Vehicles glide along invisible roads in the sky. Cars are borne out of twitchy, twisty clouds of darkness. Groups of police cruisers perform coordinated donuts, twirling about like dancers in a Busby Berkeley musical. In the creative and unusual pre-race sequences throughout Need for Speed: Most Wanted, you get the sense that the city of Fairhaven is a surreal land with dreamlike logic that might allow anything to happen at any moment. It's striking, then, that the actual game here is so typical and unsurprising, and that although it delivers plenty of the hard-hitting, white-knuckle racing Criterion is known for, it doesn't do so quite as well as some of the studio's earlier games.
The first game Need for Speed: Most Wanted may make you think of isn't a Criterion game at all; it's Need for Speed Most Wanted, the 2005 game with almost the same name. But while both games take place in open-world cities and involve plenty of police chases, the similarities aren't as significant as you might expect. One of the earlier game's most memorable elements was its hilariously over-the-top tale, told using some cheesy cutscenes, of a newcomer to the city of Rockport who has a personal vendetta against local street racer Razor Callahan. The premise gave you a terrific motivation for rising through the ranks of Rockport's street racing scene and taking Razor down.
Here, you also have the goal of defeating a number of street racers, but there's no narrative to back it up. The 10 racers on your list are identified only by their cars--they don't have names or faces or personalities--and without a personal investment in defeating them, doing so isn't nearly as satisfying here as it was in the 2005 game. It is merely a structural hoop to jump through; you do it simply because the game tells you that this is what you are supposed to do.
Well, that and the fact that driving, racing, and eluding the police are really enjoyable, for the most part. If you've played Criterion's earlier Need for Speed game, 2010's Hot Pursuit, the handling here will feel immediately familiar. Despite the stable of real-world cars, the driving isn't realistic. Cars have a great sense of weight and momentum to them, while still being extremely responsive, and as you'd expect from a Criterion racer, judicious use of the brakes and a bit of practice will have you blissfully drifting through corners at high speed.
Unexpectedly, cars don't start out with boost, but fear not; boosting is a big part of racing in Most Wanted. Each vehicle has five events associated with it, and by taking first place in the easiest of these, you unlock the burn nitrous mod for that car. This enables you to boost after you build up your nitrous bar by doing things like drifting, taking down cops and rivals, and driving in oncoming traffic. Victory in each of a vehicle's events nets you speed points, which you need to earn a set number of before you can challenge each of the most wanted racers. Winning events also gives you access to other mods, including chassis that make you more resistant to impacts, gears that increase your acceleration or top speed, and tires that reinflate if popped by spike strips.
Winning events and making a good car better is rewarding; curiously unrewarding is the process of building up your car collection. In Most Wanted, you don't buy cars, and with the exception of the 10 cars driven by the 10 most wanted racers, you don't earn cars by winning events or doing anything else of significance to advance through the game. You simply find them all over Fairhaven. They're easily spotted thanks to the illuminated headlights and the manufacturer logos that hover in the air above them; you just pull up to a drivable vehicle, and it's instantly added to your collection. After that, you can warp to its spawn point and get behind the wheel, no matter where you are. The fact that you can and will so easily find yourself with a sizable stable of cars simply by cruising around Fairhaven, without having to do anything to earn some of the game's fastest rides, means that car collecting in Most Wanted lacks the sense of accomplishment so many racing games instill by letting you gradually gain access to better vehicles.
The upside of having cars waiting at set points (called jack spots) across Fairhaven is that if you get the cops on your tail as you're roaming about the city, you can pull up on a car's jack spot and, provided that you've got a bit of distance between you and your police pursuers, hop into the other car, reducing your heat level a bit. Your heat level determines just how much effort the police are putting into bringing you down. At the lowest level, you might have a few cop cruisers on your tail. As it increases, the police start setting up roadblocks in your path, and more and better law enforcement vehicles join the fray. Heavy SUVs might try to ram you head-on, and Corvette Interceptors speed along in front of you, deploying spike strips that, if hit, can seriously diminish your car's handling.
All is not lost, however; repair shops are all over the city, and driving through one instantly fixes up your car and gives you a fresh coat of paint to boot. Like using jack spots, speeding through these repair shops reduces your heat level. Your heat level increases automatically as a pursuit goes on, and taking down police cars with a satisfying shunt into oncoming traffic, a swift T-bone collision, or whatever aggressive, effective option presents itself, makes it go up significantly faster. If you get enough distance between you and your pursuers, you enter cooldown, during which your heat level declines. Stay in cooldown long enough, and the police call off the pursuit.
You earn speed points during police pursuits, but you get to keep them only if you eventually escape; if you get busted, you earn nothing, so the stakes can get quite high. Escape from the cops, and you feel great; see the speed points you earned over the course of several risky minutes disappear as you get busted, and you may be crestfallen. It's a good risk-vs.-reward system that leads to some extremely tense moments. Unfortunately, shaking off your pursuers can often feel as much a matter of luck as of skill. Police are tenacious in their pursuit of you--maybe a little too tenacious, because it sometimes seems as if no amount of changing direction, catching big air, going off-road, or anything else is enough to lose the cops. In the game's faster cars, speed can often be your savior, but in the more everyday models, it often feels like you don't have a fighting chance.
