The focus is on driving plush cars really quickly, of course, but the game's determination to shrug off all the tick-box elements of modern game design (cool/moronic male protagonist; tokenistic plot arc; super exciting QTEs) results in what may end up being one of the best Need For Speed games in, well, at least two years.
Most Wanted is unashamedly a game. Unlike its 2005 predecessor, there is absolutely no narrative. You drive to be the best in a large open-world city. Speaking with Criterion producer Leanne Loombe, it's clear that the game's central imperative is for you to be better than your friends, and to top the Most Wanted leaderboard. The fat has been effectively trimmed. "The original Most Wanted obviously had a storyline, but that was back in 2005 and I think games have moved on quite a bit from then, particularly racing games," Loombe said.
"Now they're all about being connected, it's about being online and being social with your friends. A storyline doesn't really fit into that concept so that's part of the reason why we haven't done a sequel, and why we haven't carried on that narrative from the first Most Wanted."
Speed Points rule Most Wanted. Basically a form of XP, you earn Speed Points by winning races, smashing other cars, pulling off mad feats of drift and outrunning the cops. You can even earn Speed Points while you're away from your console with the Firemonkeys developed iOS version, which eschews the open world gameplay for a tighter, more race-focused offering.
"The single player component is likely to feel like a distraction compared with the one-upmanship of the online gameplay"
In the core version of the game, the whole world is available to you from the beginning, as are most of the cars. Titled Fairhaven, the city isn't based on any real world location, but with its circulating freeways, industrial areas, ports and airfields, there's plenty of room to drive very quickly, and many precipices to plunge over. The main single player task is to search down and unlock the ten most wanted vehicles, which are the only cars that you can't drive immediately once you start the game.
Like EA's other recent XP-hoarder SSX, the single player component is likely to feel like a distraction compared with the one-upmanship that characterizes the online gameplay. Most Wanted is unashamedly stats driven and, with an Origin account, you can even emblazon your ugly mug on billboards throughout your friends' game world. During our hands-on we played a "jukebox" (as described by Loombe) of different game modes, with each new challenge emerging seamlessly throughout the map.
It was a bit of a hassle getting everyone to the necessary checkpoint in time (an auto-start feature might fix this), but once there we were served a rotating roster of standard races and modes, the latter including take down challenges and stunt races. Crucially, there are no lobbies or fullscreen menus involved: each selection happens in the world.
The handling is typically fluid and weighty, and the collisions have a real sense of consequence. Unlike say, Driver: San Francisco, you'll need to practice caution and drive like a pro if you want to avoid writing your car off.
And yet, Need For Speed definitely isn't returning to its roots as an authentic simulator. Most Wanted instead promises a fairly meaty arcade spin, and it seems poised to give the series a much needed shot in the arm. We'll know for sure come November 1.