A spiritual successor to 2008’s Burnout Paradise - the undisputed king of arcade racers - Need for Speed: Most Wanted overcomes a mediocre singleplayer mode with an online experience that qualifies Criterion's latest as the best multiplayer racer available today.
Need for Speed: Most Wanted is an open world racing game, split into two disparate parts. In the singleplayer mode, the player must try and take down the 10 cars that comprise the “Most Wanted List” by completing races and earning experience points. Completing a race in first or second place unlocks upgrades for the vehicle used, such as a nitrous boost or different types of tyres. Players don’t have to race to unlock new cars; instead, they must to explore the map and discover where they are hidden. Each of the more than 50 cars has five races at varying difficulties, so completing the game will be an arduous experience. The game world is littered with its own version of collectibles: billboards to crash through, speed cameras to race past and shortcuts to discover. These help flesh out the relatively barren world with more things to do, but they never quite get dispel Fairhaven's sense of emptiness.
The driving has an agreeably loose quality to it that screams Burnout Paradise. Wild fishtails around corners; boosts of nitrous into oncoming traffic, and causing opponents to crash into guardrails exemplify the style of racing. The faster, more luxurious cars require much more precision to drive effectively, creating a great risk-reward scenario in determining which car to race in. Mechanically, Criterion has delivered another world-class arcade racing experience that is wonderfully fun to play.
Throughout the solo campaign, the player will run up against the police regularly. They play almost identically to how they have in most previous Need for Speed games, acting as an antagonistic force. They try to impede the player from completing their racing objectives by ramming them off the road, setting up road blocks or laying down spike strips to burst tires. The pursuit is completed in one of two ways: by outrunning the cops for long enough that they give up, or by being caught. The police end up being nothing more than a nuisance, however, as being caught has no negative cost associated with it - players returned to the current car’s jack spot, and that’s it.
Furthermore, the police will start chasing players for almost anything - crashing into them too hard, setting off a speed camera in their presence, driving on the wrong side of the road, an so on. It’s all well and good to have an adversarial opponent in the open world, and a constabulary so rigorous in upholding the road code, but this is an arcade racer - not a sim - and because they have no teeth, they're little more than a huge frustration.
Ultimately, however, the singleplayer world just feels too lifeless and empty. Despite taking place in a large, open world and including a number of Burnout Paradise style trappings, the limited number of races and shallow objectives mean that it is possible to empty the world of meaningful content within a number of hours. The game is dripping with style and there are a number of superfluous objectives to chase down but it all just feels like a facade, and is ultimately, fairly disappointing.
Luckily, the multiplayer alleviates all of these problems like a shot of adrenaline to the heart. The online racing is Bedlam, mixing the greatest parts of Burnout Paradise, Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit and Blur. Part adversarial car combat, part racer, part open world exploration - it is a varied and consistently exciting mode, and incredibly satisfying.
The multiplayer has clear roots in Burnout Paradise and the way it handled online racing. Upon joining a multiplayer lobby, the player is suddenly thrust into a more vibrant Fairhaven. A number of other racers help populate the area, spinning donuts, smashing billboards and ramming into one another whilst waiting for the nest event. The events are collated into “speedlists”, a combination of races and other feats of skill dependent on the number of players.
Once an event is chosen, all players get a mark on their GPS and race to the starting point as fast as possible, gaining experience for wrecking other players and for reaching the point first. Once everyone has arrived, the event itself triggers. These can be as simple as a point-to-point race, or some form of skill-based activity, such as competing to get the longest jump off of a ramp. If a player's car is taken out by an adversary in these activities, their score is frozen, effectively eliminating them from continuing. Then, for the rest of the event, the player can do nothing but stop other players from beating their score by taking them out as well. At the end of the group of events, scores are tallied and a winner is determined and rewarded with experience points. The underhanded nature of the gameplay is immensely satisfying.
The experience points total is shared across both multiplayer and singleplayer, and helps to unlock things in both facets. Playing solo, experience is used to unlock new Most Wanted races. In the online mode, experience is used to level up and unlock new cars and perks for specific models. Furthermore, these experience points can be shared cross-platform, due to EA’s Origin service. It’s an impressive feat that highlights the usefulness of such a service.
When played alone, Need for Speed: Most Wanted feels too large and too empty, a game devoid of compelling content and one that doesn't provide enough reasons to play. When played online, however, it is instantly transformed into a far more vibrant, manic and exciting place to be.