Most Wanted tries to apply a shooter progression system onto a racing game and proves that the same template doesn’t work everywhere. This is progress at the expense of fun.
Most racing games are based on a very linear system of progression that only moves us forwards. We’re forced to drive slow cars in the beginning, but this is never fun. The more that we race, the more opportunities we have to either upgrade our slow car or buy a new, faster car. These upgrades are necessary because our slow car can’t compete against the faster cars. That race is over before it even begins. We’re always upgrading our vehicles, we’re always getting faster and better toys, and at no point are we asked to go back to the slow cars.
Need for Speed: Most Wanted bucks this trend. Progression works on a car-by-car basis. You hop into Car A, compete in five races, unlocking new modifications with each win, and once the car is souped up as much as possible you hop into Car B and start the process over. It’s the racing equivalent of the prestige system from Call of Duty, and it’s a system that ignores what’s fun about racing games: fast cars.
Unlocking new guns and equipment is an effective carrot-on-a-stick in Call of Duty, but unlike the car, mods our new weapons don’t cause an imbalance in the game to the point where low-level players can’t compete. An old gun can kill just as well as a new gun. Whatever gameplay bonuses that we get from the upgrades (faster rate of fire, less recoil) aren’t significant enough to invalidate a player’s core skill. A good player can kill me with a knife (and not by sneaking up on me) even though I’ve got a machine gun, but a souped-up car will always beat a junky beginner’s vehicle no matter how skilled the drivers may or may not be.
The existence of the prestige systems proves this fact. It takes a certain amount of pride to reset all your progress for a minor mark of achievement, but if doing so meant you couldn’t compete at a high level of play, no one would do it. If "prestiging" turned a top player into a bottom player, no mark of achievement would be worth that demotion. But a good player remains a good player even without the toys and powerful unlockables. This kind of linear progression in shooters doesn’t break the competition.
The same can’t be said for racing games. In Most Wanted, the mods that we unlock improve our car so significantly that “Easy” races become boring. For the game to remain challenging and entertaining, we must race against other powerful cars like our own. In a normal racing game that’s fine because by the time that we improve our car to this degree we’ve also opened up a new tier of races against harder opponents. But in Most Wanted, we never get to that point. As soon as we get the fast car that we’ve been working towards, it's time to reset and start over. We’re always working our way up the progression ladder, but there’s nothing at the top. It’s progress at the expense of fun.
This progress doesn’t even carry into the multiplayer. Instead it resets -- again -- and you have to unlock all the car mods -- again -- that you already own in the single player mode. Perhaps Criterion intended for you to wander and explore in your fast cars but that has its own problems (Nick Dinicola, "Open Worlds Aren't Made for Driving", PopMatters, 11 January 2013).
I feel like the title of this game is a misnomer. I do indeed have a need for speed. That’s why I’m playing this game in the first place. However, Most Wanted seems to be doing everything in its power not to satisfy that need. Criterion deserves credit for trying to mix up the racing game formula. Experimentation is a worthy cause, but sometimes experiments fail.