Open worlds do not belong in racing games. The two genres just don’t fit. Everything that makes an open world great is held back by being forced to explore with only a vehicle, and everything that makes racing fun is held back by the lack of direction in the open world. And yet Need for Speed: Most Wanted represents Criterion’s second attempt to bring the genres together and their second failure to do so.
An open world is meant to better establish a sense of place within a fictional universe. It gives that world a greater sense of realism because players can clearly see how this fictional world functions on a mundane level. There are civilians. There’s traffic. There’s a bunch of stuff in the world other than just you, which establishes that the world doesn’t revolve around you even if the plot does. An open world is a tool for creating a sense of immersion and for world building.
It’s also a playground that offers multiple gameplay options all the time: You can do the plot-centric missions or side missions, hunt for collectibles (there’s usually more than one type), or harass the AI until it does something interesting. Or you can just explore and admire the scenery. A good open world will get you to stop at least once to admire the environment. There’s always one spot from which we can see the whole world, and it is in this moment that it hits us that this is all open to us, that we can go anywhere. An open world should give us a sense of majesty and wonder while providing lots of gameplay options.
A racing game, specifically an arcade racer like Most Wanted, isn’t about any of those things. A racing game is about driving fast cars as fast as you can. Criterion has made a name for itself by embracing this narrow definition and crafting games that, first and foremost, give us an incredible sense of speed. Their best games then add systems that complement and complicate that sense of speed, like Crash mode in Burnout: Revenge and the weapons of Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit. The cars start slow, but that’s all build-up to their endgame; they train us to wrangle uncontrollable beasts and then let us speed to our heat’s content. These games provoke us to relish the excitement of barely being in control.
This creates a problem when I’m then tasked with exploring an open world. I don’t want to explore an open world in an uncontrollable beast that I can barely control. Moving through an open world should be effortless, allowing us to admire and appreciate that world, but exploring in a car simply isn’t fun. It’s a hassle. Your general movement is hampered by the vehicle controls. You can’t turn on a dime, you can’t reverse directions easily, accelerating to normal speed from a dead stop takes a couple seconds, you have to reverse then accelerate if you hit a wall, etc. They’re all minor things, providing only a few seconds of inconvenience at best, but those seconds add up over time. The simple truth is that a car is not as maneuverable as a person, so we shouldn’t expect a car to be able to do the same things that a human can do, like explore a dense urban environment. The fact that the camera always forces itself behind the car should be all the proof needed that these two genres don’t mix. The game literally does not let me look around, which is great for driving but awful for exploring an open world.
The open world cities that Criterion makes are also bland and boring, devoid of personality, which is an important thing in any open world. However, it would be foolish to say that all open world racers are devoid of personality. Forza Horizon is very distinct from Most Wanted, and both are very distinct from Driver: San Francisco. An open world racer can have its own unique style, but nonetheless, all those games fall victim to the same inherent flaw (with the possible exception of Driver, since you spend much of that game looking down at the city): a core mechanic that demands you not pay any attention to the world around you. When I’m playing a racing game, I’m focused on the road. Anything beyond the road is not something I notice, nor should it be, because once you take my attention from the road, you interfere with the fun of a driving game.
This is what hurts open world driving games the most. I can’t focus on driving because of the world. I spend more time looking at the map to make sure I’m going in right direction than looking at the road and avoiding traffic. It’s impossible to miss a turn on closed track, so my attention never deviates from that core mechanic.
Racing games aren’t about the realism or immersiveness of a fictional world; they’re about racing. Even the most hardcore racing simulator is about the realism and immersiveness of the car, not the world in which the car exists. The more focused I am on the car, the more immersed I become in the game. Everything that distracts me from the car, detracts from the overall experience. And an open world is never anything but distracting.