For better or worse there isn't much of a story to the game. When you start it up for the first time you're told that ten drivers rule the streets of Fairhaven. These ten drivers have the best cars in Fairhaven and your objective is to take them down, winning their cars and becoming Fairhaven's most wanted in the process.
Need For Speed: Most Wanted is an open-world game with a map densely populated with things to do and find. Pretty much everything you do earns you Speed Points (SP), which are required to challenge the ten Most Wanted drivers. Once you've earned enough points you'll unlock a race against a Most Wanted driver, and if you beat them you earn the chance to take them down and win their car.
Each vehicle in the game has its own set of five races to complete, though many races are repeated in different vehicles. Of the five races one is rated as easy, two are medium difficulty and two are hard. Thanks to the awesome new 'Easy Drive' menu getting to the races is as easy as pressing a button or following a line on your map.
By pressing right on the d-pad you open up the Easy Drive menu from which you select 'Races'. In here all five races for that vehicle are shown and you can take your pick. If you've done a race before you'll be given the option to jump straight into the race again. If you haven't done the race before you can set it as the destination bringing up a bright green line on your minimap that takes you straight to the starting line.
There are a few different event types in the game – Sprint and Circuit races, Speed Runs and Ambushes, as well as the Most Wanted events. Sprint and circuit races are self-explanatory; one is a sprint to the finish, the other has laps. In Speed Runs you have to finish the event with an average speed higher than the listed target. In Ambushes the cops are hot on your tail and your task is to get away as quickly as possible.
It's important to customize your car for each event if you want to set the fastest possible time for each race. Customizing cars is as easy as opening the Easy Drive menu and going into the Customize section. By doing this cars can be modified on the fly, with the changes happening instantly. The Easy Drive menu also allows you to swap to any car in your garage instantly, take on any Most Wanted driver or jump straight into multiplayer (more on that later).
Outside of Jack Spots there are plenty of other things to find around Fairhaven. There are 66 speed cameras, 135 security gates and over 150 billboards located all over the map. Speed cameras flash anytime you go through them over the speed limit, and keep track of your fastest speed through them. Security gates often hide shortcuts or interesting industrial areas with plenty of cool jumps, cars and billboards within, making them worth tracking down.
Billboards provide in-game advertising for EA and Criterion initially, but once you drive through them and complete a jump without crashing , the billboard changes to a most wanted poster with your PS3 avatar on it. It goes without saying that finding the cameras, security gates and billboards earns you speed points, which means time spent driving around Fairhaven isn't wasted.
Losing the heat usually involves out-running the cops. It's very hard to hide from the police unless you're in the clear, because even if you take the time to get a paint job out of their view, they'll recognize you immediately once you're in their line of sight. They're also quite thorough in checking potential hiding spots, so speed is your best weapon in pursuits. If you start the chase in a slow vehicle you'll be well served by jumping into a faster car at a nearby Jack Spot.
Crashes are a common theme in the game, but crashing doesn't destroy your car, or even noticeably affect its performance despite the visible damage. In races you'll be given a rolling restart around the spot where you crashed, costing you just a second or two, and if you're driving around you simply take control of your car in the spot it crashed after a slow-mo replay of your crash.
As mentioned earlier there are 41 cars in the game, and while there is a wide range of vehicles to find, all of them handle in a believable and responsive way. The game is definitely more arcade than simulation – there are no manual gear changes to be found – but there is enough difference in the handling of the vehicles to mean there is an adjustment period any time you switch between cars.
The faster cars are all wonderfully responsive, making drifting around tight or long corners a piece of cake. Drifting is as easy as tapping the brake as you speed into a corner, though how long the tap is will depend on the car. Some of the fastest cars handle better with judicious use of the hand-brake rather than regular braking. All in all the driving mechanics are excellent, making Fairhaven a thoroughly enjoyable city to explore.
Need For Speed: Most Wanted is designed to be played with friends, but despite that the multiplayer offerings are, for the most part, disappointing. The most disappointing aspect of multiplayer is that there is no support for local multiplayer. Really! If you want to play multiplayer you have to go online.
