When the PlayStation 2 slim released in late 2004, I desperately wanted one. Of course, so did every other kid on the block. Those weren’t just the days of golden gaming, they were the days of Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit 2. There was nothing like a game of getting away from the highway patrolmen in a fast car. Even if it wasn’t real, there was a certain thrill to the game. That’s just how the Need for Speed games make you feel: like you’re there, in the car, fighting for freedom of the coastal roads with your Lamborghini Murcielago. Preferably the green one.
Then, last year, the new, revamped Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit came to the iPad and iPhone. I thought it’d be the best day of my life once again. Sadly, while the game was fun, the experience wasn’t as good as the first two in the series and I completed the game within a week. But EA has returned this year with yet another reconditioned title — Need for Speed: Most Wanted. It’s on all the major consoles and iOS, so why not buy it? Well …
A Speeder’s Primer
If you’ve never played Need for Speed, let’s go over the basics. In a nutshell, this edition of the game is about racing any car you can afford until the highway patrolmen come to force it to crash into a guardrail. Sometimes you’ll participate in a street race with a selection of opponents, other times you’ll find yourself out by yourself on a time trial (don’t run out of time; replenish it by driving through checkpoints). There is one constant: you’re always being chased by a car with blue and red flashing lights.
There’s no story to this game, just achievements and the money you get from winning races. You get extra points for drifting and “jumping,” which, in their opinion, is getting less than a meter of air by going too fast over a small hill (No, this is not a monster truck game of off-road madness). Lastly, nitrous is a valuable asset. It builds up automatically, but crashing a cop into a wall or guardrail will fill it immediately, so try your best to hit ‘em hard.
As with all games that aim to give the user a good experience from the start, Need for Speed: Most Wanted throws you into the gameplay with a race. There’s not a menu to be seen when you first start the game, but rather a tutorial that shows you how to play. It’s the most superfluous element of the game, yet somehow it manages to stay on your screen for over thirty seconds. While you’re trying to race, the tutorial tells you how to do so correctly. What happened to the “Skip Tutorial” button or the opt-in?
Another thing that’s missing from the tutorial and start screen is a difficulty selector. Almost every game has one of these, and it should be a requirement for racing titles. Once you get further into the campaign of Most Wanted, you’ll discover that things get so hard a small mis-drift will land you in last place. And it’s not like Real Racing where you can upgrade your car either; you have to purchase a brand new one and there’s no way to sell the old. There are modifications later on in the game, but they’re limited to “slots”, which remove the potential of them being a fun feature. In addition, having to add them again and again costs a pretty penny and is just ridiculous. Why can’t customisations be permanent?
Controls Lack That Sense of Control
It would seem that the folks at EA finally got the controls on their racing games right. At last, every developer is on the same page when it comes to driving shiny cars — if you haven’t wrecked yours yet — using an iPhone. Turning the iPhone left and right to steer feels natural and not having to hold your finger on the screen to accelerate is definitely a plus, but what if you want to speed up and brake at your own choice? You should be able to go to the Settings menu and change the control scheme. Not in this game.
The Controls pane of Most Wanted’s settings has two programs: Tilt to Steer and Touch and Swipe to Steer. You can adjust the sensitivity by sliding your finger over the corresponding bar, but that’s it. There’s no option for manual acceleration or braking, nor is there a setting to enable a manual transmission (more on this below). But you can still swipe upwards for nitrous, since you’re in the need of momentum.
As with this game’s prequel, Hot Pursuit, the absence of a manual gearbox can drive people away. It’s unlikely that EA will be bringing this kind of immersive control back to their games in the future because even consoles don’t have it available. Why make such a big fuss about a something like this? It was one of the best parts of the original games. It’s one more thing to make you feel like you’re really driving the car: it gives you more control. Without it, where’s the challenge? It sneaks in that unsealed gull-wing door of yours.
