Welcome to Fairhaven.
When it comes to racing games, you have to get two things right or everything else will be wrong. First, your game has to have a fantastic sense of speed and it needs to convey that to the player in every second of gameplay. Second, the cars in your game need to feel different enough to be unique, yet comfortable for people who can't make up their mind. When you consider Criterion's track record, it's difficult to worry about these two issues.
No other developer does racing like Criterion, and the proof is in games like the now beloved Burnout Paradise and the studio's first Need For Speed entry, 2010's Hot Pursuit. While that last game kept players on tracks and introduced Autolog asynchronous multiplayer, Most Wanted opens the world to the hot-rod-recliner set and reintroduces free-roam online multiplayer. Can Criterion succeed as it veers into the oncoming Need For Speed lane or is Most Wanted more than just a "near miss"?
Most Wanted opens with an extremely brief tutorial. You'll get control over your car and drive a short distance to a Jack Spot, where you can add your current vehicle to your collection of cars. While you can switch at physical locations, simply pausing for a second adds the car to your Easy Drive menu. Easy Drive is accessed by the directional pad and allows you to set waypoints, customize your current vehicle, change cars, or find friends online.
Fans can rest easy as Criterion repeats their command over speed and handling, once again knocking out the competition with amazing effects, an endlessly smooth frame rate, and a heaping helping of debris that shatters and sprays at 150 mph. Fairhaven has tons and twists and turns, but the one thing it doesn't have is pedestrians, and thank God for that. The way I drive, I'm surprised anyone "lives" in Fairhaven, much less decides to drive to the grocery store.
Still, wouldn't it be sad if all those skyscrapers were empty? Who would be there to see me careen towards 1st place after smashing the lead car into a barrier? Who could have caught that amazing jump through the Electronic Arts billboard and salied 170 feet? Who… okay, you get the idea.
Well, the answer is all those people currently sitting under my name on the Speed Wall, which represents next-generation Autolog… bragging, if you will. In Hot Pursuit, you could compare times and scores on individual races. Most Wanted compares you (and your virutal penis) against your friends in every possible way. How far you jumped, how fast you were going on that straightaway, how many cars you've found, your race times, your overall point total—the list seems endless.
I found Most Wanted, like SSX before it, unabashedly addicting, feeding my obsessive-compulsive nature, driving me to put my PSN avatar on every billboard I could find. Races? I couldn't care less. If I didn't own the space in the middle of the outdoor park for all to see, I was nothing!
Given the choice, I recommend you enjoy b its of racing, of car jacking, and of billboard-crunching in sequence, rather than dialing into only one type of challenge. At some point I realized I had stopped having fun leaving car-sized holes in large-scale advertising. I checked Easy Drive, found a race nearby, and zipped off to that. While racing, I set two speed camera records and found a Jack Spot I could circle back to after the race was over.
Most Wanted can dial the player so deeply into its wheelhouse, with incredibly fast, always-on competition, that you forget to stop and smell the roses. In curbing my obsessive side and exploring the city further, I found an airplane graveyard with even bigger ramps. Seriously, this thing felt more like a skate park than a hangar yard.
Given the opportunity, I'd say Need For Speed: Most Wanted is best enjoyed not just with friends you don't want to play with, but with friends you'd like to play with as well. Free-roam multiplayer allows players to explore the world, while a rotating playlist of different modes lets players enjoy more structured pursuits.
That's not to say there's nothing but race modes. There are free-for-all and team races where your goal is not only to win, but also to earn the most points and take out the most opponents. Then there are drift and speed events that challenge players to set the highest speed camera record, have the longest drift in a time limit, or land the furthest off a huge jump. Getting into the game and talking smack about each other's speed wall standings is the best way to enjoy Fairhaven City, bar none. Playing with zero friends is the worst way, but hopefully you've got a few on your respective online service.
To further your spiral into car-crunching madness, Need For Speed: Most Wanted in its entirety is available on the PlayStation Vita for on-the-go speeding. While I imagined for some instant that I could get pulled over, not for talking on my cell phone but for playing games, this handheld version is just as engrossing as the console version. All the cars, all the races, all the Most Wanted, the entirety of Fairhaven is at your disposal on Vita. While online multiplayer reduces the number of racers to four and there's less traffic in your way, I'm still favoring the Vita version over the PS3, if only for the portability of it.
If you've ever enjoyed a Need For Speed game, you might see your loyalty for EA Black Box fade away, only to be replaced by Criterion's signature style. At times Most Wanted elicits the hungriest of addictions, feeding on the player's desire to beat more and more friends. While a few gamers might find the ride too fast or too arcade-y, racing fans of all shapes and sizes will find hours and hours of fantastic rivalries.