The Follow-Up To One Of Racing's Biggest Franchises Is A Thrill-A-Minute Hit

Need For Speed is one of the longest-running and most popular franchises in the history of arcade-style racing titles – actually, you can ditch the qualifier, it's simply one of the biggest automotive video games, period. So, when the newest iteration of the game, Need For Speed: Most Wanted was announced, we knew immediately that we'd have to give it a run.

The new game arrives in the wake of critical praise for Forza Horizon, a challenger for racing-gamer dollars that shares quite a lot with Most Wanted. Both games offer open-world, sandbox-style driving environments for players to explore, both boast a seriously good-looking selection of vehicles, and both offer the ability to casually top 200 miles per hour while looking for stuff to crash into and/or jump over. In other words: The emphasis in both games is on driving fun, rather than a true-to-life racing experience.

Of course, Most Wanted is far more "arcade" in its style of gameplay than even the newly released Forza title. While the team at Criterion has actually done a rather nice job with the driving physics that power this new Need For Speed – steering, braking, acceleration and the like all feel nicely sorted (if not as realistic as can be found in Gran Turismo, for instance), the best parts of the experience all involve crazily acrobatic maneuvers, and reality-defying racing.

The goal of this loosely plotted game is to become the "most wanted" badboy racer in the mythical city of Fairhaven. Aiding you in this quest are some 41 vehicles, all of which can be modified to become more capable handlers and faster overall. None of the cars are particularly difficult to get ahold of, as the Need For Speed team has done away with the longstanding driving game convention of starting off in something slow and earning your way into faster and more expensive metal. Instead, Most Wanted drops you right into the action with a Porsche 911 Carrera S, then asks only that you drive by other available cars (marked on your screen with a giant brand logo hovering above them), stop and then get in the driver's seat. Once you've driven a car, it is accessible to you at any point during play.

Most Wanted is a bit bipolar when it comes to graphical presentation. The details of the cars have been artfully crafted, with each vehicle looking utterly faithful to its real-world counterpart, in just about every state of being that it can achieve throughout play (basically minty new through horribly crashed). Transitions through lightscapes, ambient debris like falling leaves, gravel and water on the road, and other layers of graphical detail around ones speeding vehicle are rendered really nicely. The backgrounds in the game – landscapes, buildings, skies, etc – are less thoughtfully illustrated, however. Especially coming from the sharp and pristine world of Forza Horizon, some of the Need For Speed surroundings just feel thin and two-dimensional, too often.

The tradeoff for this less-than-pristinely-realized environment is that just about every last pixel of it is interactive. Now, "interaction" here often times means a sort of physically impossible punting of sturdy objects by your meteoric vehicle – light poles and mailboxes careen up and over your hood following a high-speed impact – but it also means that there are shortcuts, jumps, and switchbacks to find, just about everywhere you roam. Most Wanted truly is a lot more open than other "open world" games that we've seen before, which leads to some spectacularly addictive racing as well as for evading the ever present law enforcement. Finding a new fence to blow through, or a jump that leads you onto a new highway, can be the difference between winning and losing, or escaping and getting busted.

Finding a new fence to blow through, or a jump that leads you onto a new highway, can be the difference between winning and losing.

The flow and fast pace that is the result of such an open play arena, makes this Need For Speed a game that feels as well-suited to online play with human opponents, as it is a satisfying off-line/solo experience. Integration with Xbox Live seamless; our online sessions were smooth-running and never marred by the glitchiness sometimes associated with fast moving online gaming.

Everything is a race when playing online; even before the actual race begins there's a mad scramble to be the first car to the starting position. Once there, wheel-to-wheel racing (in point-to-point form as well as lap-based) is hugely augmented by challenges of all flavor – hugest jump, longest drift, etc. Better still, one's efforts in online play are integrated into the solo game, too, with billboards announcing new records and challenges from your set of friends on Xbox Live. Frankly, Most Wanted blurs the boundary between the on- and off-line play more than just about any title we've tested.

It is noteworthy, too, that the menu design in the game seems to support both the fast-pace overall, and online gaming. All of the primary game functions are accessible via a menu brought up with you controller's D-pad, and you needn't "back out" of the single-player game to get online. Every race and style of competition in Most Wanted is available by way of one thumb, which makes moving through the action rapid and fuss-free.

We'd be remiss if we didn't call out just how much fun the involvement of Johnny Law adds to the goings on.

We'd be remiss if we didn't call out just how much fun the involvement of Johnny Law adds to the goings on. A Need For Speed calling card for a while now (and notably absent form Forza Horizon), the interspersed chases with the cops, by themselves, almost make the new game a must play. Faster, more clever, and quicker than ever with roadblocks, the police are pretty damned hard to get away from at the mid-tier Heat Level 3, and downright impossible (for your author anyway) at levels higher than that. Playing Smokey and the Bandit on you Xbox just doesn't get old easily.

There are two big downsides to this frenetic, thrill-seeking style of racing, as we see it. One is that the gamer who loves Need For Speed: Most Wanted is really required to be self-directed in the fun. There are no set races to work up to (all cars come complete with a series of events to compete in, per model), and no goals pressing enough that they feel to be driving the action forward. (Again, not having to "win" new cars is part of the culprit here.) The second is simply the relative paucity of vehicles to be found overall. Yes, it's nice that we can drive something like the Koenigsegg Agera R without having to save up our credits for months, but with other heavyweight driving games boasting hundreds of new cars to choose from, less than 50 feels like weak sauce here.

Hardcore racing-simulation gamers will dismiss Need For Speed: Most Wanted out of hand, for too few cars and ridiculously unrealistic play. That's hardly the point. Most everyone else, especially that wide swath of gamers that like the occasional racing title, but aren't huge car geeks, is likely to find Most Wanted to be a riot to pick up and play, with a very easy learning curve and action to spare. It's less of a hybrid than is Forza Horizon, its main competitor, and more accessible to a larger audience because of that. (Even if folks like your author prefer the Forza formula, hands down.) This is arcade racing at its finest and a new high point for the best franchise going in the genre.

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