As far as arcade racing goes, there are few development studios as respected as Criterion Games. For years, they've shown off their knack for high-octane thrills with the Burnout franchise. With Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit, they helped save a franchise that was falling out of favor. With Need for Speed: Most Wanted, Criterion has resurrected one of the older entries, a title that launched alongside the Xbox 360.
Unlike the last few titles in the series, Most Wanted is more open ended since you have a full city to explore. Every race and event can be accessed at any time and in any order. There's full traffic in the game as well as the ability to wreck your car if you crash badly. You can do the same to other cars and get rewarded, and you can drive through repair shops to get your car fixed and change its body color. When you're not racing around town, you can take on jumps, smash billboards, or try to beat speed traps as you outrun the cops.
As in previous years, Autolog is back and has a few improvements in tow. Complete race times are still being recorded live among your friends, but everything from top speed to jump distance to drift distance is also recorded and posted for everyone to see. Everything is a competition all of the time.
If all of this seems familiar, that's because this is the basic blueprint for another one of Criterion's titles, Burnout Paradise. Every activity is pulled straight from that game, including the crash system, which has been toned down due to the use of licensed cars. This feeling of déjà vu was made readily apparent in multiplayer, where players would be asked to meet up at certain spots in the map and the game would make up random challenges. Everything from team races to longest jumps to speed trap sessions were selected during the hands-on demo, and while they were fun, the presence of real-life cars added to the enjoyment factor.
The heavy influence of past works doesn't diminish the additions made to the game. An experience system is now in place, and it acts as your score for leaderboard placement. All of this experience is earned by winning races, but it can also be earned through little things, like drifting and near misses. Jack spots allow you to get a car replacement should you have a tough time evading the cops, and it also gives you the added benefit of having a new car in your garage. There's also a full day and night cycle, making the city feel like a breathing entity.
There's no doubt that Need for Speed: Most Wanted will be good, but the real question is whether players are ready for what is essentially a re-skin of the last big Burnout title. It marks a big change for the Need for Speed series, and with the focus on racing over story, it is certainly a change for the better.
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