Much like its sports titles, Need for Speed has become one of EA's yearly franchises.
But the games have went through several different developers and the quality has been uneven.
Now that the newest addition to the series Need for Speed: Most Wanted is only few weeks away, EA invited Gamereactor to test the feel of speed both on screen and on a real life race track, as press from the world over descended onto Leipzig Germany to visit Porsche's car factory before getting hands-on with the game proper.
Tour over - which included a test drive around the factory's tracks in various cars - we were welcomed to the real meat of the experience by Criterion Games' dynamic duo of executive producer Matt Webster and lead designer Craig Sullivan, who once again were almost overly enthusiastic about introducing us to the game.
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First and foremost they introduced us to the location in which all the racing takes place. Fairhaven City has a lot of influences from the 2005 game as well as Criterion's own Burnout Paradise, but in it Criterion wants to provide a completely new perspective on racing games:
"Our aim was to break the traditional linear progression. Every play-through should be unique since every crossroad takes the player toward different cars and new challenges," explained Sullivan.
It's a hope, and a promise, that seems true if our first three hour session with single player is anything to go by, as the feeling of freedom was encouraging.
The game only guided me to the very first vehicle (a Porsche of course), but after that I could just roam to any direction that seemed interesting. Soon there was surplus of choices. New cars could be found behind every other corner and everyone unlocked new races and challenges. Every car has its own races and mods that enhance its abilities, or make it suitable for different surfaces. Though most of the cars are available at the start, even the very basic nitro boost mod has to be won in a race.
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The paradox of freedom is always present in open world games and to help out there is a new feature called Easy Drive. Pressing the D-Pad immediately opened multiple suggestions what to do next and also notified me whenever another journalist had beaten one of my records.
Easy Drive works as a kind of main menu, since through that, a player can choose new races, change mods and cars but also jump directly into multiplayer. It doesn't however pause the game and all the choices are done on the fly. It was something that needed getting used to and I can't count the times I ended splattered on the sides of buildings. Still after some time it turned out pretty handy and a convenient way to take my pick. Owners of Kinect can also use Easy Drive with voice control.
The most signicant revelation about the Need for Speed: Most Wanted was the game's perspective on the relations between single and multi player game modes. The game is all about competition against friends through the new and improved Autolog. Where previously Autolog mainly just tracked race times, now almost every thing in the game is compared with other people.
It is impossible to ignore and compels you to to try and beat set records time after time. Every challenge, speed camera, billboard-crushing jump, race and knocked down safety fence is recorded and also presented in-game. With your friend's face glaring on a giant billboard (plastered there for bragging rights) there really isn't a choice but to smash through and try beat his record. "The nothing more fun the that," declared Matt Webster. And he was right.
Trying to beat the other journalists was intoxicationgly fun and I had hard time of even letting go of the controller to make notes, and I'm glad to tell that when the dust settled yours truly was in top of Speed Points ranking.
Speed points are another new in the series. They intertwine every aspect of the game together and are rewarded for every completed race, challenge, takedown etc. The points also mark the way of single player progression since in order to challenge the Fairhaven's Most Wanted the player needs a certain amount of points. If you don't like playing alone that's fine. You also get points in multiplayer and through Cloudcompete it's possible to link up your game across platforms. On the way to work or school you can play the game on a smart phone or PS Vita and then continue with all those points on any home system.
The open world aspect is also strong in the multiplayer component. Instead of a lobby, players are thrown directly on the Fairhaven City's streets. Criterion wants to keep the player behind the wheel as much as possible and not waiting in for players in a lobby or a option menu.
Everything was very straightforward. Since I was the host I picked ready to go on the Criterion Speed List and the next moment we were already navigating toward the first event's meeting place. You could say that the whole city is one big lobby, and while driving to the events players can still do the same Autolog challenges that available playing solo. In the public games the transfer times are more restricted then in friend games, but in both the game transports players to the meeting place - and in the right car class, if that proves to be too difficult for some reason.
Speed Lists are a kind of mini tournaments that consist of five different events: races, challenges and speed tests. In the tests players have 90 seconds to set the record for a longest drift, top speed on a speed camera, biggest jump and so forth. Challenges on the other hand are stunts or tests that have a cooperative goal for the whole group. While playing it was quite obvious that these challenges were my least favourite part of the hands on session. If you can't get bunch of journalists work together while they are in same room think what's going to happen online!
And of course there are the races where you compete either solo or in teams. Solo is a pretty straight forward race to the chequered flag, but in team race it is the Speed points that matter. That means even the fastest driver can fall in the final standings if he hasn't done his part in disposing the opposition.
The multiplayer was at times totally crazy havoc but fun because of that. In almost every event there was an option to also try stop the opponents achieving the their goal. For example if you already got a good jump distance in a test you could then try to prevent other people of getting up to a good speed on the ramp. Gentleman drivers - don't bother.
The controls and the feel of the cars was along similar lines. The cars did have certain realistic heavy feel, but otherwise everything is pure arcade fun that is easy for anyone to pick up. When asked why Criterion didn't try for more realism Webster simply replied: "Simulation felt too trivial, it is just not fun."
After two days and over six hours of hands-on time it was time to rap up the Need for Speed: Most Wanted experience in Leipzig. I have never been a fan of NFS series and I have felt the yearly releases have watered the series down. Still I have admit that my time the new Most Wanted managed to spin my scepticism on it's head.
The open city gameplay, new Autolog and making every aspect of game a small competition made the driving and racing thrilling fun. Sure there was things I didn't care too much. The story was certainly underdeveloped and the police chases happened far to often, but still the game felt well thought and polished package.
The fans of arcade racers really do have something to wait for when Need for Speed: Most Wanted crashes in to the stores on the November 2nd.