Better, Smoother Graphics Than Real Racing 2
Everyone has played Firemint’s Real Racing and its sequel, but then the company was acquired by EA. You wouldn’t expect this new Need for Speed to have better graphics than what’s been called the best on iOS, yet somehow it does. In fact, they’re even smoother — I haven’t had a single bit of lag, even with all the usual apps (Mail, Music, Day One, My Little Pony) open — than Real Racing 2. Best of all, everything is even Retina-optimised — everything.
After playing the game for a sensible 12 hours or so, it’s hard to use something that’s pixelated and designed for a regular old iPhone. This game is of such high quality that it makes everything else of its genre and some similar ones (first-person shooters, for example; but not Infinity Blade) look like substandard rubble. That’s a hard thing to say about any game, but it’s the most true here. Even titles that I’ve declared nice looking in the past, like Bastion and Fieldrunners 2, are on a completely different level of graphics — one that’s a generation behind this one.
Screenshots of the gameplay won’t suffice, nor will gameplay video because neither of these is the experience in your hands. While that experience isn’t the best it could be, the graphics performance and perfection on an iPhone 5 is superior to all racing games available on the platform today. Simply put, this game is the best-looking of any in its genre on iOS, especially from Electronic Arts. The graphics alone make it worth downloading, which brings me to the gigabytes.
No iCloud Sync and Large Installation Size
All great games have their downsides: Real Racing 2 has in-app purchases, something for lazy people who don’t feel like putting in their hard hours for a nice car; Fieldrunners 2 for the iPad had some serious lag at first; Angry Birds lives on; and Letterpress doesn’t accept the veritable word “Wookie.” This title has its fair share, in addition to there being no manual gearbox option.
It’s become a popular request that universal games include iCloud sync. Even ones that are separate apps for each device, like Beyond Ynth, should have this. When it’s not included, angry unsatisfied users are just waiting to pounce. And with Need for Speed Most Wanted, there is sadly no exception. If you want to sync your progress across devices so you can pick up on the subway where you left off on the couch, you’ll be sorely disappointed. Even EA’s pesky Origin/Autolog does you no good in the realm game-saving.
Lastly, it’s important that you know large this game really is. While it shows up as only 592.7 MB in the App Store and your iTunes library, it becomes a colossal 1.7 GB when installed on a device. If you have a 8 or 16 GB device, this could mean some of your apps or music will be left out in the cold just so you can play this game. The reflections of the rain on the in-game streets are nice, but are they worth 1.7 GB of your other content?
Not a Lemon, Hopefully a Start
This game indicates that a lot of things have changed at EA since the days of the original Most Wanted. The company’s definition of fun is much less desirable than it was before. It’s as if the development team lost a few great members who brought life to the franchise. There’s no personality in this re-installment. As one villain would put it, “Why so serious?” With a few thrills here and there, this game seems to be focused more on its graphics achievements than anything, and that’s a shame to see.
Initially, this release was deemed unfit for combat because of its missing features and difficulty level. It’d be nice to put some confidence in the developer to fix these issues. Nonetheless, after looking at the track record of EA and its iOS games, this seems unlikely. Case in point, Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit never got optimised for the third generation iPad’s Retina display. Likewise, Undercover has not been updated in over three years and will probably never get iPhone 5 or iOS 6 support. The same (no promise of future updates) goes for every EA title available on the App Store today, and it doesn’t stop there.
The question of what makes developers forsake their originally well-built products is for another time. With this app, it’d be nice to see improvements in the future, not just a bug fix per year. Its issues are but specks compared to the bigger picture. The developer has to start somewhere, though.
When it comes down to the question of “Should I buy this or not?” the answer is simple: get it if you have faith in EA and believe they will improve it over time. No, more manual controls and less Origin is not something the developer will be implementing in the future. Aside from little feature additions though, this instalment to a great franchise needs to receive the patches that real console games are entitled to, even if it will result in the game costing more. People want to pay for entertainment that lasts, not the kind that fades away after a few years of wear.