Need for Speed: Most Wanted review: Burnout, baby

Need for Speed: Most Wanted is Criterion's second crack at the Need for Speed series, EA's biggest racing brand. Unlike 2010's Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit, Criterion's first shot at the series, Need for Speed: Most Wanted is a game very much rooted in Criterion's past – not EA's.

Need for Speed: Most Wanted is an open-world racer akin to Criterion's last effort for its most well-known series, Burnout: Paradise. Paradise's world felt larger than Most Wanted's city of Fairhaven, but Most Wanted is a more learned execution than Paradise, a game that doesn't take your time for granted and never takes you out of the driver's seat – literally and figuratively.
%Gallery-157681% The premise of Need for Speed: Most Wanted is simple: The police are after ten racers, the big dogs in the racing scene, and you've got take them all down to be the best. That's it; no silly FMV scenes or insulting, cliched story lines – just avoid the cops, race better than the other guys, take them down and their car is yours.

In addition to the top ten board, there are numerous hidden cars to find, security gates to crash through, speed cameras to whiz by and billboards to smash into that provide hours of distraction from grinding Speed Points to unlock the next Most Wanted match-up. Speed Points correlate to your Speed Level – as you earn points both online and off, your driver profile increases and ... that's really it. Speed points are just an arbitrary system keeping you from climbing the Most Wanted ladder too quickly.

Each car itself has a series of five events to unlock all of its modifications, which include nitrous boost, different chassis configurations, body types, transmission loadouts and tires. With each car having five missions and a total of 65 cars to unlock, there's a lot to keep you busy here. There's a large variety of cars, from street racers to muscle cars to F1 racers and trucks and many more.

The only downside is that many of the events repeat from car to car, so it doesn't take long to memorize layouts and the like. While it may seem like a chore on paper, the excellent driving thankfully diminishes the monotony of it all. The folks at Criterion Games are experts at arcade racing, conjuring up some alternate dimension where drifting actually makes you go faster, and that's no different here. Criterion has fine-tuned and perfected its driving over the years, and Need for Speed: Most Wanted offers the studio's best work to date.

Criterion's excellence shines once again in both the sense of drifting and sense of speed. No racing game feels like a Criterion racing game, and different cars slip and slide in different ways, but the handling is precise and instantly familiar to any fan of the studio's previous work. Cars feel heavy but instantly accessible – you don't have to know gear ratios or complex car mechanics. Just hold in the gas and go. You reach blinding speeds, weave through traffic and tight alleyways; this is how a Criterion game feels and Need for Speed: Most Wanted excels here.

Fairhaven is full of distinct districts, twists and turns, and tons of traffic, making every second behind the wheel a thrilling white-knuckle speed show. The sense of speed is unparalleled. When you're red-lining any particular car, you really feel like the tiniest movement in any direction is a dangerous proposition. Sure, a heavy truck can ram through just about anything with impunity, but even the slightest mistake with an F1 racer will wreck you and, ultimately, cost you the event.

The backbone of Need for Speed: Most Wanted is Easy Drive, a quick-menu system that lets you jump to cars, events, multiplayer and more with a few quick presses of the d-pad inside the game. You can even change your car's mods during a race on the fly. Apart from checking out your driver profile or perusing the map of Fairhaven, it eradicates all need to pause the game. Easy Drive is an excellent way to facilitate progress and something that other developers should be paying attention to.

Of course, you have to be aware of your surroundings while using Easy Drive, as you're actually still driving while using it. After all, you wouldn't want to crash or get busted by the cops. The Fairhaven Police generally maintain a light presence in the city – until you speed past them. Driving on the wrong side of the road doesn't seem to bother them too much, nor does plowing into private property. Commit the heinous crime of speeding, however, and the cops are on you like white on rice.

Cops randomly patrol Fairhaven and they play a major role in each of the top ten Most Wanted car missions. Their means have been stripped down in Most Wanted, and they seem to lack the funding of their Hot Pursuit counterparts from 2010 – mostly they throw down spike strips or set up road blocks. The cars pursuing you will change depending on your heat level – this increases as you wreck cops, blow through roadblocks, basically anything that upsets the fuzz – making for more aggressive pursuers who are harder to shake. If they manage to pin you down, they'll bust you.

The cops never provide a real threat though. If you get busted, nothing happens. They don't take your precious Speed Points or anything; you're just transported back to the spawn point of whatever ride you're in. Sure, getting busted mid-race will throw a monkey wrench into your plans, but you can quickly restart any mission with two button presses. Furthermore, considering the cops had to pin you to arrest you in the first place, you were probably going to restart the challenge anyway.

