E3 2012: Need For Speed: Most Wanted Hands-on Preview (PC)

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The next game from Criterion (Burnout Paradise, Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit) was heavily rumoured to be a brand new entry to the re-invigorated Need For Speed franchise, although there were dollops of speculation regarding the possibility of the return of the studio’s Burnout action racing series.

More recently, however, EA and Criterion have confirmed that Need For Speed: Most Wanted is to be the pair’s next game and from our hands-on time during E3 2012 it’s looking nothing short of thrilling.

E3 2012: Need For Speed: Most Wanted Team

Steve Cuss, Craig Sullivan and Alex Ward pose for a friendly team photo

We were greeted by the game’s playful creative director, Craig Sullivan, as well as Criterion’s Steve Cuss and Alex Ward who all together took us through an impressive demonstration of the team’s new racer, and new vision for the Need for Speed franchise.

Sullivan was keen to point out that Criterion has only made a single Need For Speed game before Most Wanted in another series branch reboot, Hot Pursuit, and ironically enough that game is sitting at the same Metacritic rating (89%) as 2005’s NFS: Most Wanted ‒ a fan favourite title and previously the highest rated title in the franchise.

Need For Speed: Most Wanted Screenshot 1

The main focus in the 2012 edition of NFS: Most Wanted is not only the game’s all-new car handling system and the huge open-world setting where exploration is vital to progression (harking back to the open-world feel of Burnout Paradise), but Sullivan also made sure we were aware that Most Wanted will feature a vastly improved version of the company’s Autolog system ‒ Autolog 2.0, if you will – which the developer says is ten times as powerful as anything we’ve seen from the series’ social connectivity backbone before.

But what is Need For Speed: Most Wanted (: the 2012 edition: by Criterion)?

If I were to draw parallels, I would describe Most Wanted as an open-world exploration racing game, similar in scope to Criterion’s Burnout: Paradise. While playing Most Wanted, you’re encouraged to simply drive around the provided city (the only environment available, as far as we know) looking for goodies to collect, gates to crash across, billboards to smash through and speed cameras to zoom past. Plus more.

There will also be opportunities to swiftly and seamlessly enter a street race in the city simply by arriving at the right place and triggering a race event ‒ again, similar to Burnout: Paradise ‒ and once the race is over, you’ll simply continue to drive along the streets after a brief report on the winners and losers of that race.

Driving in Need For Speed: Most Wanted seems to be very different to previous Need For Speed games (Hot Pursuit by Criterion included) and is based much more in realism rather than arcade thrills. Heavy, plodding cars will feel weighty and be at least a little difficult to control and get used to, while speedier, lighter sports cars are much more twitchy at the wheel and can change direction in an instant.

In Need For Speed: Most Wanted, gone are the days of being able to effortlessly throw your car around corners with the deft use of accelerate and brake, but nitrous boosts are still intact while it’s still very possible to slide ninety degrees into a turn with the handbrake.

Visually, Need For Speed: Most Wanted is looking very impressive. Sullivan himself said that the cars of the game are the best looking in any previous Need For Speed title. The silhouette of the cityscape stretching out into the distance makes it feel as though the world is massive and invites you to continue to explore, while detail closer to the car and the ground you’re speeding across doesn’t let the graphics side down, either ‒ peeling off of the main streets into an alleyway will reveal a crafted series of twists and turns complete with fire escape ladders, garbage on the ground, dumpsters and dramatic lighting for an authentic ‘dark alley’ experience. I don’t want to meet anyone there.

Need For Speed: Most Wanted Screenshot 2

Why would you be taking a shortcut? Other than trying to gain an upper hand over your opponents during a race, you’ll be trying to evade the police, naturally. The police aren’t too keen on racers running amok in the city and if you happen to infringe on the law (by smashing into a car, for example), the police will hunt you down until they bust you. While in a pursuit, you’ll need to lose the chasing police car by getting away from it (ducking into an alleyway or performing racing feats unmatchable by the pursuers) but Criterion will also now allow you to swiftly change the colour of your car (to appear different and throw the police off) as well as change your car on the fly.

That’s right! You can highjack another car from the comfort of your own vehicle at the press of a button after driving up alongside your stationary quarry. If your car doesn’t have quite the speed you want, or the durability, you can find another car parked in the city and swap vehicles in what the developer calls ‘Jack Spots.’ The police will also be chasing after you if you cause damage to the city by destroying lamp posts, gates and other objects, which is tracked and accumulates in a ‘Cost to State’ counter.

As mentioned, while driving around the city there are loads of little activities and challenges to find, and this is where the new and improved Autolog system comes in. A completely online addition, Autolog will track all of your achievements and records while playing Need For Speed: Most Wanted and saves these to compare against your friends. Driving around minding your own business and having fun destroying billboards, for example, can result in a vicious battle for dominance as you and your friends compete to see you can find all of the billboards first, or who can be the fastest when driving through a speed trap camera.

Need For Speed: Most Wanted Screenshot 3

During the demo portion of the presentation, notifications were constantly popping up to the left of the screen to tell us we had just moved up the ranking of our friends list, either improving or besting someone else’s time or challenge. Sullivan says that Autolog tracks everything you do in Most Wanted which will then act as a ‘call to arms’ for others in your friends list to try and beat. If you need a helpful hint about what challenges and activities to tackle next, Most Wanted’s Autolog screen (which manifests as a giant map of the world with points of interest highlighted around the place) is the place to go.

Multiplayer activities and modes of course also feed into Autolog, and as you’re meeting up with other players at specific spots in Most Wanted while online in order to trigger a race, you’ll be earning Speed Points (the experience points of the game) to unlock further customisation options. Speed Points are accumulated both while playing on your own and while battling it out online.

Did you manage to make the biggest jump in one of Most Wanted’s special challenges dotted around the city? You’ll earn Speed Points. Defeat your racing opponents? You’ll earn Speed Points. Race, play multiplayer, collect goodies and comment on the activities of you and your friends? You’ll earn Speed Points.

Need For Speed: Most Wanted Screenshot 4

An interesting point came up during the demo involving different ‘mods’ that you can buy and apply to your car to make it better, faster, stronger and perform better, and similarly to when an enemy kills you in Call of Duty multiplayer and their gear is shown, in Need For Speed: Most Wanted your opponent’s mod load-out will be shown to you after they perform Takedown-like hit and run.

From my time playing the multiplayer of Need For Speed: Most Wanted and seeing the singleplayer portion of the game being played, I’ve come away very impressed not only by the visuals and roaring sound of sports car engines, but by how Criterion has improved the Autolog system and will once again ensure we spend far, far too much time trying to one-up our friends online.

Need For Speed: Most Wanted is out on October 30th for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC, PS Vita and iOS ‒ watch the debut trailer for the game over here.

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