This article originally appeared in issue 243 of PC Gamer UK. Preview by Mike Channell.
You can't claim Criterion didn't give you fair warning. After all, Burnout Paradise's Legendary Cars DLC contained the Jansen 88 Special, a none-too-subtle nod to the time-travelling DeLorean from the Back to the Future films. Since then, they've busied themselves travelling back through the history of the Need For Speed series and rewriting the past. Two years ago it was Hot Pursuit that got the Criterion Timecop treatment, taking the basic concept of car chases and turning them into an escalating car-arms race between daring racers and rabidly persistent police.
This time around, the racing uberdevelopers have aimed their flux capacitor at Most Wanted. The result is something of an ode to Criterion's previous open-world city racer, Burnout Paradise. Whereas Hot Pursuit was about long, sweeping stretches of asphalt and chases that lasted for miles and miles, new venue Fairhaven City caters for more claustrophobic cat-andmouse pursuits. It's still possible to out-drag the police, but you'd be better off ducking into alleyways, doubling back on yourself or charging offroad than relying purely on horsepower to pull you out of trouble.
Having got my hands on it, it's clear that Criterion have tweaked things to give you a better chance of escape. Rather than remaining bolted to the asphalt – even during huge powerslides – the cars are a much more pliant ride this time around, capable of spinning on a penny and zipping off in a cloud of tyre smoke. Perfect for darting around those 90-degree corners that meticulously planned US cities are riddled with. There are also more gamey mechanics that will aid and abet: paint shops allow an instant respray, even if you blast through at over 100mph, and what the team describe as 'jack spots' offer pristine new vehicles hidden in secluded places that can be instantaneously 'borrowed' to break the chase.
In general, choosing the best car is not just a balance between speed and manoeuvrability, but also weight – the mosquito-like Ariel Atom, with its lightweight spaceframe chassis, is perfect for nipping between other cars, but clip a wheel and you'll likely shear it off, leaving something that's only really useful as a clothes horse. Rock up in a hefty Ford F150 pickup truck, on the other hand, and you might not be winning races through speed or finesse, but you'll be able to use the now-trademark Criterion takedowns to place higher than you deserve to.
While events are entertaining enough in single player competition, it's part of the studio's uncompromising vision that you're never really competing alone. Hot Pursuit's Autolog system returns, but it's expanded into a Skynet-esque sprawl, collecting data not just about individual events but about everything you do in Fairhaven. Every event, speed camera and street has a speedwall associated with it so, as you hare around the city, leaderboards spring up on the left of the screen offering comparison to your friends' times.
It's not all about asynchronous comparison, of course. Most Wanted will absolutely allow you to cram your mate's Porsche into a piece of contemporary public art or fashionable coffee shop. Criterion's multiplayer is a breakneck dash through gametypes. You might begin with a checkpoint race across the city, but the finish line then becomes a starting grid for the dash to the next event selected by Autolog. Winning even these brief intraevent sprints earn you 'Speed Points', which will up your chances of becoming most wanted amongst your buddies and, as is now de rigeur, a perk system similar to Call of Duty's allows you to customise your car in multiplayer to suit your driving style. Most amusing was probably the long jump event, which tasked the unruly pack with setting the farthest distance over a section of freeway. It's all hilariously chaotic and you won't feel too hard done by if you end up a smoking wreckage, because before you know it the whirlwind of vehicles is sweeping off to the next event, with that bonus on offer if you get there first.
The only real question left hanging is whether you'll get to slip back into the seat of a police car this time. Playing as the po-pos was one of the most entertaining parts of Hot Pursuit, and there are highpowered police cars in these screenshots, but creative director Craig Sullivan will only say that the team “never say never”. That sounds tantalising enough to be a confirmation, though whether it'll come in the form of DLC remains to be seen.
More certain is that this game is going to be another critical success for the Burnout veterans, and word on the street is that the studio has assumed control of the franchise as a whole after the disappointment of The Run. They may be working their way through EA's back catalogue, scrubbing up well-loved instalments in racing games' most well-known series, but history is written by the winners. With Need For Speed Most Wanted, Criterion look to be exactly that.