Developer Criterion Games is no stranger to making solid arcade racers. Its latest, Need for Speed: Most Wanted, delivers much of what fans expect from their games: white-knuckle races at breakneck speeds, gorgeous presentation, and solid (albeit familiar) driving mechanics. As in Burnout Paradise, Most Wanted has players racing around an open world: Fairhaven. And once again, the sandbox nature of the setting provide a fertile foundation for some outstanding multiplayer, even if it's at the expense of the single-player experience.
As expected of the genre, Most Wanted centers around winning races, while taking down opponents in the process. The list of ten "most wanted" drivers that the player is tasked with beating in the single-player experience is the closest thing to a narrative structure to be found in the game. Unlike The Run, this year's game simply relies on compelling driving mechanics to motivate players from one race to the next, not some cheesy storyline--and the game mostly succeeds in that respect.
Of course, it is a Most Wanted title, so cops show up regularly to try and shut down speeders. Police chases and roadblocks offer up some of the game's greatest, most intense moments in the campaign. Sadly, players are always pursued, never allowed to play as the long arm of the law. Though it's entirely possible we'll see playable police vehicles appear via some kind of DLC, their exclusion from the roster is a bit disappointing.
Seven vehicle classes comprise Most Wanted's playable cars, meaning that players should be able to find cars that suit their particular tastes. In single-player, rather than requiring players make their way through a ladder of events to unlock new cars, procuring a new ride is as simple as finding one of the city's many "Jack Points," pulling up next to the vehicle parked there, and hitting a button. It's an interesting design decision, because it circumvents the common trope of placing a progression barrier between players and their most coveted rides. However, it has the unintended effect of removing some of the motivation to play solo.
There are a lot of cars to unlock, which are each fun to drive, but in single-player, the amount of time you spend driving a given car will likely hinge on how long it takes you to upgrade it. Each vehicle has a handful of specific races associated with it, and placing first or second in these events nets upgrades--like nitrous that can be applied to the car on the fly. These short lists of races vary from car to car, but there's only a small handful of these events to best on a per-vehicle basis before they're all unlocked. "Pro" versions of the upgrades can also be unlocked in both single-player and multiplayer by achieving set milestones. New paint and mods, for example, are milestone-based unlockables in multiplayer.
Speed Points are the overarching currency of progress in NFS: Most Wanted, and can be earned by doing just about anything in both single-player and multiplayer modes. Point prerequisites must be met to unlock the ability to race the ten ranked cars on the Most Wanted list. In single-player, this means that it's often necessary to switch up vehicles to obtain the giant chunks of Speed Points one gets for placing or winning those races. Re-racing events with the same car only provide cursory Speed Point gains, once they've already been beaten. It's a great way to force players to experiment with other vehicles, but it's another choice that diminishes the importance of each individual vehicle within context of the whole experience.
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Clever asynchronous competition with friends can be had by doing things like racing past speed cameras as fast as possible, or smashing through billboards littered throughout the city, and the game's Autolog feature offers up car-specific milestone challenges and rewards for besting times in events raced by your friends. The real star of Most Wanted's multiplayer, however, are SpeedLists. Once in a multiplayer match, a SpeedList can be created by the host. (You can also jump into a SpeedList game with random players using the Quickmatch option.) Comprised of five random (or custom) back-to-back events--often with vehicle-type requirements--SpeedLists mix things up a bit more than the standard races you'll find in single-player. Races are there, to be sure, but you might also be tasked with odd assignments like parking on top of a specific building for as long as possible while everyone is trying to knock each other off. Or you might be asked to compete for the best jump at one of the game's numerous ramps. Some challenges are even cooperative in nature, such as when I had to simultaneously drift around a landmark with five other racers, or accrue a number of "near misses" by playing chicken with other players in a cross-section of pipe in a construction yard.
The variety of SpeedList events keeps things from getting stale, though admittedly, some of the event-types aren't nearly as exciting or fun as others. Races are still the most exciting. And despite the parameters laid out by each SpeedList and event, obtaining Speed Points is still king. If you struggle during an event or two, it's still possible to come out with the most overall SpeedPoints if you're good at taking down your opposition. It's great, because it (along with the non-racing events) keeps players in the game, even if they're not the first across the finish line.
Need for Speed: Most Wanted ends up being a really fantastic multiplayer racing experience, and if burning up the streets of Fairhaven while competing with friends sounds exciting, it's fair to say that you'll probably enjoy the game immensely. That said, the single-player experience in Most Wanted feels a bit hollow by comparison. A limited number of challenges-per-vehicle must be undertaken to earn the SpeedPoints and vehicle mods necessary to take down the 10 most wanted racers. The minute-to-minute racing is still fun and exhilarating, but structurally, I quickly became wary of becoming too attached to any one vehicle, given that the game's constant nudging to move on to new cars in order to maximize my SpeedPoint accrual. There are a lot of racing events to complete by one's self, but the world of Fairhaven is much better experienced online with your fellow racers.
This Need for Speed: Most Wanted review is based on the Xbox 360 retail copy of the game, provided by the publisher. The game is also available on PC, PS3, and Vita.