The folks from Criterion Games are touring the U.S. promoting the Wii U version of their action-racing game Need for Speed: Most Wanted, a “reimagining” of the 2005 game, and I got a chance to check it out at a recent Electronic Arts event in New York. While the game came out last October on other platforms (Windows, PS Vita, 360 and more), it took a little while longer to get the Wii U version together. Criterion has used that time to good advantage, tweaking the graphics and adding a “co-driver mode.”
The Criterion team emphasized over and over the superiority of the graphics of the Wii U version. Criterion VP Alex Ward said that the Wii U version was the best looking “by far,” pointing out that the Wii U draw rate on the road was double that of the PS3 version.
The team seemed particularly besotted with their nighttime work; every one of them would look over at the game during night driving and rhapsodize. Jayme Figuero, their product marketing manager, claims it is their “best night ever,” saying that Criterion had brought in “a new team from the movie industry” to redo the lighting. While some developers have claimed that the Wii U is less capable than the 360 and PS3, Criterion found otherwise, saying the console’s “extra horsepower” allowed them to use the high-resolution textures of the PC version.
The game is quite good looking, with nice visual effects. The headlights flow smoothly over the roads at night and there is a cool blinding-light effect when you exit tunnels in the day.
Besides improving the visuals, Criterion has added the Co-Driver Mode that allows the player with the gamepad to help out someone who is steering with another controller (the game supports every possible controller. You can use the gamepad’s analog sticks and triggers, a Wii remote and Nunchuk, or a pro controller, or you can steer via motion controls with either the gamepad or remote). If you see the driver about to crash into a wall you can take control, swerving the car to safety and then relinquishing control back to the driver. If the driver is about to run into a car, you can tap on the touchscreen to turn off traffic, emptying the roads. You can also use the touch screen to toggle day and night driving or switch cars.
If you’re steering with the gamepad, you can, of course, do all this yourself, but it’s pretty tricky to change night to day while speeding down a heavily trafficked road.
The goal, as Figueroa explains, is to avoid a situation “when two kids are playing a game and one kid says ‘you’re not very good at this’ and they take away the controller and say “’let me show you.’” Co-driver mode, which Criterion originally thought of as “Father-and-Son Mode,” affords a way for a more experienced player to help out a beginner and allow them to avoid the frustration that comes with trying something new. “The most common problem in a driving game is people hitting a wall,” says Ward. “It’s second nature for me to press the left trigger and get out. Many drivers don’t work it out. They drive into the wall and say, what a stupid game. The first time I ever showed my nephew the first Burnout [another game from Criterion] he put it down after 30 seconds and said, ‘stupid game.’ It broke my heart, it really did.”
“As developers,” Ward continued, “it’s easy for us to make a game harder, more complicated. It’s hard to make it easier. That’s what Jobs and those guys at Apple did so well, make that technology accessible. I think Nintendo are the people that are doing that now. Wii U is what brings people together, that shared experience. We thought for years about how to involve a second player; what can they do?”
With Figueroa riding shotgun I sped down the road. The co-driver experience is interesting. At one point I was just about to hit a barrier when the car magically swerved, just missing it. Figueroa insisted at the end that he did very little beyond putting me into boost mode, but there were definitely times when my car developed a mind of its own. Figueroa could certainly help me, but I realized that a more mean-spirited co-driver could use the gamepad to torture me, purposely steering me into a barrier or suddenly turn on traffic and an inopportune moment. From what I know about kids, that will definitely happen.
Criterion is also integrating the Wii U Miiverse into the game. Every time you complete an event you can post drawings or screen grabs on Miiverse. And a screensaver mode that kicks in if you pause the game for a while will include, besides a look at other tracks, Most Wanted Miiverse posts.
While it’s hard to really judge a game based on a few minutes of play – having not played a racing game in some time, I crashed more than I drove - the enthusiasm of Criterion has raised high hopes in me, which is the point. Says Ward, “We came because we thought that if we weren’t here as Criterion showing off our work then people would think, it’s a port we’re not proud of it. We’re very proud of what we’ve done. Porting the game, releasing what we’d already done, just wasn’t interesting to us. It’s really important to us to do something special.”
Will it be as special as they intend? Hopefully. We’ll find out for sure when the game ships on March 19.