UK developer Criterion Games has a long history of successful racing titles behind it, from the phenomenally popular Burnout franchise to the award-winning reboot of Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit. The developer’s latest effort – Need for Speed: Most Wanted – is another reboot of a classic entry in the Need for Speed series which is, in many ways, a spiritual successor to Burnout Paradise’s brand of seamless open-world racing.
Need for Speed: Most Wanted places you in the role of a nameless, faceless driver in the urban setting of Fairhaven. You’re free to drive wherever your tyres can take you and any parked cars you discover can be commandeered by simply pressing Triangle. In singleplayer mode each car can take part in five different races ranging from circuit events to speed-based challenges. Winning races unlocks new mods for your vehicle and earns you Speed Points that raise your Most Wanted level and gradually open up races against the ten Most Wanted drivers in the city. You can only have one mod equipped per category so you’ll have to alter your setup depending on the upcoming race type. For instance, Most Wanted events always feature the police force trying to hunt you and your rival down so you’ll probably want to equip reinflating tyres in case you ride over a spike strip.
Need for Speed: Most Wanted features an incredible line-up of over forty beautifully modelled cars ranging from exotics like the Pagani Huayra to sports cars like the Lamborghini Gallardo. Each car handles differently and engine noises sound suitably brutal – even if you’re listening to them through the PS Vita’s small speakers. There’s no real damage model to speak of in Most Wanted so your car usually looks in pristine condition regardless of whether you drove into a wall ten seconds ago or not.
The game encourages you to drive and race as many cars as possible since events you haven’t entered yet earn you the most Speed Points. However, you can instantaneously jump back into your favourite ride by accessing the EasyDrive menu if you’re keen to scout the city for new cars or try out different mod combinations.
Not all the cars that you’ve located in Need for Speed: Most Wanted’s singleplayer mode will be available in multiplayer – at least not initially. You can unlock new cars, mods and paint colours in this mode by earning multiplayer Speed Points that are separate from the game’s singleplayer component. Most Wanted’s multiplayer mode serves up plenty of fun by combining both free-roaming and structured elements. An event playlist will be set shortly after joining a public match (alternatively you can construct your own and play with friends) and a message will be displayed telling you to ‘meet up’ at the designated spot on your map. The first player to arrive at the meet up spot earns bonus Speed Points and the next event on the playlist will commence automatically after a set time. These events range from team races to seeing who can spend the longest time drifting in a specific area before a team target is met. Need for Speed: Most Wanted’s multiplayer mode serves up far more varied challenges than the singleplayer experience, making it a great place to hang out when you get bored of the fairly standard events featured in the solo campaign.
One of Need for Speed: Most Wanted’s distinguishing features is how well it actively promotes social competition. EA’s Autolog system tracks a startling variety of in-game statistics and constantly compares them to your friends’ records. Speed Points, race times, car milestones and speed trap records are just some of the statistics that are tracked and compared when you’re online. Most Wanted also features a revolutionary new system called CloudCompete that not only allows you to retain your progress regardless of which version of the game you’re playing but also makes your Autolog statistics cross-compatible between a number of devices. For instance, El33tonline’s Editor-in-Chief Lisa is currently playing the game on Xbox 360 and yet she appeared on my Most Wanted list while I was playing Need for Speed: Most Wanted on PS Vita. Truly remarkable!
The PS Vita version of Most Wanted packs in all the content of its console counterparts and was developed in-house at Criterion. On the plus side this version features a number of exclusive races, but obviously certain concessions had to be made to get the game running at a decent frame rate on Sony’s handheld. Online play is restricted to four players (as opposed to eight on consoles) and singleplayer races also feature fewer opponents. Traffic and foliage density have been scaled back and certain environmental details such as rooftop water towers have been removed entirely. None of this is really an issue though since Most Wanted is easily one of the best-looking open-world games on a portable device to date while still managing to maintain a comparable frame rate to the PS3 version.
While Most Wanted is optimised for the PS Vita on a technical level, the same can’t be said for other elements of its presentation. The touch screen is completely underutilised – only being used for scrolling around the map – while most of the text in the game is too small to read comfortably (especially when your eyes are tiring after playing for a couple of hours). There is also no option to change the control configuration from the default setting, meaning that you’re stuck playing the game using a button configuration that might not be to your liking. It feels like Criterion took some shortcuts with the PS Vita version of Most Wanted and didn’t optimise the game for the handheld’s screen size or make proper use of its touch-based features. For example, it would have been welcome if you could just touch the map in the bottom left-hand corner of the standard gameplay screen to access it, but instead you have to pull up the map menu by pressing Select.
Despite these minor gripes, Need for Speed: Most Wanted is easily the best racing game currently available on the PS Vita. The cars feel very responsive and it’s always a great sensation throwing them around sharp corners at high speed. Speaking of speed, the game’s solid frame rate means that you get a real adrenaline rush when hurtling down a straight into oncoming traffic at over 300 kilometres per hour. Furthermore, Need for Speed: Most Wanted’s open-world structure lends itself well to a pick-up-and-play experience since it never takes more than a few minutes to reach your next race destination and the events themselves don’t take very long to complete. Between unlocking everything there is to unlock in the game’s singleplayer and multiplayer modes, and staying ahead of your friends on the Most Wanted list, Need for Speed: Most Wanted offers dozens of hours of engaging driving action and a constant incentive to rack up as many Speed Points as time allows. Best of all, the groundbreaking system CloudCompete means that any time you spend playing Need for Speed: Most Wanted on your PS Vita carries over to the console and PC versions. Portable racing games don’t get much better or more connected than this!