‘Tis the season for big name game releases and I was recently given the chance to spend a few hours with one of them. It’s always a treat to be one of the first people to sit down and play a game that will eventually be in the hands of millions of gamers, but this preview stood head and shoulders above the rest. In order to get a hands-on test of EA’s latest Need for Speed release, Need for Speed: Most Wanted, I had to fly to Leipzig, Germany.
I have to confess that I am somewhat of a poor traveler in general, and particularly so when crossing multiple time zones. When the offer was made to cross no less than six time zones, I had to think about it for, well, less than a second. Why the easy decision? Well, it was because EA had gone the extra mile and sweetened the pot considerably. The hands-on play sessions were to be hosted by the Porsche Driving School in Leipzig, and as part of the event we would be given the opportunity to not only ride in a very high-powered car under the control of a professional driver, but we would also get a chance to drive (at a much slower pace, of course) some of Porsche’s finer products ourselves. As I said, it was an easy decision!
The trip over the ocean was every bit as physically uncomfortable as I had expected it to be; I don’t know what it is about Germans that causes them to build seats that provide zero lumbar support, but that design methodology has clearly infected the folks at Lufthansa. No more than ten minutes in the seat, nowhere near even pushing back from the gate, was enough for my back to be screaming in protest. That situation did not get any better in the next seven hours of flying, but it was somewhat mitigated by the world class service offered up by the Lufthansa flight attendants.
Traveling to a foreign country is always difficult if one doesn’t speak the language, but it’s even tougher if one is careless enough to arrive on a weekend (when the banks are closed) with none of the local currency in hand. Which is precisely what I did. Fortunately, the crowd of gaming journalists heading for Leipzig was big enough that I inevitably ran into a few others on the way. At least one of them had the foresight to bring money, so I was able to borrow enough to buy a train ticket from the Leipzig airport into town. Amongst the Band of Four that teamed up at the airport, though, I was the only one that had thought to bring a printed Google map to help find our hotel once we reached the downtown Leipzig train station. Teamwork at its finest!
The hotel was spectacular, but seemed to have been designed with a strong form-over-function bias. I was not alone in the difficulties I encountered in what should have been simple things like turning on the lights. For awhile it seemed as if my normal luck was holding true and I was the only one to get a room with no electricity. I was somewhat embarrassed to later report to the gang that it had taken me a good fifteen minutes to figure out that the key card had to be put in a wall slot to get the power to come on. I felt a little better when I found out that one of the guys had resorted to using his iPhone as a flashlight to find his way around in his room after the sun had set.
The gang that met in the hotel lobby the next morning for the bus ride out to the Porsche facility numbered close to fifty. This was a pretty big deal indeed! As we got off the bus and moved into the Porsche lobby, we were separated into two groups. We were each required to sign a liability release form, the most frightening aspect of the contract being the stipulation that we would be individually on the hook for 2,500 Euro if we wrecked one of the cars. Not a bad deal if I was allowed to keep the husk, but that probably wasn’t what they intended. With the form signed, the two groups were split, with one group heading out to the paved track to drive Porsche road cars, and the other group (my group) heading out to a line of Porsche Cayennes. We would be driving the Porsche SUVs on an off road track.
The Cayenne that I selected was one of the more powerful available with a strong engine married to a turbo, but I figured that was just lipstick on a hog. To test that theory, I let a gap build up between me and the truck in front of me, with the sole goal being to get some clear road in front of me so I could see what happened if I punched the gas to the floor. I’m here to tell you, truck or not, that thing really scoots! Once we got to the off-road course, I also found out that it can climb a 45 degree slope and can ford water traps that come up to the floorboards. As interesting as that was, I couldn’t tear my mind away from the high-powered sports cars waiting for me back at the paved track.
The process at the paved track was very similar to that used at the off-road track. We were paired with a co-driver, and we would change seats after each lap. Once we had both driven a given car, we would move to the next car in front of us. The drivers of the frontmost car would move to the end of the line. Since we would be strictly forbidden from passing the car in front of us, I wanted to make sure we never ended up at the back of the line stuck behind someone that couldn’t keep up. With that in mind, I picked out a nice Carrera 4 Turbo located in the front third of the line to start in. That turned out to not be the greatest choice since the leader set the first couple of laps at a very slow (or so it seemed to me) speed, so I couldn’t really exercise the turbo. replayed my trick from the SUVs and let a large enough gap build up that I could get a reasonable feel for the acceleration capabilities (very good!) of the car, and that also gave me a chance to play with the paddle shifters. I have to say, I was downshifting that thing like I didn’t own it because, well.... I don’t. There is nothing on this planet that sings a more seductive sound than an aggressively downshifted Porsche! It roars, burbles, and pops like a dyspeptic dragon. Pure auditory bliss!!
By the fourth round we had moved very close to the front of the line, and even better we were sitting in a Porsche Carerra GTS. Now if you consider that the typical Carerra is what could be called a “trackable road car,” the GTS moves the needle closer to being a “roadable track car.” We had also gotten to the point where the front of the pack was moving at a pace that could be considered pretty fast. It was turning out that my initial choice of car could not have been better! It was looking like I would get to drive the fastest car on the track at the fastest pace of the day!
My co-driver, as it turned out, had a different idea.
