The long-stable franchise is starting to lose its footing.

User Rating: 6.5 | Need for Speed: Most Wanted - A Criterion Game PS3
(+) races and cop chases are still a chaotic riot / cars and environments are even more gorgeous than ever before / nice online structure balances friendly competition with simple hanging out

(-) seriously short lived single player experience / Fairhaven City feels too cramped and squished together

It's plain to see that Criterion Games were taking a huge risk in making a reboot for a game like Need For Speed: Most Wanted, a game considered by hundreds, perhaps thousands, to be the absolute pinnacle of the series. The one where you wouldn't be considered a true fan if you didn't have it sitting on your shelf. It worked out pretty well with Hot Pursuit, so its easy to see why they would expect a similar success with Most Wanted. However, the problem isn't that this Need For Speed game looks, feels, and plays more like a Burnout game. The problem isn't that this updated reboot fails to recapture the luster in the 2005 title of the same name. In fact, it delivers much of the fast paced action you could want out of claiming the hot rods of the famous city slickers, and retains the socially driven competition with your friends. The problem is, while Need For Speed Most Wanted is long on features, its short on enthusiasm. It's just not a game that's inclined to keep you coming back.

There's really no narrative worth speaking of, there never really is, because it's always been about the racing. Which the makers of Burnout have always known what a racing game should feel like. Find a good stand between the balance of realism and fantasy to make the lovely licensed cars feel as good as they look. And boy, do they. You'll gasp in awe at the sight of the beautifully detailed city you'll trail through, capturing photo-realistic views of everything from doing awesome jumps to more mundane endeavors like keeping careful driving to your next destination. All this under an exquisite day-and-night time progression and a steady frame even when you're reckless driving is anything but. This immersion is further enhanced by the game's apparent dislike of menu systems. If you need to get in a race, this can be accomplished easily by the EasyDrive menu, which works like a GPS in it indicates the location and distance of your destination unless you've already raced it, keeping the interruptions at a minimum. Good thing, because when the game is interrupted by a loading screen, expect a long, long wait.

After you're done being wowed out by the game's incredible looks you'll figure out just what you need to do to be the city's most notorious racer. And its simple, really. You're supposed to complete a series of one-on-one face offs between ten of the most well known, sophisticated drivers. Each race tests your driving skills to the limit. There's no imaginary walls keeping you going the right route even if you bump and jump all over the place, it's up to you to keep the line smooth and steady. All the while dealing with the police, who are none too impressed by your deliciously destructive driving skills. And even when you manage to win the race, you still need to catch the driver and take him out afterwards if you really want to claim their car and move forward in the story-line. These ten races are fast, furious, and even re-playable, and do well to capitalize on the frantic action that Need For Speed uses to leave Midnight Club squinting in the distant fog.

The only problem is, aside to these ten excellent races, not much else exists. While its true that there are 42 different cars to discover which most all of them are hidden somewhere in the vast city, an ingeniously using your controller's vibrating function like a metal detector to exact their location, finding each one isn't too compelling unless you want something faster or simply want to earn the corresponding trophy. A lot of these cars have up to five un-lockable races ranging in difficulty which at the least add some variety to the action, but much of the races tread along to other cars, which leads to repetition. And even worse, there's no actual reword, or incentive, for completing all of them. You'll even get the "Second is Nothing" trophy after doing each race once, as opposed to each actual event, because the trophy description erroneously stated you need to complete every race with every car, because they already knew you'd be repeating races. A shame really, because the main ten most wanted races can be completed in as little as a few hours.

That's not to say that messing around with the cops doesn't have its thrills. Though it does feel somewhat inconsistent, because there's some cars you drive, especially at the beginning of the game, which don't hold the water in the midst of an intense pursuit, meanwhile there's other cars which you can leave the cops grumbling in the dust with minimal efforts. There's at least a neat upgrading system to contend with, for single and multiplayer, which gives rise to some new accomplishments like using your re-inflatable tires x-amount of times or using clean nitro boost as much as you can, but these only serve to make the job of outrunning the cops that much easier. That is, as easy as it could be when you're thrown into a claustrophobic Metropolis like Fairhaven. Seriously, this place is cramped. Remember the wide open highways in Hot Pursuit? They're gone now. Even ordinary drives to the map marker often lead to nuisances like crashing into ongoing traffic, made even more frustrating because the game refuses to rest you on the road in most cases, which means you need to find the right direction and tread further. This messes with the game's own philosophy of immersing you into its world, having control taken away from you just so you can watch a greatly rendered crash. The crash might be beautiful, but its still a crash.

The game somewhat has a salvation in its multiplayer mode, which much like the single player gain ditches menus and loading screens in favor of a streamlined, open world experience. You're hooked with some other players who compete together in anything from a full race to who can jump the bridge the furthest, and it adds variety and builds a great sense of community. The online is great and all, but if online multiplayer doesn't happen to be your thing, which there are more than a few people out there who can't handle the stress of being smacked around by other players and called offensive names off the microphone, then there's unfortunately little to endorse in Need for Speed Most Wanted. It gets the job done, but the game struggles to keep your interested.