The 2012 model of Need for Speed Most Wanted is basically an amalgam of Criterion’s two finest games; it’s Need for Speed Hot Pursuit by way of Burnout Paradise. The Burnout series’ once-radical burnout meter – implemented here and in every other driving game made in Burnout’s wake – rises fastest when you put yourself in as much danger as possible, and that system mirrors the way that Most Wanted’s campaign is structured, both online and off. Like Paradise City before it, Fairhaven is a playground with very few restrictions, and you progress by earning Speed Points; a currency which can be cultivated in a multitude of ways. You can partake in races, deliberately provoke the police, smash billboards, set records at pre-set speed traps, beat your friends’ high scores in all of the above or simply just drive around like an absolute lunatic; doing one or all of these things will eventually lead you right through to the end credits. This is a racing game without a racing line.
You’re purely an outlaw this time, as Most Wanted discards Hot Pursuit’s neat cop/racer gameplay split. More so than in any Criterion game released to date, there’s a complete disregard for realism. Forza Horizon may have successfully moved that series away from its po-faced origins, but Most Wanted is on another planet; positively gleeful in its creation of a handful of completely ridiculous rules. Just because there are real cars in Most Wanted doesn’t mean that they have to handle like it, and just because there are cops around doesn’t mean that you can’t instantly flummox them by switching vehicles at the touch of a single button. You can also instantaneously repair (and repaint) your vehicle simply by passing through a garage forecourt, and one of the most effective evasive manoeuvres you can perform whilst on the run is to simply switch off your engine. This is a party game first, and a racing game second.
This light-hearted, jocular spirit is most evident during time spent with the absolutely brilliant multiplayer. Has another game ever managed to flip between competitive and cooperative play as seamlessly as this? It’s doubtful. Online play centres around the completion of adaptable set lists, and the default group are a finely-tuned mixture of races, speed tests and co-op challenges. Races and speed tests are predictably tense and hard-won, but the co-op challenges are generally just hilarious. Leap over a massive aeroplane fuselage whilst other cars are ascending inside it, all the while trying to avoid head-on collisions. Get on top of a small rooftop without knocking each other off in the process. Collectively gain air or drift time. There’s a seemingly endless supply of these challenges, and whether you’re winning, losing or being sneakily stitched up by an online competitor, it’s never less than riotously entertaining. It’s clearly reminiscent of Burnout Paradise’s multiplayer component, and it’s a joy to have it back. There’s still nothing else like it.
There are a couple of mild technical imperfections – though only really if you’re prone to regularly jumping between the online and offline modes – but the visuals are stellar and for a mega-budget franchise sequel it has real personality; not least during one of the many intro cinematics, which ping-pong between being eye-poppingly stylish and downright bloody weird. Whereas police chases were the best thing about 2010’s Hot Pursuit, here they represent easily the weakest part of the package: it’s often way too easy to rile the law, and then way too difficult to get away clean. When your evasive tools actually work as intended those sections are completely thrilling, but because there’s no significant penalty for getting caught, there’s absolutely no reason to run if you don’t fancy it. Which basically makes mincemeat of the problem. Despite a couple of small grievances, for a game that was borne of a duo of masterpieces, Need for Speed Most Wanted manages to measure up more than ably.