In Most Wanted's multiplayer, the challenge isn't just to reach the finish in one piece: you've also got to survive the trip to the starting line. Each 'Speedlist' - custom racing tournaments for the iPod Shuffle crowd - takes place in and around the vaguely Californian setting, with individual events often miles apart.
Our hands-on dances to a predictable tune. There's a split-second of calm when the green arrow appears, then the screen lights up with sparking rims and flying glass. A third of the party makes a break for the arrow, another third tries to stop them, and the final third gets caught in the middle. The victor limps up to the rendezvous point a solid 10 minutes later, only to turn triumphantly and smash straight into the runner-up. It's just as well respawns are handed out so generously, because Criterion's remake is clearly a game that goes looking for trouble. And it might just find greatness in the process.
Freedom is one of Most Wanted's keywords, and that's more than a producer's way of calling it the spiritual successor to Burnout Paradise. The latter's tyre prints are unmissable here - like Paradise City, Fairhaven is an automobile's hamster run, housing stunt opportunities, tempting shortcuts and lashings of trashable civilian drivers.
At one point we send a nice fat Lamborghini screeching round the inside of a massive corporate sculpture, only to lose control and crash down in full view of a cop car. There's always the temptation to stray from the tarmac - throwing a whistly Mitsubishi down concrete drainage pipes, its off-road tyres sharpening the game's not entirely subtlety-free physics. But the freedom goes deeper than that, burrowing to a depth tidy-minded drivers may bristle at. Those preliminary pile-ups? They're the iceberg's tip.
For one, you can mod cars while you're driving them. We could slap a different flavour of nitrous injector onto that Mitsubishi right in the middle of a race. Or we could swap the beast's off-road tyres for reinflatable ones, giving us better odds of escaping a crush. All of the single-player cars are also available from the get-go, eschewing the usual unlocks ladder. Simply hit Y next to a parked roadster and it's yours - because where's the skill in grinding XP to get your hands on a new ride? The thrill and difficulty of a racing game comes from mastering the cars, not the act of obtaining them.
Most Wanted's other keyword is sensitivity - not so much in terms of the handling, as in how Criterion's revamped Autolog service keeps you up to speed with the activities of rivals, tracing them in the air around your car. Approach an intersection, and Autolog might point out that one of your chums has set a new best time just round the corner. Leave the fuzz for dust, and you'll be told whose getaway scores you've yet to beat. In an especially memorable flourish, big jumps are marked by billboards which sport police mugshots of players who've set record distances.
Every feat, be it annoying a speed camera or molesting a station wagon, cranks out Speed Points, and the players with the most Speed Points are the titular Most Wanted. An inviting prize, but being able to pile-drive a Pagani through a friend's sneering chops was already gratification enough. Between this and Forza Horizon, the open-world racing genre is set for a spectacular winter.
You can read our Need for Speed: Most Wanted review in issue 92, on shelves today.