Criterion is best known for developing the smash hit Burnout games — which last appeared on a Nintendo console over ten years ago — but since then the studio's gone on to helm the long-running Need for Speed series of racing games. Its latest effort is Need for Speed: Most Wanted U, an enhanced port of last year's PS3/360 release and a triumphant return to Nintendo's hardware that was absolutely worth the wait. This is a wonderful open-world racer with a focus on speed, fun, and seriously reckless racing, and Wii U owners are getting the best version of it yet.
Rather than being split into distinct tracks, the entire game takes place in the continuous city of Fairhaven, a distinctly North American metropolitan mash-up that's equal parts San Francisco and Chicago, with a notable Toronto landmark airlifted in for good measure. It makes an excellent racecourse, with wide-open country roads, tight downtown turns, ribbons of highway and stately boulevards providing plenty of tarmac variety. There aren't any artificial track boundaries, even when you're in the middle of a race, so courses are really more like 'route suggestions'. They're very strong suggestions, mind - but there are plenty of times where you'll have more than one viable path, particularly in the semi-gridded sections of the city. It's also definitely possible to head off-piste by accident, as course checkpoints can be a bit difficult to make out until you get close, and though the track design is well done, there's a tendency towards 'gotcha' moments that encourages glancing over at the mini-map every few seconds to anticipate hidden turns.
It's also worth keeping an eye out for the constant presence of the police, a defining feature of Most Wanted's racing action. Cops will play into events to varying degrees, and will come after you in free-drive mode if you're speeding - though cruising at a considerate pace the wrong way down the highway (or sidewalk!) is apparently fair game in Fairhaven. Once they're on your tail, a Grand Theft Auto-style "Heat Level" meter will let you know how much trouble you're in. Smash into cop cars and blow past roadblocks and your notoriety increases, bringing bigger, badder backup to take you down. If you manage to shake the chase, you'll enter a cool down phase - stay out of sight for long enough and you're away laughing. Of course, that's not really an option while you're racing, but luckily contending with the cops up until the finish line is always more fun than frustrating, and adds a healthy sense of controlled chaos to the circuit.
The game's subtitle alludes to a list of Fairhaven's ten "most wanted" racers, and you'll have to work your way up by challenging the other drivers for their spots. Once you've beaten them on the track, you'll need to take them out for good to earn their rides. These races act like boss battles, with superpowered concept cars that require finesse and fast wheels to outrun, and are a thrill to drive once you get your hands on them.
Your climb up the wanted list is perhaps the most structured part of this largely freeform game, and the open-world philosophy extends to vehicle selection, too; most cars are yours right from the start, while others become available as you find them hidden around town at 'Jack Spots'. There's a huge collection of licensed cars to chose from, including modified sedans and coupes, classic objects of desire like Porches, Maseratis, and Lamborghinis, and even the all-electric Tesla Roadster. Car lovers will be over the moon, but you don't need to be a piston junkie to appreciate the variety - each model handles differently, and has its own set of races to run and upgrades to win.
By placing first or second in different events, you'll unlock mods to upgrade your vehicle's tyres, chassis, body, nitrous boost, and more. These upgrades are more than just stat boosts, and they all serve their own purpose; you might want to equip reinflating tyres to combat police spikes in one race, but switch to off-road tyres for a particularly muddy challenge, for instance. Tricking out every car and seeing every event will take a very long time, and being able to hop from car to car whenever you like means you'll never be stuck on a difficult race, or get bored driving the same BMW for too long. And whether you're in a heated competition or simply tooling around town, Fairhaven is chock full of places to beat your own micro-records. There are over sixty speed cameras throughout the city, which clock your speed as you zoom past, and more than 150 billboards, placed just past launching ramps, which record the length of your airborne escapades as you smash through them. If any of your Miiverse friends are playing, you'll be competing against their records as well.
The best part about the game's design is that it can be as open-world or as menu-based as you like at any given moment. When you're looking for a race or Most Wanted showdown, you can either set a course to the event on your mini-map and drive there, starting the challenge by revving your engine - or you can just press right on the D-Pad and use the Easy Drive menu to quick-start any event. It's nice to see a game embrace immersion without jettisoning traditional menus, and the fact that the open-world elements are largely optional means they never get old. In fact, simply cruising around Fairhaven is one of the most enjoyable parts of the experience. It's easy to finish one event with every intention of heading straight to the next race, only to find yourself still roaming the streets an hour later, hitting jumps and finding billboards, goading cops into giving chase, or setting personal bests on speedcams.
Part of what makes Most Wanted U so much fun is the smooth, tight control, which lands in a sweet spot between semi-realistic handling and pure, arcade fun. Driving is responsive and intuitive, but it's still easy enough to lose control of your ride by making large adjustments at full speed - as you might logically expect. It feels like you're driving the dream cars that you are, and a combination of drifting, pedal-feathering, and judicious use of the handbrake makes almost anything possible. Pulling off hairpin turns at speed feels fantastic, and crashing isn't such a big headache either; recoveries are Lakitu-like in their speed and won't set you back too far.
In addition to the GamePad, Need for Speed supports the Wii U Pro Controller, the Wii Classic Controller and Classic Controller Pro, Wii Remote, and the Wii Remote and Nunchuck configuration. These all work well, and whichever control method you prefer, you'll be well catered to. The only issue is that the Wii Classic Controller's analogue shoulder buttons don't actually seem to register as such, so true analogue throttle control requires assigning acceleration to a thumbstick. That's definitely a serviceable fix if it's important to you, but we found the digital throttle more than sufficient for running smooth lines around the streets of Fairhaven.
