It’s not quite the smooth, finely tuned speed machine it could have been, but Need for Speed: Most Wanted U is still an exciting racer.

The Good

  • Terrific handling makes driving a pleasure
  • Police chases are usually intense and enjoyable
  • Billboards make for satisfying asynchronous competition
  • Online multiplayer races are fast and exciting
  • Beautiful and varied city.

The Bad

  • In slower cars, police chases can be a frustrating ordeal
  • Repetitive police chatter
  • Lacks any sense of narrative motivation
  • Inconsistent, sometimes dull online challenges.

Late last year, Need for Speed: Most Wanted served up a welcome second helping of Burnout Paradise-style open-world wreckin’ and racin’ shenanigans, though it replaced that game’s imaginary automobiles with the real cars that are a constant of the Need for Speed series. Now, the game has come to the Wii U, complete with a U pointlessly stuck to the end of the title. The features designed exclusively for Most Wanted U contribute little to the game, but Most Wanted is still an attractive and frequently exhilarating racer.

The flying of sparks, the sound of metal on metal, and the sense of impact make trading paint with other cars feel great.

The flying of sparks, the sound of metal on metal, and the sense of impact make trading paint with other cars feel great.

Need for Speed: Most Wanted U takes its name and some of its concept from the 2005 game Need for Speed Most Wanted. Both games take place in open-world cities and involve plenty of police chases, but the earlier game contextualized its action with a hilariously over-the-top story about taking down a crew of illegal street racers. In the new Most Wanted, you still have the goal of defeating a number of street racers, but there’s no narrative to back it up. The racers on your list are identified only by their cars–they don’t have names or faces or personalities–and without a personal investment in defeating them, doing so isn’t nearly as satisfying here as it was in the 2005 game. It is merely a structural hoop to jump through; you do it simply because the game tells you that this is what you are supposed to do.

Well, that and the fact that driving, racing, and eluding the police are really enjoyable, for the most part. Despite the stable of real-world cars, the driving isn’t realistic. Cars have a great sense of weight and momentum to them, while still being extremely responsive, and as you’d expect from a racer by developer Criterion, judicious use of the brakes and a bit of practice will have you blissfully drifting through corners at high speed. As in most Criterion racing games, boosting is a big part of racing in Most Wanted. You build up your nitrous bar by doing things like drifting, taking down cops and rivals, and driving in oncoming traffic, and you press a button to spend that nitrous. It’s a tried-and-true arcade racing game mechanic, and Most Wanted’s terrific sense of speed makes it as reliably exciting as ever.

Each vehicle has five events associated with it. Victory in each of a vehicle’s events nets you speed points, which you need to earn a set number of before you can challenge each of the most wanted racers. Winning events also gives you access to modifications for that vehicle, including chassis that make you more resistant to impacts, gears that increase your acceleration or top speed, and tires that reinflate if popped by spike strips.

Make up your own story about playing as someone who hates EA so much, he wants to smash all of their billboards.

Make up your own story about playing as someone who hates EA so much, he wants to smash all of their billboards.

In earlier versions of the game, building up your car collection was a simple, unrewarding matter of driving up to cars parked all over the city of Fairhaven. In this release, with the exception of the cars driven by the most wanted racers, you have access to every car in the game from the start. (This includes the five cars that were released as downloadable content called the Ultimate Speed Pack on other platforms.)

Although they can be accessed from anywhere in Fairhaven almost immediately, cars are still scattered across the city in set locations, called jack spots, in Most Wanted U. The upside of this is that if you get the cops on your tail as you’re roaming about the city, you can pull up on a car’s jack spot and, provided that you’ve got a bit of distance between you and your police pursuers, hop into the other car, reducing your heat level a bit. Your heat level determines just how much effort the police are putting into bringing you down. At the lowest level, you might have a few cop cruisers on your tail. As it increases, the police start setting up roadblocks in your path, and more and better law enforcement vehicles join the fray. Heavy SUVs might try to ram you head-on, and Corvette Interceptors speed along in front of you, deploying spike strips that, if hit, can seriously diminish your car’s handling.

All is not lost, however; repair shops are all over the city, and driving through one instantly fixes up your car and gives you a fresh coat of paint to boot. Like using jack spots, speeding through these repair shops reduces your heat level. Your heat level increases automatically as a pursuit goes on, and taking down police cars with a satisfying shunt into oncoming traffic, a swift T-bone collision, or whatever aggressive, effective option presents itself makes it go up significantly faster. If you get enough distance between you and your pursuers, you enter cooldown, during which your heat level declines. Stay in cooldown long enough, and the police call off the pursuit.

Fairhaven offers plenty of opportunities for you to thumb your nose at gravity.

Fairhaven offers plenty of opportunities for you to thumb your nose at gravity.

You earn speed points during police pursuits, but you get to keep them only if you eventually escape; if you get busted, you earn nothing, so the stakes can get quite high. Escape from the cops, and you feel great; see the speed points you earned over the course of several risky minutes disappear as you get busted, and you may be crestfallen. It’s a good risk-vs.-reward system that leads to some extremely tense moments. Unfortunately, shaking off your pursuers can often feel as much a matter of luck as of skill. Police are tenacious in their pursuit of you–maybe a little too tenacious, because it sometimes seems as if no amount of changing direction, catching big air, going off-road, or anything else is enough to lose the cops. In the game’s faster cars, speed can often be your savior, but in the more everyday models, it often feels like you don’t have a fighting chance.

Additionally, some parts of the city don’t have many areas that are off the beaten path; you might enter cooldown but find yourself with nowhere to hide from patrolling police who soon spot you and reinitiate the pursuit. The balance between making it very possible for you to be spotted again during cooldown and giving you good options for eluding the police was better handled in 2005′s Most Wanted, which provided you with more spots that cops on the hunt for you might or might not investigate. That earlier game also did a better job with police chatter; here, the police are irritatingly repetitive. Several times during the same pursuit, you might hear cops, awed by your driving prowess, come to the realization that they’re “not dealing with joyriders.”

It’s not quite the smooth, finely tuned speed machine it could have been, but Need for Speed: Most Wanted U is still an exciting racer.

By Carolyn Petit