Need for Speed Most Wanted (2012) Review

Written for Excessive Handholding.

Somewhere around 80 miles an hour, the engine redlines, a gear shifts, and my control becomes figurative at best.

At these speeds, my frantic hurlings at the steering wheel are more suggestions than expectations. The police behind me are chattering with dispatch attempting to set up a road block. Traffic drifts gracefully as I scream furiously down the road in pursuit of two cars ahead of me. All around this road, there is roughly three million dollars worth of cars hurling recklessly into the night. My small slice of that, worth about $250,000, is currently spitting flames as the nitrous oxide squeezes just a few more miles per hour out of the pistons.

At peak speeds, I can’t help but feel like I’m doing something monumentally stupid. I don’t feel like a poised and graceful racing driver, I don’t feel like an unstoppable dreadbeast of speed—after all, the cars around me in the race are keeping up quite gamely—I mostly feel like an idiot. Around the next blind corner, at about 72 miles per hour, my front right panel collides with a minivan. There is a gnashing of metal grinding on metal, the hideous crunch of aluminum being shorn from the chassis, and both of our cars take to the air. It all happens in slow motion, as if this was a planned pirouette of some kind of automotive ballet. The Lamborghini I’m driving lands on its head, hood misshapen from the accident, and spins noisily to a halt. This race is lost.

As the cars speed away, I drift through the finish line in fifth place at around 65 miles an hour. The police behind me are still in pursuit, and the boost picks me back up to ridiculous speed as authorities make chase. Outside of the tight confines of the race, the city teems with a muted sort of life. Traffic is relatively sparse, normal given a midnight race, but still leaves the city feeling a little absent. The slamming of the brakes produces little more than the sudden flash of red lights, I jerk the wheel left, and jam the gas again. The car swings a few feet tighter, and I barely avoid collision with a car in the oncoming lane. The squad car hot on my tail has no such luck, and I can hear it crumble into a mess of damage and warped bodywork behind me. The boost kicks back in moments later, and I speed off into the night.

In the newly acquired quiet, the city itself feels comfortably familiar. At cruising speeds, everything comes back into a less frantic focus. The instability is gone. The sun, slowly rising above the distant horizon, paints the buildings in softer hues of blue and violet. I find myself wanting to drive slowly, patiently, and soak the city in. The streets are bursting to the brim with all sorts of distractions, but those aren’t calling to me right now. For a moment, I just want to take in the city and the feeling of driving.

After activating a race in Need for Speed: Most Wanted, there are moments of cinematic bliss. The camera will swoop through the architecture, colors with shift and invert, as if watching drone footage drift decadently through the course. For just a minute, the unceasing hunger for speed takes a backseat to the genuine beauty of this world. The brief snippet of beauty shortly cedes to the third-person camera of the car’s exterior, the howl of the engine drowns out any other noise, and the race is on again.

At speed, controlling the vehicles never feels quiet right. Early races in a new vehicle feel sluggish. Turns never quite feel controlled, the speed the engine can reach in a straight line is far too large for the cars’ abilities to maneuver with the street’s curves and hazards. Everything is just so heavy, and it has a significant impact on how driving should feel. Except when fully upgraded with minimum lightness, then cars feel impossibly nimble. Turns happen because the controls say they should, not because they feel like they should. All weight becomes lost. In between these extremes, the handling feels more right, but it’s never quite perfect.

To keep races tense, the other cars will develop impossible handling, computer-perfect control and accuracy, and fictitious acceleration until the gap is closed. All races will go this way, on the wire, nail-bitingly close, until crossing of the finish line. The constant harassment frays on the nerves—the speed and stakes forever climbing until either player or opponent lays smashed into the concrete and steel hazards of the city.

When the race is over, new upgrades are unlocked and installed, the streets slow back down to a far more human speed. However, street corners flash speed cameras around constantly. Far more than feeling observed by the authorities, I feel like I’m being judged as a player. My top speed, a paltry 112.7 miles per hour, doesn’t even rank on the top five of the speed camera leaderboards. Every speed camera I pass, the bottom left of my screen marks my shame. My Most Wanted rating, made up of all of the scores of all of my races of all of my cars, appears every race I finish. Every car I upgrade, I earn points, and slowly climb to the top. However, more than anything, I feel like I can’t escape it. Parked cars I pass, into which I can jump, show me how many I’ve found versus how many still exist undiscovered. I’m also ranked on the global leaderboards. There are a million metrics on which I’m judged, but all of them feel too systemic to coexist with this beautiful city and my luxurious car’s place in it.

The treatment of genuinely beautiful cinematic prologues before each race feels profound and meaningful. They were put very intentionally in front of every race. Switching cars gives me a brief flash of the badges and bulges of bodywork, highlighting whichever car I’m jumping into. These moments feel like they fit best in this world.

The high-octane racing fury, the radio, the nitrous flames, the billboards, the speed cameras, and the leaderboards all feel like they’re coming from somewhere else. Somewhere I don’t particularly want to go or care about. Crashing into police cars and driving on the wrong side of the road are impressive, but foolhardy. The beauty of the sunsets and the genuine joy of well-executed corners around the parks and rural roads feel so much better. So much more right.

For a few minutes, I just drive. The radio is pulsing, but not too insistent. It plays the perfect, indie-rock mood for a long road trip. But then I see a fence I haven’t knocked over, I storm up the ramp, and plow sideways through a billboard. (Both increase my score.) My leaderboard shows me how well I’m doing. The leaderboard disappears. My car is drifting impossibly through the air for a brief second.  I don’t feel like I’m one of the most wanted automotive criminals in the city—I feel like an idiot. My car slams nose-first into the ground, my tires lose grip, and I slam into a police car. The sirens wail, I hear the police scanner start buzzing for my arrest, so I hit the boost and my engine shrieks protest as my car screams into the maze of towering skyscrapers.

Somewhere around 80 miles an hour, the engine redlines, a gear shifts, and my control becomes figurative at best.

Thoughts?