“They play so, so fast.”
-Jazz great Django Reinhardt, after first hearing Dizzy Gillespie’s bebop standard, “Salt Peanuts.”
You may think you’re quick. You may think you’ve got a handle on virtual speed. Just wait.
Wait until you’ve played Need for Speed: Most Wanted U. Wait until you’ve spent a night crawling to the top of a race leaderboard, shaving tenths of a second off of your times in race after race, until you’ve experienced the rush of topping all of your friends, only to wake up the next morning and find that someone else has shaved a full three seconds off of your lap time and deposed you.
It’s a testament to Most Wanted that the shock and discouragement wears off so quickly. The fun factor is so ridiculously high, the sense of speed so exhilarating, that the only thing that matters is getting back behind the wheel.
Mercifully, this portion of the review won’t take long. In recent years, the Need for Speed series has attempted to add in actual plot, like in 2008′s Undercover and 2011′s The Run. Those games were released to tepid reviews, and for good reason. If we wanted to watch a bad version of The Fast and the Furious, we’d just watch every film in that series released since the original.
Most Wanted wisely sets such distractions aside, and puts the important things first – cars and speed. There’s a loose narrative of getting to the top of a list of the eponymous 10 “Most Wanted” racers, which is revealed via a brief introduction when you pop in the game. After that? You’re set loose into the city of Fairhaven (an open-world sandbox) to achieve that goal, a Porsche and an Aston Martin as your guide. What else could a petrolsexual want?
Criterion made waves by adding in PC textures to the Wii U’s inaugural NFS. Was it worth the wait? The answer is a resounding yes, with only one caveat: this game was already so ridiculously pretty that only the most eagle-eyed gamers will catch the upgrades. They are appreciated nonetheless, and if you catch yourself yanking the handbrake to pull a U-turn, do yourself a favor and stop to admire the buildings, the sidewalks, the very road you’re driving on. Once you get back up to speed, the sparks fly, debris scatters, beautiful exotic cars dent and scuff. Most Wanted may be the most technically impressive Wii U game yet, chewing through those PC textures and spitting out a relatively stable 30 frames-per-second, with minimal pop-in.
There’s more eye candy, too. Stop by a park, wait for the tire smoke to clear, and watch the leaves fall. Completely unnecessary particles? Yes. Gorgeous? You bet.
Then we have the lighting system powering this iteration of NFS, which threatens to steal the show. Paradoxically, true graphical wonks will notice the lighting most at night, with darker hues that bring out more contrast, and also make you really use those headlights. But you’ll notice it during the day, too, with wonderful camera flares and stunning bloom greeting you as you leave tunnels.
High marks for the soundtrack, too. No, not the pop tunes (which are decent driving music), but the engine noises. Any given Lamborghini or Pagani screams like a ‘roided-up meltdown siren of a nuclear power plant. Start up a BMW M3, and it sounds like God’s almighty leaf blower.
Of course, none of that would matter if the most important aspect wasn’t accounted for – speed. This game is properly quick and viscerally conveys it. There is a stuttering frame here and there, but for the vast majority of the time you get only eye-popping, white-knuckle speed. Scenery absolutely flies past your view, then blurs into everything and nothing as you hit the nitrous. Most Wanted will make you forget that it doesn’t shoot for 60 frames-per-second by making sure you can’t count a damn thing at 200 mph.
Need for Speed has usually straddled a precarious line between the extremes of flat-out arcade racing and simulation racing, with the Shift games being sim outliers. Most Wanted doesn’t toe this line, and casts its lot with the arcade bunch. In fact, you can almost put it in league with kart racers (the random, often maddening traffic in Fairhaven acts as a sort ever-present Blue Shell).
The nitrous/boost function is integral, so get used to it. The luck of not hitting random, heavy traffic can be pivotal. The steering has three modes only: oversteer, understeer and numbness in-between. Differences in handling and vehicle physics exist but are hardly pronounced. You’re rewarded far more for drifting around a corner and trading paint than you are for perfectly kissing an apex. Some odd bugs creep in (races offline have moving starts at about 85 mph, but occasionally you will start off around 30 mph, putting you at a distinct disadvantage). There isn’t even an option for a manual gearbox.
