Review by Dave Valjalo
You're cruising the downtown streets in a shiny new Lamorghini when – gasp – you spot an equally gorgeous Maserati tucked away down a side-street. What do you have to do to possess that delicious new motor? What challenges do you have to beat, races do you have to win, pockets do you have to pick? None, actually. Just pull up alongside it and it's yours for the taking.
Most Wanted's sprawlingly open world, Fairhaven, is a free-for-all. Every location, every nook and cranny – and all 123 vehicles – are accessible from the off, you just have to explore and discover. If that sounds too easy, the real challenge, as in Hot Pursuit, Criterion's previous entry in the Need for Speed canon, is beating your friends' records to creep up that leaderboard and gloat like the obnoxious owner of a German sportscar that costs more than most peoples' houses.
Almost everything you do in Fairhaven is cross-compared with your friends and other players, from highest jumps to how fast you fly past speed cameras. It's all updated in the blink-of-an-eye via Autolog 2.0, the second iteration of Criterion's social network designed to bring out your dark, competitive side.
Sadly, one of Hot Pursuit's strengths and core attractions, the option to play as the law and dispense justice fashionably in a blue and white Gallardo, has been scrapped for Most Wanted. This is a game that harks directly back to the series' roots (and the 1998 game of the same name) where it's all about looking good as you escape and frustrate the fuzz. Chases can break out at any time as you go about your dangerous driving, and you're rewarded with points for the lengthiest and deadliest of your escape runs. There are no EMPs to use or tyre-spikes to throw down – no weapons at all, in fact – but you can upgrade your ride with everything from nitrous shots to re-inflatable tyres by mastering the car-specific events dotted all over the vast, varied map.
Chases rise in tension and aggression until you either resort to a change of identity (by breezing through any street-side garage for an instant lick of new paint) or you find yourself surrounded and eventually busted by the police (a regular problem when they roll out the big, bad SWAT-style units), costing you your hard-earned Speed Points. Speed Points are Most Wanted's equivalent of XP: your means to rank up your profile and earn a shot at one of the game's 'most wanted' slots, which are occupied either by your friends or predetermined AI rivals. It may have a drive-anything, go-anywhere ethos, but there's a game here, a ladder to climb and a reputation to build, through cutthroat driving and bumper-crumpling bravado.
With its heaving roster of cars and toned-down upgrades, Need for Speed: Most Wanted is more for the car fetishist than the car-chase fanatic, and the developers' attention to the feel of each vehicle shines through – although the lack of cockpit artwork remains a bugbear. Handling is a halfway house between the simulation of a game like Shift (which, as if to rub it in, has lovely, authentic cockpits) and the arcade action of Hot Pursuit.
With a selection of cars for all tastes, a map filled with sun-soaked sights and roaring sounds, and a gamut of challenges, this is the most content-rich Need for Speed released in some time. It's also the most social, and takes the series right back to its core attraction: the thrill of driving very, very fast in very, very expensive cars.
Expect to pay: £30
Release: Out now
Developer: Criterion Games
Multiplayer: Up to 12