Plenty of driving genre baggage gets left by the side of the road as Criterion’s latest opens by simply telling players where the gas and brake pedals are before promptly cutting them loose to rip up the streets of Fairhaven. Expecting an extended introduction, I’d actually set the controller down before realizing that the game intended to immediately throw me behind the wheel.
The city of Fairhaven is an urban car park devoid of pedestrians and ruled over by ten most wanted racers, which feeds a singular narrative agenda of challenging and defeating them all in order to claim the title of the most infamous racer in town.
Earning the right to challenge the most wanted requires points, which are most easily earned by running the streets with reckless abandon, racing past speed cameras, evading police, and looking for any opportunity to smash through gateways in order to find jumps that allow you to smash through billboards. Along the way, players will also begin discovering Jackspots, shiny new rides that can instantly be swapped into and are added to the list of available cars. This means that every vehicle aside from the most wanted is instantly available so long as you can find it. I understand that the original release transported players back to where each car was found when swapped to via the menu, which is no longer the case here in the Wii U version.
Each new car offers a short list of events that offer a chance to gain more points as well as upgrades, which often boils down to a race or a challenge to avoid a four alarm police chase. While this offers a way to gain points faster toward challenging the most wanted, the upgrades never feel entirely essential. The difference between vehicles often involves a slight sense of weight and speed, and finding a Bugatti Veyron on the streets offers a quick and easy means to taking down the first of the most wanted. It also helps that every car comes equipped with a basic nitro boost. This isn’t to say that there’s zero incentive to gaining upgrades, I just never felt the lack of power that would typically encourage grinding to do so.
Closing the speed gap with the most wanted cars in town comes down to control more than anything. The mix of Need for Speed with Criterion’s Burnout series makes for an experience that favors a certain amount of chaos, with looser controls that kept me focused on simply trying to avoid crashes versus worrying about cranking out every last bit of speed from an engine. In fact, when you win a race against one of the most wanted, it’s still necessary to take them down with a crash in order to finally claim their ride.
It’s a little frustrating at first, if only because you don’t really need to master a sense of control beyond those most wanted races, and every other inch of this game favors a looser sense of chaos—AI cars will slide all over the road while cop cars smash into you at every available angle, all while you’re trying to bust through a wide gate to drive over a cliff.
The game rewards causing chaos as quickly as winning races, offering points for smashing vehicles and running police blockades—I suppose one difference to note about vehicles is how severely you can collide with objects before triggering a cinematic crash. But even these put you right back behind the wheel of the crashed vehicle to allow you to continue racing with no damage penalties and as if nothing really happened. The only exception is running over tire spikes dropped by the police during pursuits, at which point you’ll definitely want to stop in at one of the many instant repair shops you can quickly drive through in order to fix your ride. But there certainly is a set of controls to master, it’s more a case of offering the option to drive like a lunatic instead and still accomplish quite a bit without devoting time to really grasping those controls.
It probably sounds like I’m building up to a complaint about the driving, but the reckless spirit provides plenty of opportunity to simply have fun with some of the most expensive cars on the planet. This really takes shape most successfully in multiplayer mode, where you can join others in a series of events that feel more like a collection of party games with cars than a serious race for gearheads.
The game will issue a meet point in the city and give everyone a few minutes to arrive before auto-assigning them to the starting position. And even this proves loose on rules, with races starting while players are pointing in all directions waiting for the start signal. I found myself running a race against online opponents, only to have that come to an end and then tasked with driving to another part of the city where we all sped off a jump repeatedly to see who could score the most air time. There’s a lot of silly personality that developed during these sessions as well, with several of us honking and spinning and crashing into each other while waiting for events to start, which went a long way toward making other driving games seem stiff and boring by comparison.
That same personality started emerging in my solo game as well, as billboards started featuring my Mii after I began taking down the most wanted racers.
The game offers several control options for the Wii U—you can pretty well have this one any way you want it, starting with off-TV play on the gamepad. This option is particularly handy for having the Autolog menu a little closer to your eyeballs. Pressing the D-pad will instantly bring up the menu, which offers access to the map along with the ability to change between your cars. This is also where you can select races for individual vehicles or between the most wanted in order to create a waypoint to send you in the right direction. The menu will also offer milestone suggestions for achievements with vehicles, such as driving X amount of miles or setting a drift record, and allow you instant access to Miiverse posts.
In addition to using the gamepad for on or off-TV play, you can also use the Pro Controller, which then allows a second person to use the gamepad for driver co-op. If you want to take a break, the other player can instantly take over, but they can also change your car, change the city from night to day, and perhaps most importantly, press a button to disrupt police during chases to buy you a few more seconds to escape.
The game also includes controls for the Wii-Mote and Nunchuk, which I left till the last minute and then found to be my favorite option. There’s something about completely separating your hands with a single function that seems to make a lot of sense to my brain, particularly when drifting.
There’s a great deal of freedom to find your own game within this latest spin on Need for Speed, and the chaotic bent definitely helps extend the reasons to stay beyond simply taking down the city’s most wanted drivers. But while Fairhaven provides plenty of space to get lost behind the wheel, the static nature of the city also misses an opportunity to offer more personality. The game wants you to become familiar with the city, tasking you with driving from one event to the next, but I never really felt like I was getting to know the city and its grey bit of traffic that serves as the only sign of life. For a game encouraging ridiculous moments, it could stand to let players drive through a few shopping centers and have one or two construction yards where anything at all was moving with even the slightest pulse.
The real motivator for a visit to Fairhaven right now is the multiplayer experience, particularly on a console that’s in need of more titles that offer Wii U owners a sense of connection to one another.
Food for Thought:
1. The game features the strangest videos ever before structured events, and then spits you right into the action already in progress.
2. The police are pretty sharp here. While smashing into them certainly gets their attention, they’ll also chase after you for driving on the wrong side of the road or for speeding. There’s also quite a bit of personality that comes through police radio chatter—you get to listen to them make judgments about your driving and update one another about the pursuit.
3. While I haven’t found every Jackspot in Fairhaven quite yet, the game informs me that there are 125 in total, some of which require slowing down to investigate alleyways and dirt roads that are easily missed while speeding around town.