Ultimately the police are a vehicle for more chaos in the race, adding to the heaping pile of excitement that is dodging traffic, playing bumper cars with your rivals and navigating the treacherous web of streets and highways that make up Fairhaven. It's a good dynamic, but once you've mastered the pattern, their impact lessens and the boys in blue become more of an afterthought.

In addition to the single-player content there are plenty of different online activities. Burnout: Paradise paved the way for the basic infrastructure here: after opening an online room, people are allowed to jump into your city, giving everyone the freedom to explore together with a few presses of a button.
The host of the room can then set up what's called a Speedlist, a specific list of five challenges for all the players to take on. It's a good way to instill some variety into the proceedings should you desire, leaving you free to mix it up or stick with standard racing. It's customizable and, if you're not really the decisive type, a Criterion Speedlist option will randomize a set of objectives for you and spit them out.

Events vary, from your typical sprints and lap-based races, to team races, takedown events, drift challenges and even missions to see who can make the longest jump off a single ramp. The frenzy of players trying to make a run at the ramp while griefers plow into them at the last second, taking them down or ruining their trajectory, is a sickly sweet poison (the sweetness of which usually depends on who's doing the plowing).

Unfortunately, while the Speedlist system is easy enough to use, it's not without its problems, first and foremost that the start of each challenge or mission is chaotic and confusing. Once a Speedlist has been activated, players have to drive to the next event. Once there, the event will start and a small ticker at the bottom of the screen provides a one-sentence blurb describing the challenge. These descriptions, however, aren't always clear, and they go by quickly enough that you might even miss them if you aren't paying attention.

On top of that, once the players are assembled, the event countdown will begin regardless of each player's orientation. If you car is pointed in the wrong direction, for example, you'll have to spend precious seconds turning around and catching up with everyone else. Thankfully, this becomes less of a problem once you've gained some experience and learned Most Wanted's routes.

Another strange design decision, Most Wanted never arranges cars along a starting line at all, and players aren't forced to wait for a starting signal. As a result, it's entirely possible to blaze past the starting zone and pick up a hefty lead before an event officially "starts." It's a bizarre choice, especially in light of the improvements Easy Drive brings to the table. Why not have players meet up and choose starting positions based on their ranks, a la Burnout: Paradise?

Ultimately this oddness is overcome, again, the more you play. At first it's pretty jarring and I was kicking myself for races I should've won, foiled by that beginning awkwardness of trying to figure out where the race path actually was. But as I played more races and logged in more multiplayer time, it became a tool for me to use on others. As more players log in online, it should become less of an issue, but there will definitely be an adjustment period for those weaned on traditional racers.

Multiplayer is also a much more fun place to grind for points. If you get tired of unlocking every mod for every car – looking at you, Ford F-150 that's in this game for some reason – then just go online, play more exciting and unique events and rack up points that way. And, of course, it's much more satisfying to take down on your friends than a CPU-controlled opponent.

The PS Vita version of Need for Speed: Most Wanted is a pretty competent recreation of the console game – all of the content found in the PS3 and Xbox 360 versions of Need for Speed: Most Wanted is there. Some of the technical limitations of the PS Vita can get in the way, however. For one, traffic density is nowhere near what it is on the consoles; I've seen a maximum of four civilian cars on-screen at once – around half the number seen on consoles – making some of the later traffic-heavy missions a bit of a breeze on the PS Vita. There are also texture warping and draw distance issues. I noticed frequent texture loading and witnessed parts of the city being drawn in, an especially ugly sight when tearing along at high speeds. Gameplay remains largely unchanged though, and the Vita version is as fully-featured as its console siblings.

Need for Speed: Most Wanted is the next Burnout game fans have clamoring for – it may not say so on the box, but everything about it screams Burnout. The feel of the cars, the physics and the eclectic mix of multiplayer modes are all undeniably Criterion qualities, the things old fans love and the properties that convert new fans with every studio release. If you enjoy Criterion's work, or arcade racing in general, head on down to Fairhaven. Just keep an eye on the rear-view.

This review is based on Xbox 360 and PS Vita retail copies of Need for Speed: Most Wanted, provided by EA.

Joystiq's review scores are based on a scale of whether the game in question is worth your time -- a five-star being a definitive "yes," and a one-star being a definitive "no."Read here for more information on our ratings guidelines.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.