That last point bothered me to no end when I first fired this game up. No button press or stick makes up for a proper set of foot pedals, but there is a level of speed control achievable when you can directly ramp up and down the transmission. It’s also a more rewarding, engrossing driving experience, and ensures that you’re never wanting for a downshift when you rear-end someone while going up a hill. Yes, there are times in this game where it is actually possible to wish that a Bugatti Veyron has more power, as you wait for that automatic transmission to downshift and your boost meter to fill back up.
But then, I adapted. Most Wanted will not let you accept it as anything other than an outlandish adrenaline needle to the heart. That numb steering? It’s set up that way because us gamers aren’t Ayrton Senna, and twitchy steering at 180 mph will get us into trouble. The only techniques you’ll need to master are drifting, boosting and being brave enough to see just how far you can push each car. When you do, the city of Fairhaven becomes a madman’s lair for wretched speedometer excess, and really, that’s why you want this game, isn’t it?
That isn’t to say there isn’t depth, mind you. The all-pervasive Autolog is constantly keeping track of what you and anyone on your friend list is up to. There are ramps for you to set jumping-distance records on, speed cameras that will earn you bragging rights, and the times being set in the races themselves. It’s all recorded in Autolog, and checking its leader boards (or “Speedwall”) makes for an addictive meta-game. Also, for an arcade racer, there is still strategy for those who seek it. Want to trim down a lap time? Perhaps you could power slide through that bend, or get through that spray shop (which replenishes your boost), or equip off-road tires for that shortcut, or try it with long gears to see if you can shave off any time on the straights. Most Wanted is as shallow or precipitously deep as you make it.
Plus, there’s a ton to do with the Wii U’s GamePad. You can play the whole game on the 6.2″ screen, or you can use it for a sort of “God Mode” (changing night into day, turning traffic on and off, switching cars in an instant), in which you can bend the game to your will. You can even use it as a motion controller, standing in for a steering wheel.
Conclusion and Score Range
This is undoubtedly one of the Wii U’s showcase titles. It may well be the prettiest game on the system (I could nitpick some blurry tree textures or minor pop-in, but that’s it), besting the PS3 and 360 versions, albeit with minor tweaks. The GamePad is utilized in clever ways, the first downloadable content pack is included and the online mode (which, admittedly, can seem a touch too free and aimless from time to time) could provide you with hundreds of hours of entertainment…if you can ever pull yourself away from setting lap times offline through Autolog.
Low score: 7.5/10
You will find frustration, as you set a near-perfect lap, and then watch incredulously as your Nissan GT-R careens into oncoming traffic, the victim of terminal understeer.
High score: 10/10
The speedometer says 201. Your thumb twitches, trying to keep it in a straight line. Hit the brake and set up a drift, then nail the boost. Fairhaven’s beautiful sites bleed together and all is right in the world.
Need for Speed: Most Wanted U is a bravura piece of arcade racing, ludicrously fast and incredibly fun. Well done, Criterion.
Second Opinion – Ryan C.
To any regular visitor of the site, it should come as no surprise a lot of us were looking forward to Need For Speed Most Wanted U. In a rare case in which a large number of us bought it, we figured we’d do something new and offer different opinions of other staff members. My experience with Need For Speed U is unique in that I was solely playing offline. My Wii U has trouble connecting to my internet so at the time of writing I couldn’t explore the online features. With no online, is Need For Speed worth for those who just want to play by themselves?
I found the game hard to control at first. This is my first Need For Speed game and my racing game history is mostly limited to Mario Kart and F-Zero. After a few hours of exploring the well-crafted city of Fair Haven, I got used to it and was drifting, boosting and pulling U turns in a blink of an eye. The sense of speed is blistering (and almost too much sometimes). Trying to react to traffic while dealing with the cops mid-race can be a challenge, but with this difficulty comes that classic feel of accomplishment only games can provide.
One thing I was worried about was that the game would get tiring very quickly. I thought after doing the Most Wanted races and seeing the city that the game would feel “over.” Thankfully, the amount of fun I have by just driving around is high. One play session I had was two-hours long and I only participated in two races. I kept telling myself “I’ll clear this area of billboards and call it quits,” but then I’d discover a new car to try, or some gates to smash which would lead to another area full of sweet jumps and billboards. It’s surprisingly addicting finding them all, and I’m generally not the type of person to go for 100% completion unless it’s story related or unlocks new levels (i.e. has some benefit rather then just for the sake of doing it).