Additionally, some parts of the city don't have many areas that are off the beaten path; you might enter cooldown but find yourself with nowhere to hide from patrolling police who soon spot you and reinitiate the pursuit. The balance between making it very possible for you to be spotted again during cooldown and giving you good options for eluding the police was better handled in 2005's Most Wanted, which provided you with more spots that cops on the hunt for you might or might not investigate. That earlier game also did a better job with police chatter; here, the police are irritatingly repetitive. Several times during the same pursuit, you might hear cops, awed by your driving prowess, come to the realization that they're "not dealing with joyriders."
The available events for each car come in a few varieties. There are standard checkpoint races against other cars, which sometimes attract the attention of the police. In speed runs, you try to maintain the highest possible average speed on a course. And ambushes start with you surrounded by cops; your goal is to lose them in as little time as possible. Though fun in faster cars, ambushes can be maddening in the game's more ordinary autos.
And then there are the 10 one-on-one showdowns against the most wanted. These races always involve the police, and always follow great routes that have you speeding on numerous surfaces through varied parts of the city. In addition to racing on the road, you might find yourself speeding across dirt, gravel, or rickety beach boardwalks. Your opponents are skilled but fallible, and you never quite know what's going to happen. You might be approaching the finish in first place, only to have victory snagged from your grasp as a police car takes you down, but conversely, you might be trailing behind your opponent when a police car does you the favor of taking him out, leaving you home free. These elements of luck don't diminish the sense of accomplishment that comes with winning; they just add some unpredictability to these races. You must still drive skillfully if you're to have any hope of winning.
Winning the race against a most wanted driver isn't the end of the struggle, though. You must then do a takedown on the car to add it to your collection. This sounds like a satisfying way to cement your victory, but it usually doesn't play out that way. As soon as you've won a race against a most wanted car, it starts driving incredibly poorly, often wrecking itself in head-on collisions in its attempts to stay away from you. As a result, what should have been a tense game of cat and mouse frequently turns into you waiting for your suicidal quarry to respawn after a wreck and then hoping that this time you can destroy it before it destroys itself yet again.
Some of the most fun you can have in Fairhaven happens not during events, but just when you're cruising around town. Cameras all over the city track the highest speed at which you zoom past them and show you how your top speed measures up to your friends' top speeds, but these are too inconspicuous and ubiquitous to make dominating any one of them, or all of them, worth caring about. The smashable billboards all over town, however, you will almost certainly care about. Fairhaven is filled with billboards that have the names of EA game studios on them, at least until you drive through them. After that, they become notices about one of the city's most wanted drivers.
If you get more air when crashing through a billboard than any of your friends have gotten, you can take pride in seeing your own gamerpic or avatar gracing the sign. However, if one of your friends has soared farther than you when destroying that billboard, it will be him or her you see displayed, and few things are more motivating than the prospect of smashing your friends' faces and their records, and claiming those little pieces of Fairhaven as your own. If you crave more competition, you can always easily access Autolog recommendations, which keep you apprised of events that friends have bested you at, or that you haven't tried yet, so opportunities for friendly competition are never in short supply.
You can also hop online with friends or strangers for traditional, simultaneous multiplayer competition, but this is frustratingly uneven. Of course, it's fun to host or join a game with friends and just roam around the city, smashing billboards and taking each other down. You can participate in races, team races, speed tests, and challenges, though you can't just start one of these events as a one-off. Oddly, you must do events in groups of five, which are called speedlists. In public games, speedlists are initiated automatically; in friends games, the host can use premade Criterion speedlists, or build his or her own. Particularly in public games with players who are more interested in messing around than completing objectives, a single five-event playlist can drag on for 45 minutes.
Traditional races are great, though the absence of police in online play feels like a missed opportunity, since dodging spike strips, finding the gaps in roadblocks, and taking out cops are defining aspects of the single-player experience. Challenges leave a lot to be desired, however. Though they were great fun in Burnout Paradise, here, their design often makes them a chore. You might head to a specific location only to find that your goal is nothing more interesting than speeding off a cliff a certain number of times, and vague instructions sometimes result in your spending a few minutes just trying to figure out exactly what it is you're supposed to do. Of course, some challenges make coordinating with friends to pull off a strange feat (20 near misses on a bizarre, loopy art installation, for instance) enjoyable, but like the proverbial box of chocolates, until you try one, you never know what you're gonna get.
Despite its inconsistencies and disappointments, there's a lot to like about Need for Speed: Most Wanted. Fairhaven is a lovely and varied city that looks gorgeous no matter how fast or slow you're going. Police chases provide plenty of reckless, high-speed thrills, and seeing friends dominate the billboards in your city fans the flames of friendly competition in an innovative and very effective way. Need for Speed: Most Wanted isn't quite a return to the racing paradise of some earlier Criterion games, but it's a mostly exciting ride nonetheless.