Editor's Note: The following review pertains only to the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC editions of Need for Speed: Most Wanted. Please see Page 2 for GamesRadar's review of the PS Vita edition.
There's a moment an hour or two after you start Need For Speed: Most Wanted when everything seems to click into place. Before this happens, you'll be constantly slamming into walls and oncoming traffic, wondering how you'll ever manage to escape cops that drive tricked-out Corvettes, and unsure if the cars you're racing against consist of anything other than tail lights, objective evidence to the contrary not being easy to come across. But then, you find a car you like, you nab a few hard-earned upgrades, and you finally manage to get the hang of the game's sensitive drifting mechanism. If you can manage not to destroy your controller before you reach this meeting point of skill and experience, you'll be able to take in Most Wanted for what it is: a very engaging, if not ground-breaking, open-world racer.
Taking place in the city of Fairhaven, Most Wanted tasks you with becoming the most notorious street racer in the land by challenging the ten racers on the city's Most Wanted list. As with developer Criterion's Burnout: Paradise, you're free to explore the entire city as soon as you begin play, and there's plenty to find if you do so, including speed cameras, smashable billboards, and, of course, vehicles. The bulk of the 41 cars in Most Wanted are available from the outset; all you have to do is find where they're parked around the city and hop into them.
Mechanically, Most Wanted threads an interesting line between arcade looseness and simulation purity. No one's going to confuse this for Gran Turismo or Forza, but neither is it as forgiving as previous Burnouts or Need For Speeds. Keeping your car under control can be a task, especially in turns; emphasis is placed on controlled drifts to maintain speed while avoiding collisions and obstacles. What rubber-banding the game has generally favors your computer opponents rather than yourself, and there are plenty of races where you'll be matched up with cars that are straight-up faster than you are, forcing you to rely on proper turning and smart use of nitrous boost to make up ground. Most Wanted feels like a noticeably more challenging game than many recent arcade racers, especially in the early going, but it’s a challenge that rewards skill and patience rather than luck.
"Challenging" can be a synonym for "frustrating" at times, of course, and Most Wanted does sport a fair amount of that. While civilian traffic can be a fickle mistress, more concerning is that the game does a downright poor job of indicating upcoming turns to you. Upcoming checkpoints are represented by a white line extending into the sky, but this will often be obscured by buildings if you're in the city, and while there are green markers that appear in your path to indicate sharp turns, these aren't always placed where they're most needed. The minimap will show you the path you're intended to take, but it's zoomed in far enough that you'll have to check it almost constantly if you're actually worried about an upcoming turn, and has the frustrating tendency to unnecessarily reroute you into oncoming traffic to boot. Discerning subtle turns on it, such as when you’re supposed to hit a freeway offramp, is a difficult task at high speeds.
For an open-world racer, there are surprisingly few types of events in the single-player portion of Most Wanted. The bulk of the races are straightforward, finish-first affairs, with some complicated by the presence of police attempting to break up your joyride with spike strips and roadblocks. There are also events that drop you into the middle of a police pursuit and ask you to escape, as well as challenges that'll task you with keeping your average speed above a certain mark, but there's little variety beyond that. Since the game already includes takedowns, drifts, and the ability to pop big air off of ramps, it's curious that there aren't more events that focus on stylish racing, but for whatever reason this a game that feels like it offers fewer single-player draws than Paradise did four years ago. Once you conquer the ten cars on the Most Wanted list (which should take seven or eight hours), there’s little to do for offline players other than go back and trick out the lower-powered cars that you previously unlocked, which is a decided anticlimax.
If the game doesn’t offer a compelling value as a single-player title, that’s more than compensated for by a wide array of genuinely enjoyable modes that are exclusive to multiplayer. You’ll be asked to perform lengthy drifts, race to small elevated areas and attempt to stay atop them while everyone else is trying to knock you off, perform the longest jump off a ramp, race as part of a team, and plenty of other esoteric tasks, all while trying to avoid getting slammed into a wall by your competitors. The proceedings are absolutely chaotic, but in a way that seems joyful and unrestrained. Many of the events encourage wanton carnage, such as a race through figure-eight alleyways that result in massive, hilarious crashes at the midpoint, or a challenge to get the longest jump off a pair of ramps that face each other, ensuring that more than a few of your attempts will result in mid-air collisions.
If you’re not big on multiplayer, there’s little reason to pick up Most Wanted over, say, heading to the bargain bin for a copy of Burnout Paradise. If you’re willing to invest a few hours to learning the game’s quirks, however, and are at all interested in racing against your friends online, this suddenly becomes one of the most recommendable arcade racers to come along in the past few years. It’s a shame that Criterion couldn’t find a way to make the solo play more compelling, but after a few hours of fooling around with your friends online, the point quickly becomes moot, as you’re unlikely to want to play by yourself after you get a taste of the legitimately great multiplayer on tap in Need For Speed: Most Wanted.
The PS3 version of Need for Speed: Most Wanted was used for this review.