One area I found a bit annoying was the very same fast paced nature that I love. During some races, I found that trying to balance the cops, traffic and coming first was very difficult, especially at night where the visibility is reduced. Sometimes a pedestrian car would come out from a blind turn and cause you to crash. Thankfully though, the Wii U gamepad can alleviate some pain, such as changing the time of day to the afternoon, or turning off traffic. I actually found the game more fun focusing on the racing rather then avoiding traffic. Maybe it’s a bit cheap but I think it’s a fair trade.
Lastly, I find this game quite gorgeous. Driving through the mountain side with sunlight pouring in through the trees and chain-links fences offer some of the most impressive visuals I’ve seen on the system. I notice some shadows and bushes are pixelated, but that doesn’t matter when you’re cruising down the highway at 160 mph. One area of the presentation I found lacking was the music selection. Most of it is serviceable; some songs I can’t tolerate and others are amazing. Music is as subjective a form of art as any, so maybe you will appreciate the selection better then me.
Despite being limited to offline play, I still had a ton of fun with Need For Speed: Most Wanted U. Whether I was crashing through billboards, trying to unlock pro mods for my favorite vehicles, or making the most-wanted racers eat my dirt, I was always having fun. If you buy Mario Kart games and get enough fun out of 32 tracks that make the price worth it, then the amount of content worth exploring in Fair Haven is staggering. To repeat what Mike D. said in the main review, I got to give props to Criterion Games for offering more than just a straight port and proving the Wii U is more than meets the eye. Kudos indeed, Criterion.
Third Opinion – Alex B.
Even as I rage intensely against an almost arbitrary crash, my bliss over beating a difficult record — set by the most competitive gamer I personally know — is ten times as intense as my rage. Just like Dark Souls gives you that moment of elation after dozens of defeats, so does Need for Speed; both games are at their best when giving the player their true moment of glory at the end of a tunnel of despair. It’s a true victory, and one increasingly more difficult to attain if you try to keep up with your friends — each subsequent victory made more deeply true and sweeter for it.
There truly are many reasons to rage against this game: retrying an event takes a lot of time (for such a fast game), races are often decided by the hand of fate by tossing in random traffic into your circuit, handling of your vehicle changes wildly with every slight difference in terrain and tiny bump in the road you encounter, and your visibility of the road is dependent on the time of the day you catch the race. Every time you retry a race, then, you find a similar, but nevertheless new and often unpredictable challenge.
In part, then, the incredible taste of victory in this game comes not solely from mastery of its mechanics, but also from receiving good fortune, and defeating the “cheating” machine of fate with uncanny foresight.
But even when fortune takes your due and leaves you wrecked against a cop’s car, there is still an immense amount of fun to be had from playing this game. While I mentioned earlier the vehicle handling as sometimes a flaw in the game, the truth is that it’s still a pleasure to get the car to go right where you want it, even as police cars, rival racers, dumb traffic, treacherous turns, the sun glaring against you, and uneven terrain all try their best to defeat you. There is more than enough depth to this game, even without considering the variety of cars and their specific handling, strengths, and weaknesses, to keep you learning something new after dozens of hours of gameplay.
Finally, even when you are the true master of the game and have taken over every single record your friends have set upon you, you will still find joy in this game’s most primal appealing quality: its immense sense of vertigo. The last time I felt so satisfied with the speed of a racing game was with F-Zero GX, and unless we see a brilliant F-Zero sequel, Need for Speed: Most Wanted’s sense of speed and vertigo might not be overtaken anytime soon.
Low Score: 7.5 / 10
- This is undoubtedly one of the Wii U's showcase titles. It may well be the prettiest game on the system (I could nitpick some blurry tree textures or minor pop-in, but that's it), besting the PS3 and 360 versions, albeit with minor tweaks. The GamePad is utilized in clever ways, the first downloadable content pack is included and the online mode (which, admittedly, can seem a touch too free and aimless from time to time) could provide you with hundreds of hours of entertainment...if you can ever pull yourself away from setting lap times offline through Autolog.
High Score: 10 / 10
- You will find frustration, as you set a near-perfect lap, and then watch incredulously as your Nissan GT-R careens into oncoming traffic, the victim of terminal understeer.
- Terminal understeer? In Godzilla? The car that nearly killed Jeremy Clarkson with its grip?