Sitting behind the wheel of just about any of Fairhaven’s numerous real life cars is an exhilarating experience, but the real joy in Need for Speed: Most Wanted rests in vehicle discovery, the connected content, and the get-to-business attitude of this open-world racer. Whether competing online with friends, searching for a new ride hidden away in some vacant parking lot, or speeding through city streets to avoid the aggressive police, you’ll never run out of things to do in this latest Need for Speed game from Criterion Studios. It’s clear the developer held onto much of its experience with Burnout: Paradise and built upon the NFS franchise after some less than perfect recent outings. Most Wanted certainly doesn’t reinvent the arcade-style racing game, nor does it perfect it. However, this is one of the most complete arcade racers we’ve seen and certainly one of the franchise’s best.
The city of Fairhaven offers an elite group of racers a playground of asphalt, and in your quest to become the very best, you’ll discover vehicles–upgraded or not from your current ride–scattered throughout the city. There isn’t much of a story here, nor is it needed. This is a racing game, and that’s what Criterion wants players to do, not focus on some side mission or random objectives. In fact, players never get out of their vehicles, even when finding a new ride stashed away in some garage. This ongoing competition to become the best racer in Fairhaven captures the attention of the police, and while occasional cutscenes introducing new races touch on this idea, it never feels artificial. Instead drivers are under constant threat of police pursuit while simply driving through the city. Speed past a copy and they will pursue.
Most Wanted takes an alternate approach to unlocking cars. While most racing games task you with earning points and winning races to unlock new rides, you simply have to find them. Manufacturer logos are pinned atop parked vehicles, which lets you know it’s free to claim for you own. Once you unlock a new car–accomplished by a touch of a button–players are granted immediate access to events associated to that specific car. Do well in these events and you’ll be rewarded with modifications and upgrades that give your car more power, a stronger chassis, more nitrous, and other features.
With just these events, you’ll be plenty busy after discovering the 65 cars. The variety of vehicles will also keep your job of becoming the best racer quite interesting. You’ll have access to everything from traditional sports cars, muscle cars, more standard cars, trucks, and other racecars. Each vehicle feels unique and ensures the associated events are interesting. It’s problematic to have a weaker car against Fairhaven’s police, which are absolutely relentless. At times it simply feels unfair to try and flee, but if you can come across a better car during pursuit, simply switch and get the advantage.
Easy Drive is a genius tool in Most Wanted. It allows you to drive through Fairhaven and simply click through events, multiplayer, and your car inventory using the d-pad. Criterion accomplished the basic idea of not needing a pause button extremely well through Easy Drive. It adds to this idea that you are spending time in Most Wanted to play a racing game, and not fiddle with a lot of menus or story.
Spending time exploring the city comes naturally by competing in events, but it’s worth taking time to check out the varied districts. The city is an absolute beauty with plenty of interesting side streets, large highways, dirt roads, and construction areas. Just about everything you could ask for in terms of driving environments is available in Fairhaven, and in this exploration you’ll likely keep the pedal to the metal. This will keep things interesting as Fairhaven is practically filled to the brim with cars–racers, cops, or others–in addition to speed cameras and destructible environments. These things all help build Speed Points–used to determine your ranking–and in addition to competing in races, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to earn your points on the roads. Speed past a camera and you’ll pick up some points. Plow through a billboard and you’ll earn more points.
All this destruction and speeding is sure to catch the attention of the police. While they can offer a challenge when using weaker cars, the police aren’t all that robust. Their tools are essentially limited to road blocks and spike strips, so if you have the right car for the job, you won’t run into too much trouble. If you do get busted, it’s important to note that not much will happen. Your events for each car are also not terribly unique, consisting of straight races, police pursuits, and trails to keep your speed as high as possible.
Events with buddies online feel far more rewarding. Someone can setup a Speedlist, which serves as a series of five events. There’s an option to keep it random, too. Some of the most fun are takedown events, team races, and drift challenges. Less successful are the random objective missions, like jumping the furthest. Objectives aren’t always clear and can sometimes be a bit tedious. In fact, all events can be a bit confusing because you don’t get a lot of time to see what your objectives are or what challenges you face. You have to drive to each event and all players have to be present to get it started. However, you don’t have to be facing the right way, which can lead to some funny starts as newcomers take off in the wrong direction. The sheer value of the social side of Most Wanted should be noted as well. With Autolog returning and tracking everything you do, there is tremendous opportunities to fight for bragging rights and tame the city’s best.
The strengths of Most Wanted are also some of its shortcomings. For example, the fact each car is only associated with a handful of events means you won’t have reasons to keep your favorite ride along for long. Sure, you can take it online, but in the single player mode, it feels more about finding and conquering each car’s events instead of perfecting your favorite ride. In addition, what Criterion has done so well in the past in regards to the cat and mouse game of cops vs racers feels lost in Most Wanted. There’s a simple reason for that: You never play as a cop. Still, the overall experience is quite rich.
Need for Speed: Most Wanted gets so many things right that it’s easy to overlook some of its small flaws. Relatively bland cop pursuits, limited events for each car, and some confusion online are certainly no reason to not pick up Most Wanted. It’s a game that begs you to play it from the minute you boot it up, and it never forces you to stop and take a break while it stumbles through a story or even the task of unlocking that perfect car–it’s available practically from the start. This is a welcome addition to the Need for Speed series and a step in the right direction for open-world arcade-style racers.