Whereas Burnout: Paradise is about the joy and devil-may-care freedom of being behind the wheel and Hot Pursuit is about the thrill of the chase, Most Wanted is about the myth of the car. From the very premise of topping a list of the best underground drivers to the presentation of the races, the game is about building a legend behind these drivers that your integrate yourself into. The short movies played before each race builds excitement through fantastical images that set the mood of what would otherwise be a standard street race. This is done even more explicitly when you challenge the most wanted drivers and see them introduced through visualizations reserved for Norse gods, scenes of them coming out of some mythical neon aether or their cars being constructed from the crystallizing of atoms.
The premise of any street racing game (or movie for that matter) is inherently ludicrous. But Most Wanted is the first game that makes me accept the premise of a world built around street racing in which the the number one crime is committed by going all out. The game mythologizes the activity and turns those on the most wanted list into legends. Everything is very arch and allows you to build your own legend through the broad strokes of your successes.
In the game, you have joined Fairhaven City’s most wanted list and have to earn your way up the ladder by taking on your rivals. You unlock these one-on-one races by earning points from winning standard races, unlocking cars, escaping the police, and causing the kinds of mayhem that Criterion games are known for.
A lot of the material in Most Wanted is carried over from Burnout: Paradise. The city may be new, but a lot of the activities are the same. It features the same style action of arcade racing that I’ve grown to love from Criterion. You can break through gates, leap through billboards, take down cars and more. In addition, they threw in the best aspect of their last racing game, Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit.
Fairhaven City has a police force that is dedicated to taking down street racers and will chase you during races, after races, and any other time that you do something illegal, which is all the time. Sometimes the goal of such events is to escape a police ambush. The cops will chase you until you get out of range long enough for the cool down meter to empty. It changes the dynamic of the entire game. Whereas in Burnout: Paradise you could tear down the road trying to break the land speed record with no other consequence than smashing into a wall, in Most Wanted such actions could start a police chase throughout the city. These chases are events unto themselves and your escape is wholly dependent on your ability to use the winding streets of the city to your advantage to get away.
You start with nothing and get more reputation as you play. Winning races gives you items to improve your car with. Unlike in some driving sims, these improvements have an almost immediately identifiable effect on the car that you’re driving. I’ve seen this type of feature become far too deep and complex for an average gamer to get into, let alone provide any noticeable. tangible effect in the feel of the driving. However, Most Wanted boils making such improvements down to dealing with a few simple bars and considering the changes they have in those stats. They improve the car and make the harder races with that car more manageable.
However, there are only five events per car. On the one hand, this setup does make you try out different cars, but on the other, once you’ve found a car that you feel comfortable with and are good with, you soon run out of things to do with it. You can always just drive around and enjoy the city (and I have), but with all that power, you want to race. The setup likewise gives the impression that there is a lack of content. There are a lot of cars, and so there are a lot of races. However, each car itself is limited.
My favorite improvement in Most Wanted is the significant overhaul made to the menu system. I know it’s a strange thing to get excited about, but after the debacle that was Hot Pursuit, in which you spent most of your time wading through menus and loading screens, Most Wanted succeeds in never breaking up the action. The Easy Drive menu is always available and accessible while you are driving with the d-pad. You can upgrade, choose a race, set destinations, and even change cars all without breaking the flow. What items you have equipped, what races you’ve done, and what cars that you’ve driven are all clearly labeled. Plus, instead of wading through menus trying to find the race you just did or having to drive back to the start point, a quick press of the start button and you have access to Retry Last Race. Criterion has nailed the UI this time around and allows the player to get right to the good stuff as fast as possible.
Criterion knows how to make a racing game. It’s what they’ve been doing for most of the company’s lifespan, and it’s what they are good at. Need for Speed: Most Wanted is no exception. Did they outdo Burnout: Paradise? I don’t know, but the game is certainly in the same echelon.