It’s hard to imagine a more insidiously dangerous modern invention than the car. We position ourselves in the front seats of these giant hunks of metal, glass and plastic and careen down roadways at incredibly high speeds. Their invention and success meant that transportation transitioned from a leisurely jaunt to a fast-paced thrill with the inherent risk of death or destruction of property.
We take these risks for granted now, but to really stop and think about driving is to acknowledge that our safety is never certain in these moments. At any given instant, the person driving in the other lane in the opposite direction could fall asleep, or spill coffee on himself, or sneeze, and come careening toward you at breakneck speed. At that point, your life will change.
Criterion, the developers behind Need For Speed: Most Wanted, are exceptional at creating worlds without consequence, where the spectacular nature of the car wreck is left intact without all of the messy real-world implications. In their previous masterpiece, Burnout: Paradise, they perfected that vision, providing an open city full of cars but utterly devoid of humanity. It was a place where one could feel perfectly free to explore, race and crash.
Need For Speed: Most Wanted is a markedly different experience, primarily because Criterion oh-so-carefully introduces the concept of consequence into their formula. While the player is still utterly free to ramp, speed and flip, the game provides some cues to the existence of humanity in this world. Human beings may be an afterthought in Fairheaven, but they are present nonetheless.
While the cars of Burnout: Paradise showed no signs of a human driver, the Most Wanted cars seem to spotlight their anonymous captain at the wheel. Weirdly calm in the midst of a crash, the little man sits and waits in the driver’s seat for the flipping and skidding to come to an end. He robotically slams the gear shift in frustration. And then he keeps driving, speeding past other cars which also have people in them.
The game’s introductory cut-scene speaks of the “Most Wanted” of Fairhaven, an elite group of drivers that desires the infamy that comes with evading the cops at high speed and causing all sorts of panic and chaos as a result. All we know of them is what they do and what they drive. Our only aspiration is to be one of them. We accomplish this by giving them a taste of their own chaotic destruction. By collecting “Speed Points”, we unlock the right to challenge them, one by one, to a race.
But in Most Wanted, the races are introduced with a variety of trippy cut-scenes, showcasing the setting and frame of mind in which the race takes place. The camera then seamlessly swings down toward the road and behind your already speeding car. We don’t know how this death-defying contest ever starts. It just sort of…happens. And it keeps happening, over and over and over. We can’t really help ourselves.
But Most Wanted assures us that we will pay for these mistakes. Police are relentless in Fairhaven, determined to utterly destroy those who can’t help but play fast and loose with the rules of the road. They will make your life a living hell if they so much as catch you running over a road sign. Your best bet is to slow down and take it easy when you see them nearby. If you don’t, they bring the entire police force down on your head, and will stop at nothing until they slam you into the median and have you surrounded. You’ll hear their chatter over the radio, warning the others about how dangerous you are. You’ll fly through a service station and instantly change colors, but that won’t get them off of your case. They’ll radio in your new color, too. They’ll warn the others “He doesn’t look like he’s gunna slow down.” They’re a little bit scared of you, but they’re also just plain pissed.
You’re not going to be able to do what you want to do when the police are after you. You’ll spend a lot of time racing down interstates, through billboards, off of cliffs and up random stairs until you are able to lay low long enough to escape. In the meantime, you can’t activate races or events. Because you’ve been caught doing bad things, you’ll lose your freedom for a time.
That doesn’t mean it’s not fun. Those high-speed chases provide the impetus needed for you to explore some of the more out of the way areas of the maps, beyond the interstates and main roads. You’ll cackle as you lead the police to the roof of an abandoned building, only to see them scramble and crash all over one another. You’ll grin wide as a cop attempts to fish-tail you and instead drives directly off of a mountain road. You’ll notice a previously undiscovered car that you can drive in a hidden forest-path.
Still, if you’re tired of the man bringing you down, you can always excuse yourself to multiplayer, a consequence-free, “every man for himself” explosion of chaos. There are lax rules and instructions provided to the rag-tag group of drivers, but the starting lines are fuzzy and there are no line-ups or preparation. The races start whether you’re ready for them or not, and the first clue that you’re falling behind is the Lamborghini plowing through your front end.
Multi-player “challenges” are pure play, giving groups of cars the motivation to simply mess with one another. Calling for everyone to park in a certain spot, or acquire 30 near misses, these are some of the most memorable moments of all.
In general, Need For Speed: Most Wanted excels at providing a framework to explore the exhilarating relationship between chaos and consequence. A mind-blowing series of options lure the player from one goal to another, providing weight to the carelessness needed to accomplish them by shoving police cars into our bumpers and flipping our car relentlessly over the cliff, leaving us to sit and think, if only for a few seconds, about what we have done.
Richard Clark is the managing editor of Gamechurch, the editor-in-chief of Christ and Pop Culture, a regular columnist at Unwinnable, and a staff writer for Kill Screen. He can be reached at deadyetliving at gmail dot com or followed on twitter @deadyetliving.