For the sheer sense of speed, scale, danger, and ambition, I'll hold up Criterion Games' "Burnout Paradise" as the greatest racer of this console generation. With multiple "Burnout" titles under their belts across previous generation consoles and handhelds, Criterion sought to create a seamless, open world racing experience that, though it wasn't without its faults, packed its fictional city to the brim with ramps to jump, racers to challenge, and vehicles to destroy.
Since taking the reins of the "Need For Speed" franchise, they've since folded many of the elements of "Burnout" into EA's street racing games, starting with last year's "Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit." Now they're tacking another named branch of the line, "Most Wanted," by giving it a little bit of that "Burnout Paradise" feeling, setting "Most Wanted" in a new, open city. And for the most part, it feels like a return to form with stellar multiplayer hindered somewhat by a less impressive offline mode focused on collecting and modding vehicles.
The new setting is the city of Fairhaven, filled with the same kinds of cliffs, jumps, industrial areas, tunnels, and high rise heavy downtown areas as that of "Paradise." But where that game focused on high-speed crash and bash races, "Most Wanted" is a little more straightforward. The emphasis here is on finding and racing new cars in the world to add them to your own collection, speccing them out with modification earned from races and challenges distributed throughout the city. Ultimately, the goal is to reach the top of the Most Wanted list, based on Speed Points earned through offline and online events.
Like "Paradise," you'll have to find new races on the map, this time aided by the Easy Race menu. You see, Criterion's goal with "Most Wanted" was to present an unbroken, fluid racing experience without pausing, hence the Easy Race menu which can be accessed by pressing right on the D-pad (as well as by calling it up with a voice command via Kinect on the 360). This reveals new events available for your current car as well as upgrades, and access to the multiplayer mode, but in practice it's still like pausing the game since the menus obscure the top half of the screen, making driving unfeasible.
The actual racing is the same blend of arcade racing and real cars that Criterion brought to "Hot Pursuit," although it seems to lack some of the white knuckle speed of that game. Perhaps that owes to the way the cars in "Most Wanted" handle--a little heavier than their counterparts in "Paradise" and "Hot Pursuit" although the urban "tracks" offer plenty of opportunities for jumps, shortcuts, and sweet boost-assisted drifting. Plus, the customization element doesn't offer enough complexity for the kinds of gear heads that this feature targets, while alternately having more arcade-minded racers worrying that their current load-out might not be right for the next race.
Plus, there's an extra dash of "Hot Pursuit" thrown in: the Fairfield PD are hidden throughout the city, and if you happen to zoom past one of their speed traps, you'll find yourself being chased by some of the city's finest, as they set down traps and use some of the same special weapons from "Hot Pursuit." If you end up on their radar, they'll chase you until you get out of their range--or if you're so inclined you can egg them on and increase your "Heat" level by smashing and crashing FPD vehicles. In theory, this should add to the excitement of the chase, but the cops are easily evaded and really just provide an impediment when you're trying to get to your next race.
Online is really where it's at. Anyone who's played "Paradise" will be familiar with the freewheeling multiplayer that Criterion can produce. Part of it is down to how its team and solo events are scored: specifically, everything is scored. You receive a score and a ranking based on your performance in a race, or how long it takes you to complete a cooperative event, or even how long it takes you to beat the other racers to the starting line. Plus, there's a chance to sabotage your opponents once you've completed your goal by looping around and crashing into themas they attempt to complete a challenge.
It's a multiplayer setup that requires and encourages ruthlessness, and is really where "Most Wanted" shines.
I had some real reservations about the single player campaign of "Most Wanted" but primarily owing to some additions that pull down the overall sense of speed and recklessness. Having said that, I did obsessively replay multiple tracks, chasing that top score, which is, to my mind, the benchmark of a successful racer. Add in the wholly addictive multiplayer mode and you've got a very solid racing game from the typically great Criterion.
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