big disappointment. Evidence of this seeps all the way through this reboot, from the visual aesthetic right down to the game world itself. Fairhaven City, Most Wanted’s open world, is fairly varied and pretty damn big, with built-up city areas, industrial estates and muddy rural roads dotted about, but it doesn’t feel as free and open as Paradise City. Large amounts of the city skyline you’ll see are essentially inaccessible backdrops to a scant amount of roads and alleyways, giving the world the illusion of scale – an illusion which quickly shatters after you find yourself racing down the same streets again and again. Fairhaven seems to exist only by necessity, rather than feeling like a key part of the experience.
Perhaps Most Wanted’s most egregious sin, however, is in its incessant pushing of its paid DLC. Playing in 2020, EA’s overzealous DLC promotion seems almost comical in its intensity. A large section of the map is blocked off by a wall of large red “X”-es, prompting you to “purchase the airport” when you inevitably speed headfirst into the transparent wall (my first experience with a literal paywall in a video game so far). Many of the Jack Spots you will find are for DLC-exclusive cars, and finding these doesn’t seem to be saved into new play-sessions, so the excitement of finding a new Jack Spot is often sullied by an “oh, it’s DLC” moment. The complete DLC pack still runs for around £20 which seems extortionate for a nearly 10 year-old game. I’m glad games seem to have shifted away from this aggressive style of DLC promotion – this stuff really sours what is otherwise a solid, if imperfect experience.
I think, on the whole, Burnout Paradise still comes out on top as the more complete and enjoyable racing game package (especially now, with the cheaply-available remaster including all of the DLC). But, for fans of that game, Most Wanted 2012 is absolutely worth a look despite its various shortcomings. If you just want to spend a weekend ogling at pretty cars and going fast through pretty locations, you could do a lot worse than Criterion’s 2012 effort.
Formats: PC (reviewed), Xbox 360, PS3, Wii U, PS Vita
Release Date: 30th October 2012
Age Rating: PEGI 7
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