Back in 2008, when Criterion released Burnout Paradise into the world, they changed people's perceptions about what an open-world racer could truly be. Sweeping vistas, recognizable streets and some truly revolutionary multiplayer gaming were the order of the day, and the gaming public responded well. 2010's Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit - Criterion's first effort after being handed the reins of the famous franchise - carried on the quality, but it didn't really feel like a continuation of the groundbreaking work found in Paradise. Need for Speed: Most Wanted though, most certainly does.
Set in the fictional city of Fairhaven, Most Wanted drops you into a car and lets you off the leash almost instantly. In your initial drive around the city, you’ll probably stumble across your first “Jackspot” (shush) which contains your first new car. You’ll also notice that this is the first of 123 of them. You might blast through the first of 66 speed cameras, or smash the first of 159 billboards. Failing that, you’ll probably end up crashing through your first of 136 security gates. Maybe you’ll take a trip out to the suburbs, or try and find some massive jumps to throw your ridiculously expensive vehicle off. Maybe you'll ram a police car and try to get away before they bring the big guns in.
Or, you’ll just start racing.
One of your goals is to become the most wanted driver in Fairhaven. In order to do this, you must rack up speed points (which can be obtained either in races, or by carrying out any of the aforementioned tasks) until you have enough to unlock a showdown against one of the city's most notorious felons. Beating them in a race sets them loose on the city streets, where your goal is then to catch them and shut them down. Success here adds their car to your garage.
In reality, this meta-game can be completed in just a few short hours and seems to have been put in place just to make the game's title make sense, given that it makes up only a small percentage of the challenges offered to you. Every car you find joins your garage as a stock model, devoid of any nitrous boosting abilities, custom gear loadouts, or super-grippy tyres. These all have to be won by beating the five events that are assigned to each vehicle. The freedom to approach these in any order without having to do any further unlocking is nice, but is ultimately worthless when it dawns on you that there’s no chance of beating any of the more difficult races without at least having unlocked basic nitrous.
With five challenges per car, you're looking at 615 events. A good percentage are duplicated, but beating all five puts a little gold checkmark next to the vehicle in your car list, and completists such as ourselves will be in heaven thanks to this.
If you fancy mixing it up, Most Wanted provides a really nice approach to online play. Upon joining a game, you're asked to drive to a meeting point in order to take on the first of a series of events. This could be a straight up race, a collaborative effort where the team has to rack up a certain total jump distance over a specific precipice, or a mad rush to see who can get the highest average speed whilst driving a Land Rover. Then you're back to racing across the map to the next meeting point, before taking part in a second challenge. This continues until the playlist is complete, and an overall winner is determined. You can easily sit down for a quick blast of multiplayer action, only to find that you've run through four complete playlists and two hours have whistled by.
But the shine would be whipped right off this entire package, were the playground that houses it wasn't up to snuff visually. Fortunately - barring some nasty slowdown when there are three or four rubber-burning cars on screen - that isn't the case. Most Wanted barrels along nicely, providing stacks of excitement. Fairhaven's roads glisten pleasingly when rain has fallen, even if this is the only real indication that the locale has any sort of weather system going on, and when you skid across that damp blacktop and end up stacking your priceless vehicle into a bridge at 200mph, your car will be reduced to a satisfyingly minimalist hunk of useless metal.
And the damage effects aren't all just for visual thrills, either. During police chases, the 5-0 can drop spike strips to puncture your tyres and should this happen, you'll be crawling along slowly on your Tron-alike glowing rims until you find a garage. And this will happen relatively often, as the Fairhaven City P.D. are incredibly good at their job. In some cases, they're unfairly good. In missions where your goal is to escape the cops, you can enter a multi-storey car park - unseen - and drive up to the top of the structure in order to hide. Only in very rare cases will this prove to be effective, even though the fuzz have no way of seeing you.
Kinect support is included, but like so many other titles, is limited to disappointing voice-comnmanded menus. Criterion have provided "Easydrive", which is a menu system that means that you never need exit the action. Pressing the right d-pad pops the menu up in the top right-hand corner of the screen, and from here you can do everything you would ever need to, from customising your vehicle, to joining a multiplayer game. Its so easy in fact, that using Kinect proves to be more cumbersome than just navigating to the menu options that you want with the controller.
Minor niggles aside though, Need for Speed: Most Wanted is the real deal. The fast, thrill-a-minute racing that's now synonymous with Criterion is here in full force, and multiplayer is a blast. Plus, this truly open world is great fun to explore - more so than that of Forza Horizon - due to the sheer number of insane jumps, collectables, and fun routes that can be found. You should prepare to spend a lot of time in Fairhaven.