Going fast is really fun. Need for Speed: Most Wanted (2012) takes speed junkies on the ultimate joyride, dumping a box of Hot Wheels on an open world playground and letting the player take the wheel from there.
Developed by Criterion Games, this game has no fluff and no pointless missions. Just good tunes, fast cars, and lots of space to have fun.
After booting up, the game goes through a lightning fast tutorial set to the quintessential 2010s sound of Muse. Then, players are dropped into Fairhaven City, a sprawling urban metropolis.
From the jump, the player can drive anywhere on the map with no limits and no direction. Criterion puts you in the driver’s seat, demonstrating an immense confidence in their gameplay by making it the main attraction.
And boy, does that gameplay deliver. Half the fun of Most Wanted comes from simply driving around, breaking billboards and speed limits, dodging traffic, and outrunning the cops. Criterion took their experience from the open world racing classic Burnout: Paradise and infused it with Need for Speed style, crafting a world dense with opportunity for racing fun.
The developers designed every nook and cranny of Fairhaven City with the sole purpose of driving a car quickly through it. This means every jump, road, and shortcut leads into the next. You achieve a perfect state of flow navigating the twists and turns of the city, almost subconsciously chaining jumps and drifting around corners at 100 miles per hour.
This design focus makes it so that discovering new parts of the map won’t kill your speed as you learn the terrain. But once you start driving through familiar areas you can really push the limit, anticipating turns to get the perfect drift or breaking through construction sites for a shortcut.
No matter if you’re racing, outrunning the cops, or just taking a joyride, there’s never a dull moment in the world of Need for Speed: Most Wanted.
Of course, who cares about the map if the star of the show doesn’t deliver? Thankfully, the driving in Need for Speed: Most Wanted sets the bar for chaotic arcade racing. Cars look and feel perfect, each vehicle having its own unique handling and acceleration to set it apart from the rest.
Furthemore, the Jack Spot system perfectly integrates into the world to make acquiring new cars feel fresh. Drivable cars are scattered around the map, and by simply finding their parking place and driving up next to them you can switch into the new car, unlocking it for customization. Stumbling upon a mint condition Lamborghini and taking it for a spin had me giggling like a schoolgirl, tapping into that childlike joy of finding a shiny new toy.
Sadly, one of the issues I ran into came in the form of DLC cars. Even if the player doesn’t own the DLC, purchasable cars appear in the open world exactly like regular cars and trying to get inside one will prompt the game’s online shop to open. My excitement went from sixty to zero every time I found a slick new ride only to discover I couldn’t play with it. However, a bountiful cornucopia of cars in the base game ensures that every driver will find their perfect fit.
Missions in Need for Speed: Most Wanted come from the game’s menu system EasyDrive. At any point while driving, a press of the d-pad will bring up the EasyDrive menu with races, car customization, and other options.
This serves as the main navigator and way to access missions, though trying to work the menu while driving led me to crash multiple times. It’s the closest thing I’ve experienced to texting and driving in a game, so maybe a simple pause menu could have sufficed.
Each car has its own set of races dotted across the map, with each race awarding a car part for use in customization. While upgrading your car feels rewarding, this progression system disincentivizes players from using new cars with no upgraded features.
It would have been nice for boost at least to be standard by default instead of needing to be unlocked on each individual vehicle, as picking up a new car feels painfully slow without boost, souring what should be a great moment.
Completing missions also awards SpeedPoints, points that rank the top 10 drivers on a titular “Most Wanted” list. Once the player surpasses a name on the list, they can take on that car in a head-on-head race with the police in hot pursuit. Besting that car and taking it down adds it to your collection and takes a name off the list on your path to the No. 1 spot.
The multiplayer aspect of the game ties into this Most Wanted list, presumably with friends’ SpeedPoint totals showing up on the list, but after seven years since launch, it seems that the online community has stalled out.
Features like billboards and speedometers record a player’s top speed while hitting them, making an individual leaderboard on every street, but nowadays those features only serve to keep players competing with themselves.
If you’re expecting a fun filled multiplayer romp, Most Wanted might have offered it at some point, but now lacks an integral part of the experience.
Need for Speed: Most Wanted power-slid into my heart with exciting gameplay and engaging map design. The ecstasy of a perfect drift or last-minute finish kept me coming back for more action.
The core loop of finding and tricking out new cars, competing in breakneck races, and climbing to the top of the Most Wanted list scratched an itch I haven’t felt since… well, Burnout: Paradise.
Criterion’s track record when it comes to racing games continues to impress, so if you have the need for speed, check out Need for Speed: Most Wanted.