There’s something about cars. There’s something about “going for a drive”; something about the entrancing hum of a long trip, through the trees and all that; something about the motion and the idea of the “get-away.” Need for Speed: Most Wanted, pure and impatient, has that something. It shoved me and I ran, and ran and ran and ran. That is, with a car of course.
Within a minute of pressing start, I was driving. Within two minutes, I had two cars. Within three, I was in my first race. And by the end of minute four, I lost my first race. There’s no tutorial or warning, just a brief establishing shot of my car. And we’re off. My drop-down menu in the right corner throws out Autolog information via a ticker (what’s a milestone?). There are customization options available for my car (already?). I’m given five race options of varying difficulty (why can I do the hard races first? I’ll be eaten).
A narrator explains there are 10 most wanted drivers in Fairhaven city. My job is to rack up enough points to race, defeat, and destroy these 10. I have to become the most wanted, I’m told. I haven’t even blinked yet and the game is entirely laid out. (Why can’t every game be like this?)
Cars are scattered across the city. If I find one, I add it to my collection and can take it out whenever I please. Winning races gives points for better parts. It’s basic, fast, and clean. The normal races, which vary between Point A to Point B, lap races, and speed events, are defanged after a few hours of play. Even the Most Wanted races aren’t that demanding. I beat most of them after two or three tries. The majority of my playtime was about finding: finding cars, finding races, finding better gear.
And, often, the cops would come out to play.
In normal circumstances, Fairhaven’s finest aren’t threatening. They’re more noise and lights than a hindrance. But later events require running from them in a certain amount of time. Those are a different beast. When there’s a time limit involved and every car in the city seems to transform into a cop, like agents in the Matrix, there is no easy win. Most times it seems too unruly to win. Once I fell down the chase rabbit hole, I couldn’t get out. I’d end up getting busted, which didn’t seem to affect anything but my continuity.
Still, these events are infrequent and are forgiven by their opening sequences. In fact, every opening sequence is gorgeous. Like a beginning montage for a playoff game, these moody clips set the tone of the event. In one instance, police cars swerved around me and lost control, freezing in the air as they begin to flip. In other cases, impressionistic color schemes were grafted onto the city landscape in stark blues, reds, blacks, and whites. There was one opening where a group of police cars pile together into a giant wheel and barreled down on my car. It’s enigmatic and removed from the more prominent backwards-hat and Bud-Light atmosphere, but it’s evocative.
The real heart of the game – a streamlined, grab-n-go structure – is what captivates. The customization is involved but not arithmetic. I’d easily swap out parts and gears to better suit my play style, sometimes during a race. Fast and nimble or strong and threatening. All of the options are accessible from the in-game drop-down menu. No pausing or breaking, just utilization of the entire controller at once.
Also accessible through the menu are the Autolog features, which are online challenges shared with friends and the Origin community. Tracking an Autolog event, or a milestone, is a way of setting the bar among the online community. The milestones are superfluous but quirky enough to garner attention, like drifting for a certain distance.
The openness and immediacy of the game’s system emphasize exploration. Like Burnout Paradise (another open-world racing game by developer Criterion Games), Most Wanted has so much hidden behind its open-world environment. And when I wasn’t hurling my jet that someone decided could pass as a car into threads of traffic, I was cruising through industrial parks and alleys hunting for vehicles, shortcuts, ramps, and smashable billboards.
Need for Speed: Most Wanted captures what is most fun about driving: the options. Do I want to follow this path to the next race? Do I want to venture off and go ram into oncoming traffic? Do I want to put off-road tires on my car and take a cruise on some railroad tracks? The races and challenges aren’t technical, nor do they require much practice, but in a game that invites colliding with opponents, I didn’t complain. I just wanted to weave, fly, and explore. Its formula brews empowerment, ’90s alt-rock soundtrack be damned.