An example of online play goes something like this. First you drive to the meet up area. Once there you wait for everyone to arrive (which often takes a while), then you're given a challenge to complete. Challenges take many forms, but involve things like getting 30 takedowns between all drivers, or performing 3200 yards of drift simultaneously. Instructions for challenges show up in the ticker at the bottom of the screen and can sometimes be vague.
Anyway once the challenge is complete you get around three minutes of intermission where you pretty much entertain yourself. The usual method of killing time is non-stop takedowns on your rivals, but what you do it up to you. When intermission ends you drive to the next event, usually a team or individual race. Then you wait for everyone to arrive. Tick, tick, tick. Then the event starts, and once it's over and you're awarded some speed points before getting another location to drive to. After waiting for everyone to arrive another challenge begins, and the process repeats.
While some people will enjoy the slow-paced nature of the multiplayer offering, the lack of structure and focus really bugged me. Completing the five event playlist can easily take 45 minutes or more, sometimes they last more than an hour. The speed points earned in that time is usually much less than you can earn in single player too. On the other hand you unlock car mods quickly in multiplayer, and that's one appealing aspect.
Possibly the most fun part is breaking billboard jump records, because whichever of your friends owns the record has their face (their PS3 avatar at least) displayed on the billboard. Smashing through the billboard picture of your friend, and in the process breaking the record, is a lot of fun and it definitely adds to the appeal of driving around Fairhaven.
Autolog, accessed via the Easy Drive menu, will also toss up race suggestions for you based on things your friends have done. This is a great way to integrate competition between friends, meaning you'll get a lot more out of the game if you have some in-game friends.
Aside from the lack of local multiplayer, and the uninspired online multiplayer offering there are only a couple of issues with the game. As much fun as Fairhaven is to drive around, once you knock off the top ten Most Wanted drivers, which took me roughly ten hours, there's not much reason to keep going. If you have a few friends playing the game you'll enjoy challenging their records, but if you're flying solo the game doesn't offer much more.
Need For Speed: Most Wanted is an undeniably pretty game to play. There is a tremendous amount going on at any given time, with plenty of destructible objects close to the roads, such as signs, fences, streetlights and witches hats. All of these get thrown far and wide when they're run over, making for heaps of on-screen action, and while there's always a lot going on everything runs smoothly the vast majority of the time.
You'll often find yourself driving into oncoming traffic but oncoming cars are easy to spot on account of their bright blue headlights. Driving close behind other cars off-road can be problematic on account of the dust they kick up, and driving into the sun is also difficult. These are good problems to have though as it all adds to the realism and makes it that much more challenging.
Some crashes look truly spectacular, like when the cops rammed me up a set of stairs, launching me into the air only to crash into the third floor of a building. Or the time I was taken out midair with the finish line in sight. The best-looking part of the game may just be the artistic, occasionally trippy, pre-race intros. Colour and contrast are used to great effect in these, and some of the choreography, which has police cars closing in on you in pyramid formation – literally stacked on top of each other – is pretty cool.
The soundtrack is excellent, featuring tunes by well-known bands like Green Day, Muse, Chemical Brothers and The Who. The one disappointment here is that you can't go into the menu and pick and choose which songs you want to hear, or even peruse the playlist. Both of those things would have been appreciated. The sound effects are top-notch throughout, and the police chatter is relevant and interesting… until you've heard it a hundred times, at which point it becomes repetitive.
Need For Speed: Most Wanted nails the feel of arcade-style driving, with highly-responsive cars and excellent drift mechanics. In single-player there is plenty to do, though once you knock off the top-10 Most Wanted drivers your interest might wane. It's not very difficult either, which will turn off some players. The multiplayer component is disappointing, and somewhat contradictorily it only thrives in single-player, where just about every aspect of the game is open to competition with friends. So what we have here is a thoroughly entertaining game, but one that lacks depth and replay value, as well as decent multiplayer. If you can accept those shortcomings you'll have a stack of fun with this game.
Review By: Mike Allison