Need for Speed Most Wanted on Vita is something of a rarity. While many high profile games are handed over to alternative developers who then churn out a shoddy handheld port that disgraces the franchise (*cough* Call of Duty: Declassified *cough*), Criterion Games decided to buck the trend and develop Most Wanted for Vita entirely in-house – just as Milestone did with WRC3 with commendable results.
Unlike WRC3 however, there have been no sacrifices in content whatsoever. Plainly, Criterion’s objective was to replicate the core game in its entirety on Sony’s portable powerhouse. It’s an ambitious promise, but you can’t deny they’ve succeeded.
Indeed, literally everything from the console game remains intact on the Vita version - that's every car, every collectible, every race event and every square mile of Fairhaven City crammed into one minuscule Vita game card, or a 2.5GB download if you go down the digital route.
There are even a few Vita-exclusive events thrown in for good measure, but they’re disappointingly underwhelming. Tucked away in a separate ‘Exclusive Races’ tab within the Easy Drive menu, you’re presented with ten extra races that can typically be completed in under a minute.
Interestingly, these events can be entered with any car, which of course contradicts Most Wanted’s structure of linking race events to each car in the game, and feel tacked on as a result. A little more variety and thought put into these extra events would have gone a long way into justifying their inclusion and bolstering the package, but you get the feeling that they were hastily included to fill in the blurb on the back of the box that highlights the obligatory Vita-exclusive features.
Over the limit
It’s undoubtedly an impressive feat to find a handheld game that remains so faithful to its console cousin, but unsurprisingly some serious sacrifices had to be made in order to achieve such an audacious feat. Pitted against the mobile version, which was incidentally developed by FireMonkeys, the Aussie folks behind Real Racing 3, Most Wanted on Vita looks a little rough and rusty – but then the mobile game doesn’t have to stream a seamless open world city.
Indeed, as mightily powerful as the Vita is, it’s clear that Criterion had to push the hardware hard to deliver a free roaming experience akin to its console counterpart, and the Vita unfortunately shows its limitations. Car models still look as sublime as they did on home console, sporting realistic reflections and accumulating detailed dents and scratches on the bodywork, but the expansive environment fares less well.
Environment textures look murky and low-res in comparison, and you can often see through the seams of the previously seamless open world thanks to some noticeable pop-up. But it’s the lighting that’s had the most radical adjustment - stripped of the console game’s lavish lighting techniques and fancy filters, Most Wanted’s aesthetic looks anaemic on the Vita, with a pale complexion that looks as if it’s in dire need of some sunlight. As a result, the Vita version lacks the novel touches that left me dazzled before – I miss seeing specs of dirt obscure the screen, for example.
None of this matters, however. Played on the Vita’s smaller screen, Most Wanted holds up remarkably well considering its scope, with a fast and furious frame rate that only occasionally stutters under the strain. Truth be told, it’s truly staggering how a game primarily designed for substantially more powerful hardware often looks stupendously similar on a handheld.
It’s not just the visuals that have been sacrificed, though. In an effort to preserve performance, the Vita version’s rendition of Fairhaven is mostly devoid of civilian traffic clogging up the streets – cruise down the desolate streets and you’d be forgiven for thinking you’ve entered a ghost town, in a city that already felt lifeless on home console.
And yet the reduced traffic actually works in Most Wanted’s favour on the Vita. Not only could you argue that squinting at the Vita’s smaller screen wouldn’t be ideal for dodging heavy traffic at high speed, but it helps alleviate the frustration of having to concentrate on avoiding collisions with congested traffic in a heated race, which sometimes marred the console game.
Similarly, races pit you against significantly less opponents (circuit races have five cars on-screen rather than ten and online multiplayer only supports up to four players) and you won’t see as many police cars attempt to apprehend you during pursuits. It’s a shame, because part of Most Wanted’s appeal was its ability to keep you on the edge of your seat with its raw, riotous intensity. On the Vita however, these restrictions ultimately make the races less pulsating.
Most Wanted’s reliance on open world freedom ultimately proved to be its undoing – with no concrete objectives outside of taking down the ten most wanted racers and no narrative hook to reel you in, you often felt lost on a whim, with little guidance on how to progress.
Fortunately, this is much less of an issue for the Vita version, as the open-ended structure works well in a handheld game designed to offer bite-sized chunks of high speed thrills. You can therefore dip in and out, complete a couple of races or just cruise around Fairhaven finding cars, secret gates or flee from the fuzz in short play sessions and still feel like you’ve achieved something. The fact you can turn the console on and instantly resume from exactly where you left off without any interruptions only adds to its pick-up-and-play appeal.
Navigating Fairhaven city is also made easier through the use of the in-game map, which utilises the Vita’s touch controls to good effect, allowing you to scroll and zoom in with ease.
Like the console game, Most Wanted is an absolute joy to drive. The sharp handling translates very well indeed to the Vita’s controls, allowing you to pull off slick, precise powerslides through frenetic flicks of the analogue stick with a tactile sense of weight to help you maintain the slide.
Given how similar Most Wanted is across all platforms, it comes as a disappointment to find that the Vita version doesn’t support Cross-Play, Sony’s ingenious scheme that lets you buy a game on PS3 and gain access to the Vita version free of charge and vice versa. Since both games are structurally identical, it’s certainly a missed opportunity, if unsurprising considering that Cross-Play is usually only granted for first party games, although this is said to change in the future.
Fortunately, there is still some cross-compatibility between the two games, as all the Speed Points you’ve racked up can be transferred via your EA Origin account. While this means you still won’t be able transfer your progress across both games and therefore have to repeat races if you own both games, you will at least be able to unlock mods and climb up the Most Wanted list simultaneously.
Despite some setbacks, you have to commend Criterion for remaining true to their promise and fulfilling Sony’s aspirations of full fat console gaming on the go. Most Wanted on Vita is a technical triumph that somehow manages to pack in all the content and high speed thrills of the original yet still look visually stunning, and its pick-up-and-play structure has been perfectly adapted to a handheld experience, making it the platform of choice if you can get past the limitations.
Until Gran Turismo eventually pulls up late to the party, Most Wanted can be declared as the Vita’s flagship racing game, and probably will be for some time to come.
You can also read our full console review of Need for Speed: Most Wanted here.