The box for Need for Speed: Most Wanted says Need for Speed: Most Wanted on it. And then, in a font that’s bigger than the words “Need for Speed”, are the words “A Criterion game”. And those are indeed the key words, as anyone who played Criterion’s previous racers will know. Like Criterion’s Burnout Paradise, Need for Speed: Most Wanted is a fast paced arcade racer set in a large open city, where you have the freedom to go wherever you want to and choose events in pretty much any order you like. In fact, the game shares so many similarities with Burnout Paradise that as soon as I saw the first gameplay video, I nicknamed it I Can’t Believe It’s Not Burnout, a name that has stuck with me.
The core of both: a rock solid open world racer, with buttery smooth framerates and stunning graphics. It’s all cranked up a notch in Most Wanted, though. Shiny cars kick up dust and bits of other cars as they race, chase and smash each other into tiny glittering shards. All this occurs in a beautiful city with a day and night cycle, a gorgeous lighting engine and some of the best engine and exhaust noises ever heard in a racer. The sound of the Lexus LFA supercar racing through a tunnel is a real treat for the ears.
Mentioning the Lexus LFA brings up one of the key differences between NFS and Burnout, as the Need for Speed series has always featured real world cars, and there are loads to play with here. Cars vary from the Everyday category (Mitsbushi Evo X) to the Exotics (Lamborghini Avantador), and all have their own feel to them. A pickup truck doesn’t feel like a Ford Focus, and an Ariel Atom V8 doesn’t feel like a Lamborghini. In general, though, handling is typical Burnout, meaning loads of drift, nitrous and going sideways around ninety degree corners. Boost is earned by drifting, taking down opponents, driving into oncoming traffic etc, encouraging you to take risks to get the rewards. Races are much better signposted than in Burnout Paradise, as the game no longer expects you to navigate your way around the city at 200mph+ using just a mini map. Instead, a series of checkpoints ensures you keep on the right track as you tear across the city.
In terms of what races or events you play, the game encourages you to go your own way. Cars aren’t unlocked in single player by completing races, rather by just finding them parked up around the open world and pressing a button to switch into them. And once you’ve found something, a car or race etc, you can quickly jump there using the easy drive menu system, meaning no driving half way across the city to pick up your favourite car. The only cars you’ll have to fight to earn are the Most Wanted from the title. The game has 10 cars which you will have to win. To get these cars, you need to play enough events to unlock a shot at them, then race them and win, all whilst avoiding the chasing police.
Ah, the police. In many events, you’ll be participating in a regular race, then some way into the event the police will get involved. This makes the already incredibly fast and frantic street racing even more hectic, and nicely turns up the heat on the action. The police are also to be found cruising around the city between events, so there’s a whole sub-game here of just ramming a cop and then trying to cause the biggest chase you possibly can. It’s great fun, but can be somewhat irritating when you are simply trying to cross the city to start a race and accidentally end up in an OJ Simpson style highway police chase.
Multiplayer, again, works like Paradise, but with some changes. You and your friends are dropped into the open city, to either do as you like, competing against each others times, jumps etc, or to play the new Speedlist events. Speedlists mix up all of the different kind of events you can play, with you all competing against each other. There are a number of improvements over Paradise, though. You no longer have to drive all the way to a garage to switch your car, as you can do it on the fly through the Easy Drive menu. If an event requires all the players to meet up at a location, anyone not playing ball gets teleported there quite quickly. If someone doesn’t bother to attempt the challenge, it will time out. Put simply, they’ve pretty much ironed out all of the irritating niggles found in Paradise.
It’s not perfect, though. Sometimes in a multiplayer race you’ll crash and end up on a road above or below the actual race, and a glitch where the HUD entirely disappears actually ruins a multiplayer game for everyone in it until the affected players quit. And although you can set up your own choice of events to play in a Friends only game, the only option to play in a Public game is a mixed bag of races, challenges etc, meaning if you just want races OR challenges you’re out of luck. It’s clear that this has been done to stop people just playing events they know well over and over, beating all comers, but it’s a shame none the less. Criterion very clearly mean you to play with and against friends, as the entire game is geared towards encouraging competition with people on your friends list, going as far as to display your gamer picture on billboards that other players have jumped further through than you.