Need for Speed has had a chequered history. The franchise has been passed around several of Electronic Arts’ development studios with varying degrees of success. In 2010, the Criterion-led Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit was widely praised, while last year’s Black Box-developed Need for Speed: The Run dared to try something different but ultimately fell flat in its implementation of quick-time event-powered out-of-vehicle sequences.

Small wonder all the promotional materials for this year’s Need for Speed: Most Wanted are underwritten in large lettering with “A Criterion Game”. As the developer of the Burnout series, arcade-racing gamers also have a particular soft spot for the studio.

The aim of the game is to become the city of Fairhaven’s Most Wanted. To do so, players will drive and race around the open-world city, completing challenges and evading the police. As they do so, they’ll accumulate points.

Straightforward enough, but the game really comes alive online where groups of friends can compete in online leaderboards. Autolog 2 is a significant elaboration from the original Autolog introduced in Criterion’s Hot Pursuit. Rather than simply recording a player’s best time on a circuit and sharing it with friends, Autolog 2 captures all a player’s geo-located achievements within Fairhaven, such as jumping through a billboard, or achieving a 100-metre drift. This data is then shared with Autolog-connected friends who can attempt to beat the record. Autolog 2 turns every facet of the game into a competition.

Need for Speed: Most Wanted

Gamers will both see and feel the influence of Burnout on Need for Speed: Most Wanted – in the way the souped-up supercars handle, and in the way they crumple in slow motion when colliding with a stationary object at 250 km/h. The controls also feel very intuitive. There’s a slight oversteer and breaking into a languid drift requires just a tap on the pedal.

The ease of control fits perfectly with Most Wanted’s gameplay. Where The Run was a checkpoint race across America, the city of Fairhaven means players can’t rely on horsepower alone to evade the law. Players will need to squeeze down alleys and double back to lose a persistent constabulary who also have access to similarly powerful vehicles.

It’s not all about power, either. A Ford pick-up truck may not accelerate as fast as a Porsche or a Lamborghini, but its power and weight makes shunting competition off the road without losing control that much easier. Access to a range of vehicles is also much easier now. Shedding tradition, Most Wanted will have the larger part of its cars unlocked and ready for use immediately. Players need only find the vehicle they’re after scattered around Fairhaven.

As with Burnout, there are multiple areas to discover, and ramming through a fence or barrier can unlock a secret location, and, perhaps, another vehicle.

Need for Speed: Most Wanted

When it does come time to race, players will have a variety of challenges to compete in, from simple A to B races, to time challenges and team events. Players will all need to congregate at the starting area, but there’s no grid: once all are present the race begins. It means that the first few seconds are usually composed of chaos as players are wiped out immediately by others vying for the pole position. In an A to B team race, players who finish can even turn around and start taking out members of the opposition head-on.

The seamless transition from formal racing to near-meaningless joyriding and exploration is perhaps Most Wanted’s most deft trick. The game appears to do away entirely with the structure of most racing titles, and instead looks set to focus on emergent gameplay and friendly competition. It wants to reward players for exploration, experimentation and risk-taking behaviour.

If Criterion’s execution meets its ambition, Most Wanted could very well exceed the highly regarded Hot Pursuit.

Need for Speed: Most Wanted releases for Xbox 360, PC, PlayStation 3 and PlayStation Vita on the 2nd of November.