The Need for Speed series has been through some interesting convolutions of late. Last year's The Run made a case for what narrative can bring to an experience which devolves to decidedly undramatic questions of traction and horsepower. Sadly, it forgot to make the narrative in question original or exciting.
This year's Most Wanted - an open-world reboot of the 2005 release, comparable to Criterion's excellent Burnout Paradise - isn't just a welcome reminder that racing doesn't need this kind of context to enthral. It's also an attempt to demonstrate that racing games and, indeed, games in general can do without a campaign full stop, providing players are appropriately motivated to organise their own entertainment.
Most Wanted trades traditional modes, racing leagues and an unlocks ladder for an all-pervading, community-sourced trickle of tasks and rewards, pushed out to you as in-game notifications by an expanded version of NFS: Hot Pursuit's Autolog. As in Hot Pursuit, you'll be told when a friend has beaten your time or score, and you can leap straight to the event in question by way of the Easy Drive D-pad menu. But this time Autolog's cues populate the world around you, thronging the city of Fairhaven like holographic pedestrians.
In the best open-world tradition, this plays merry hell with the balance of power between Most Wanted's core objectives. You'll set up a rendezvous with one of the titular Most Wanted - elite joy-riders armed with cutting-edge whips who can be challenged once you've earned enough Speed Points - only to be ambushed at a corner by a speed camera (tickets are to be coveted, not avoided), or lured up a ramp by the sight of a friend's Xbox Live mugshot on a billboard, gloating over his record jump distance. There's always something to do in Most Wanted, and thanks to the Autolog system, you'll usually find it right under your nose.
"I want" always gets
Also in the finest open-world tradition, Autolog's omnipresence pays into a progression model that's all carrot and no stick, seeking to bring about buyer satisfaction wherever you find yourself, regardless of what you're driving or who you're trying to force-feed dust. Save for the Most Wanted rides, which are awarded when you defeat a Most Wanted driver, the entire garage of impossibly luxurious exotics, muscle cars and vintage roadsters are yours to manhandle from the get-go, providing you can find them - hardly difficult, given the fact that they're marked on your radar.
Vehicle damage is almost completely cosmetic, mods can be applied in the middle of a race to suit each stage of a particular course, and getting busted simply cheats you of the Speed Points you'd earn for escaping the law's long arm. It's wish fulfilment on an unheard-of scale, but there are downsides - Criterion's reluctance to bring the hammer down creates a special kind of fatigue where achievement itself becomes a burden, and the absence of real obstacles is strangely exhausting.
Thankfully, Most Wanted's car physics and tracks are compensation aplenty. Every car makes you think differently about the road ahead, and each sports a halo of bespoke events designed to air its strengths. Fairhaven is effectively a giant racing course, looping back on itself so that you'll see everything it has to offer without resorting to the map screen. But it also breaks down to support an astonishing variety of single and multiplayer events - bouts of cat-and-mouse with the cops, off-road drifting challenges, destruction derby and endurance games where you jostle for space atop a shipping crate, to name but a few.