Along with the bevy of control options, Most Wanted U takes good advantage of its new system with plenty of Wii U-specific features. There's full support for off-screen play on the GamePad, and the game looks great on the small screen, though the reduced size does make some obstacles and turns harder to spot. More noteworthy is the GamePad's touch-screen menu, which places a wonderful amount of control at players' fingertips. From here you can turn traffic on or off at a moment's notice, switch from day to night, disrupt nearby police cars, change cars or paint colour, or view a larger version of the mini-map. These GamePad enhancements play into Co-Driver mode, the game's new asymmetrical co-op mode. By hooking up another controller, one player can drive while another provides backup and navigational assistance with the GamePad. It's a fun option that makes spectating much more interactive, and it can also be used to help younger or less experienced players: like a digital version of driving instructors' dual-control cars, Co-Driver lets the GamePad player take over steering if things get too tough.
The Wii U package also includes all the content from the first DLC pack for the PS3/360 versions, the Ultimate Speed Pack: five ludicrously fast cars from McLaren, Lamborghini, Pagani, Bugatti, and Hennessey, along with plenty of new races, all accessible from the get go. And finally, you'll see some familiar faces throughout the game in true Wii U form: your Mii will make an appearance on any billboards you smash through in your quest for long-jump records, and there's a nifty option to view a live-feed of Miiverse postings during the game's idle screen.
The GamePad features and Miiverse integration are welcome additions, but one of the best upgrades for Need for Speed's Wii U release is its absolutely incredible graphics. Simply put, this is a stunning game, and one of the most visually impressive titles we've seen on the Wii U - or any console - to date. Criterion replaced the textures of the original PS3/360 releases with those from the higher-res PC version of the game, and the difference is readily apparent; everything is presented at a level of detail that's glorious overkill for a game where you'll spend most of your time whizzing by the scenery at 200mph.
The lighting effects are particularly impressive; lens flares and sunlight bounce beautifully off of reflective surfaces in the daytime, while spectacularly realistic headlights (unique to each car) and streetlight splashes illuminate night races. Draw distance is massive - after spending a while in Fairhaven you'll be able to tell where you're headed by far-off landmarks - and the sense of speed is fantastic. The only visual let-down - and it's particularly surprising considering Criterion's pedigree - is in the relatively mundane crashes. They're still fun, but the damage doesn't seem to correspond to the crash in any meaningful way, and the effects are largely the same whether you've smashed head-on into a building, clipped a pole, or been T-boned into a highway barrier.
Helping to set the atmosphere for your high-speed antics, Most Wanted U sports a genre-hopping soundtrack with songs from deadmou5, Green Day, Icona Pop, The Who, and Dizzee Rascal, among many others. There's a definite slant towards recent electronica, but it's still an impressively varied selection; while there's no option to edit the playlist, a quick tap of the R button will skip over any tracks you're not crazy about. For players who appreciate the roar of a good super-engine, Need for Speed's meticulously lifelike sound design will be gearhead heaven; for the rest of us, there's the mercifully silent Tesla Roadster or the welcome ability to turn down the effects volume.
As much as Need for Speed: Most Wanted U does right, it's not a perfect game, and every once in a while its seams start to show. We experienced a few graphical glitches, including the odd instance of pop-up and shadows jumping while standing still, and two serious freezes that required unplugging the Wii U from the wall. And while the game normally does a good job of masking load times with in-engine cinematic sequences, its commitment to a seamless experience leads to a strange problem after races. There's a sort of post-race limbo where you're able to (and in most cases, need to) keep driving after you hit the finish line, but before the HUD and associated options load back up, and if you happen to crash during this interval, the game will let you shake it off and keep driving before finally registering the crash - and stopping you dead in your tracks - when the HUD returns several seconds later. It's not a huge issue, but it's jarring and feels glitchy nonetheless.
Need for Speed: Most Wanted U also features a unique online multiplayer mode that maintains the open-world ethos of the singleplayer. Instead of waiting in lobbies or jumping into single races, you'll join an online version of Fairhaven populated by up to five other drivers, and play through sets of challenges ranging from team races to long-jump contests, speed runs to circuit races. True to the spirit of the game, getting there is half the fun - you'll need to watch your mini-map to see where the next event starts, and racing to be the first player at the meet-up spot is a fun and frantic challenge on its own. We had no trouble with lag or dropped connections in our time online, and voice chat worked quite well using the GamePad's built-in microphone and speakers. The only issue we had with online play was that it doesn't seem possible to skip over music tracks in this mode - an odd restriction. And as fun as the online component is, it's disappointing that there's no local multiplayer option whatsoever; it would have been a blast to tear around Fairhaven with one player on the GamePad and the other on the TV.
Need for Speed: Most Wanted U delivers on every level. It's fast, fun, and absolutely beautiful, with an open-world design that creates a real feeling of freedom to go with the sense of speed. There's a staggering amount of content, with races to run, cars to find and mods to unlock, and the unique online multiplayer adds heaps of replay value. This is also a perfect example of a port done right - the graphical upgrades and GamePad-specific features make this the definitive console version. Racing fans, make room at the top of that most wanted list.