I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the games that really shaped my ideals; not to sound too cliché but the games that made me what I am today. There are definitely a few worthy contenders for this, of which I may talk about at a later date. But for now I want to address an all time favourite of mine: Need For Speed Most Wanted (2012) - hereafter NFS.
I first got excited about this game after watching a 20 minute-ish play through on YouTube, and even then I fell in love with the game and told all of my friends to get it. Then when I actually started playing the game, I realised that is so much more than the stunning graphics, great soundtrack and comprehensive collection of sounds. It’s the sense of freedom you get from it.
I’ll set the scene for you; I got this game during my GCSE year back in secondary school, and played this game as downtime in between my revision sessions… Which is a complete lie, I played this game rather than doing my revision (you would too don’t judge me). So around this time I’m between 15 and 16 years old, on the cusp of being able to drive, but still lacking that level of independence that you get from it. As such this game more or less filled the void of not being able to drive for two year until I was able, and that’s what really made it an all time favourite. It may be sad to say this but I had an emotional connection to that game; I played it when I was happy, I played it when I was sad, I played it when I was angry, you get the idea. It was a great means of stress relief from that busy time in my life. As such, it is also probably one of my most played games of all time at around 300 hours of game time.
There was just something so liberating about being able to drive anywhere you want, pick up a random car that was parked on the side of the road, and then drive that anywhere you wanted. You could literally sit in this loop for a good coupe of hours and not realise that time was moving. Furthermore, it’s one of those games where even if there’s nothing to really do, you can always set yourself a challenge within the map; it’s one of the best sandbox driving games out there (and it’s such a shame it hasn’t been remastered yet). It’s this sandbox element that the developers, Criterion, excel at. If you play Burnout Paradise (which is being remastered, praise be unto Criterion), you can really see a lot of crossover between some of the mechanics both games feature; the ease of changing vehicles, the incredible driving mechanics and the stunning visuals. But the open world exploration from both games fills me with so much joy, especially so in the case of NFS.
When I’ve played open world driving games in the past, I’ve commonly found that whilst there is a detailed map, a lot of the designed spaces either side of the road aren’t actually accessible. This is super annoying when you come from the mindset of a secret hunter, intentionally going the wrong way to see if anything is hidden there. NFS is one of the very few open world driving games in which you can actually explore these areas. For example, there’s a pier section in the city part of the map with a ramp up to a secondary platform, on top of which is a spawn point for either a Range Rover Evoque or an Audio A1. Another honourable mention for this would have to be a small back alley on a winding suburb road, which had an Audio R8 hidden in it (literally made me so happy you have no idea). Finding things like these really amazing cars, or security gates or collectibles, really incentivised this level of exploration. The cars too had audio cues when you were close to one you hadn’t yet discovered, triggering the play style of dropping everything until you found this elusive vehicle. As such, this was one of the few games I actually made an active effort to collect everything and get all of the trophies / achievements for.
Back tracking slightly to my point about creating your own challenges, whist the game did have somewhat of a story progression, by means of completing various events, once you’d reached the end of it you could still come up with a load more stuff to work on. For me this was initially getting the best time and score, out of my friends list, on EVERY event in the game. I did eventually manage it after some hard graft, but this triggered a competition between some friends any myself on some specific events, of which we had roughly 500-700 attempts on just one race. But even aside from this we were coming up with our own challenges, like getting the longest distance on certain jumps around the map (particularly the main bridge out of the city, or the jump over the lake in the Hughes Park), or getting the longest drift or trying to go for a flawless run on a specific driving line. I must have tried to complete the ‘Around the World’ race without crashing over 100 times and managed to do it only once. This is what I mean though, there was so much stuff to do in this game, outside of what you were supposed to do.
I want to give a memorable mention to the stunning visuals in this game. I have a clear memory of playing just after I bought the airport expansion, where I was driving the BMW M3 GTR featured in the original NFS Most Wanted, and I switched from the normal freeway onto the freeway road into the airport area. There was such a clear distinction between the different road surface types; the normal freeway had visible cracks and had been faded over time, but the fresh airport freeway was absolutely pristine, as if it had a fresh coat of tarmac, no tire tracks or anything. That level of attention to detail absolutely blew me away, I fell in love with driving on that road, to the point where I tried to build a driving line on it. It is so ingrained on my mind as one of my favourite gaming moments, and I even had a full blown conversation with a guy working at Game just about the road visuals from NFS, it was incredible.
A couple of the things I loved most about NFS were the obscene variety of cars, coupled with the absolute joy that was the driving mechanics. You’d boot up the game and immediately be thinking, “Right, what do I want to drive today?” For me it was normally a choice of three cars: the Shelby Cobra (favourite classic car), the Audi R8 (favourite modern car), or the Hennessy Venom GT (fastest car in the game and capable of turning any person into a screaming Jeremy Clarkson). But this doesn’t even slightly cut into the variety of cars available in the game, there were a plethora of sports cars (Tesla Roadster and Porsche 911), super/hyper cars (Bugatti Veyron and Lamborghini Aventador), roadsters and sport hatchbacks (Audi A1 and Alpha Romeo Mito), classic muscle cars (Dodge Charger R/T and Shelby GT500), cars from previous games in the NFS franchise (BMW M3 GTR), off roaders (Ford Raptor and Range Rover Evoque) and super-lights (Ariel Atom, BAC Mono, Caterham) to name a few. Each of these cars handled differently, but were all equally fun to drive due to the blissful ease of the driving mechanics. There’s nothing that makes me smile more in a driving game than being able to hit the brake button once and pull off the most flawless drift of the century. Seriously, the land of dumb grins is never too far off when you’re pulling the neatest drift up a circular multi storey ramp in a Ford GT. Anywhere you wanted to drift you could. Even if you couldn’t you could find a way. If you couldn’t find a way, you’d make a way. If anything this opened up some seriously creative play in that if you suspected you were about to crash into the back of a small people carrier, you could pop the handbrake and do a nice little shimmy to the side and be fine. That was the beauty of this game, it was phenomenal.
Another two final honourable mentions go to the Freedrive system and the police chases. My god Freedrive was an absolute gift to the world, the ability to change any of the specs on your car by simply hitting three buttons is something, I feel, a lot of developers could benefit from looking into. Especially as it opened up for a higher level of competition. For instance, I got really into a specific race which utilised both on and off road surfaces, so the smart move was to jump into Freedrive mid-race and swap from track tires to off-roadies. Pulling that off made you feel like a super hacker like you were in Mr Robot or something. Finally, I would like to give a big shout out to the police service of Fairhaven (the game’s setting). Getting into car chases was a lot of fun. It’s not something you’d always be wanting to do, but you did then it was amazing. Much like in the original Most Wanted game, you’d have various ranks of police heat, from which it would get harder and harder to evade from… Unless you were doing the chase in an SVT Raptor, in which case you could slam into police cars as if they were nothing and just rack up points. So whilst fun, the police chases were somewhat unthreatening, which is why I want to thank the police of Fairhaven for their diligence and determination in failing to catch me time and time again.
Should you need any further indication that this game is an all time classic then by all means look at any YouTube videos you can find on this game and watch in wonder. Failing that, as of around 20 minutes ago I learned that this game is available to stream on the PlayStation Now service, so my evening is sorted.
Edit: I just learned it's not actually on PlayStation Now, and now I'm sad :(