Trimming The FatThe latest take on the long-running Need for Speed franchise is something of an ode to developer Criterion's previous open-world city racer, Burnout Paradise. Trimming the fat off last year's Need for Speed: The Run, the game doesn't feature a storyline, a protagonist or any poorly implemented quick time events. Instead it focuses on the unadulterated joy of action-filled racing boosted by social elements and online competition, and it all feels pretty liberating.
Need for Speed: Most Wanted takes place in the fictional city of Fairhaven, a racing playground consisting of circulating freeways, industrial areas, ports and airfields that offer loads of freedom to drive with speed and plenty of precipices to plunge over. The whole world is available to you from the beginning, and the main single player objective is to track down and unlock the game's ten most wanted vehicles, which are the only cars you can't drive from the offset.
But it's central to Criterion's vision that you're never really competing alone. Most Wanted collects data not just from individual events you take part in but from everything you do. Drive by any speed camera, road junction or jump and leaderboards spring up on the left side of the screen courtesy of the game's 'Autolog' feature, displaying your friends' record speeds, times, pursuits and jump distances. Most Wanted is unashamedly stats driven and one-upmanship characterises the whole experience.
During a recent hands-on session we played a rotating roster of races and modes, all presented in a slick manner without lobbies or full-screen menus. Each selection happens in the game world itself, with new objectives emerging seamlessly as you travel through the city, from checkpoint races to take down challenges and stunt events. It's all hilariously chaotic and you're never short of things to do.
Most WantedYou amass 'Speed Points' (the game's take on experience points) at every turn by winning even the briefest of sprints, smashing up other cars, pulling off feats of drift or outrunning the cops, and these increase your chances of becoming 'Most Wanted' amongst your buddies. Meanwhile, a perk system similar to Call of Duty's allows you to customise your car in multiplayer to best suit your driving style.
Car handling feels satisfying and varied depending on your choice of vehicle, from zippy rides to ones that sacrifice some speed and manoeuvrability for weight and power. And while there are numerous long stretches of road enabling you to outrun pursuers, there are also plenty of 90-degree corners and alleyways that make for more claustrophobic cat-and-mouse chases. Paint shops offering instant resprays and secluded 'jack spots' where you can pick up a new vehicle can also be used to break pursuits.
It hasn't been revealed if you'll be able to jump into the seat of a police car this time round, but we wouldn't be surprised because playing as law enforcers was one of the highlights of Hot Pursuit, Criterion's 2010 entry in the Need for Speed series. What is clear is that its latest game looks poised to give the franchise a much needed shot in the arm with a dedicated focus on racing and competitive gameplay, and we can't wait to get back behind the wheel when Most Wanted launches next month.