As we were exiting the last chicane before the straight, he, for reasons I still cannot fathom, kept his foot planted in the gas and drove us right over the curb and into the dirt. As if that wasn’t bad enough, we were flying across the dirt pointed directly at a retaining wall and all I could hear was “GGGRRRRRR!!!!” coming from the engine. As I yelled “GET OFF THE GAS!!!” he shifted the unwarranted pressure on the accelerator to a panic-induced slam on the brake pedal, while simultaneously yanking the steering wheel to the left. This had the (maybe deliberate, probably not) effect of causing the car to slide sideways towards the wall, with my side of the car being the side having an appointment with infamy. All I remember thinking was, “Hmm, this might hurt.” and “Gee, I hope this guy has 2,500 Euro, because I think he just spent it!” Luckily, we slid to a stop in a cloud of dust about four feet from the wall.
It was at this point that the leader got on the radio and asked just what we thought we were doing. No answer from us, of course, since it was a transmit-only radio, but I was pretty sure we would have a face-to-face meeting back in the pits. And, we did. It was my turn to drive then, but the leader quite petulantly got on the radio and said that “Now we must go slow.”
After lunch we all gathered in a small theatre to get a briefing from Criterion’s Lead Designer for Need for Speed: Most Wanted. He attempted to explain just what it meant to be “most wanted,” but to be honest it was somewhat of a muddled message. It seems as if they went through a number of different possibilities during the game design and the one that stuck was that the game has the player in search of the most wanted cars. Having played the game for four hours now, in retrospect I’m still not sure if that definition matches 100% with the game experience.
Our first two hours were single player and I had opted to play on the PC platform. We were led to a couple of large rooms that normally provide garage facilities for the school cars, but now had a few dozen comfy chairs placed in front of large TVs, each attached to a PC or game console. As I started playing the game, I was struck by one thing: FINALLY someone has developed a game that addresses my pet peeve with racing games. I have always resented having to unlock cars that I already paid for. There is none of that (well, almost none) in Most Wanted.
The tagline for Most Wanted is “If you can find it, you can drive it.” That should not be mistaken for a Grand Theft Auto type of gameplay where you can just walk up to any car in the “world” and steal it. The way it works in Most Wanted is that there are dozens of licensed cars, ranging from a Ford pickup truck to high-end speedsters such as Maseratis, placed in various locations in the city. As you drive around, you will see them with the manufacturer’s logo hovering over the top of them somewhat like a beacon. You simply pull up next to the car and it’s yours. There is no garage model per se; the cars just stay wherever you leave them and you can teleport back to any car you have taken from anywhere in the city.
As I noted above, there are some exceptions to this manner of finding cars. There are some select cars that are the “most wanted,” and you won’t find those just lying around town ripe for the plucking. To get those cars, you have to earn the right to race against the current owner. If you beat him, you can then take his car, but he won’t let go of it easily. You have to win it by “taking him out,” which does NOT imply dinner and a movie. You have to wreck him. So, the storyline behind Most Wanted, such as it is, is kind of a mixed bag. The intro video describes a city that is plagued by very capable street racers and the top ten of these racers are the most wanted by the police. Later in the game, though, ‘most wanted’ seems to refer to their cars, not their status with local law enforcement. Fortunately none of the murkiness of the underlying story really matters. It’s a Need for Speed game, after all, not a drama. It’s all about driving fancy cars fast.
I postulated that the ‘most wanted’ theme may have gone through some changes as the development of the game progressed, and I say that for one reason. After spending quite a bit of time avoiding being busted by the swarm of cops that were chasing me and using Hot Pursuit style tactics to stop me, I found to my surprise that the penalty for getting caught was.... nothing. From that point on I found it far more expedient to just let them catch me so I could get back to the business of winning races. This to me seems an odd design decision to make if the dev team was working under the ‘most wanted by the police’ paradigm, so I suspect there may have been a late stage change to the meaning of the game. But as I said, so what? I’m racing cars, not reading a book.
The next day was multiplayer day. I’m not normally a fan of multiplayer, but this time I really got into it. Perhaps because the other players weren’t anonymous avatars but were in fact right there in the room with me had something to do with it, but I had more fun than I expected. The way it works is that a collection of players are grouped together in a Speed List. (Don’t hold me to the accuracy of this; I was doing more playing than recording of notes) and the list of players is enrolled in a series of races. Most of the races were Point A to Point B, but some were skill-based (most time drifting, highest speed through a speed trap, etc.) Each race was preceded by a race to the starting point of the race, and those were often just as much fun as the ensuing ‘official’ race. There was, of course, a lot of trying to wreck the other players involved, too. Done correctly, a player could score enough points playing wrecker to finish pretty well in the standings even if he didn’t actually win the race.
I don’t know if I would find all of the wrecking stuff as likeable if I was playing against a random group of strangers, though. I think it might get a bit irksome. As it was, I found the multiplayer to be somewhat aspirational. After all, who doesn’t dream about getting so rich with a group of friends that they could all buy $350,000 cars and race around town wrecking into each other? Why, that’s as American as apple pie!
Four hours was enough time to get a decent feel for the game, but given the sandbox style of the design I am sure there is a lot more to learn. I look forward to getting my hands on the release version and providing a more in-depth review. Stay tuned!
Editor's note: EA paid for travel and accommodations for this trip