"Need For Speed Most Wanted" is the devil. It's a spawn of Satan that has bubbled up from the pits of hell. It tortures you. It makes you scream in frustration. And fortunately or unfortunately -- depending on how you feel about masochism -- it's utterly addictive.
Once again, Criterion Games takes Electronic Arts' popular franchise out for a spin. But unlike "Need for Speed Hot Pursuit," the developer here focuses exclusively on the outlaws. This arcade racer brings players to the city of Fairhaven, where they will have to work their way up the ranks to be No. 1 on the "Most Wanted" list.
That's easier said than done. Players start with a Porsche and must compete in events to upgrade their vehicles and gain access to supercars such as the Bugatti Veyron and Koenigsegg Agera. It sounds like the "Gran Turismo" formula, but Criterion add its own twist. There is no central store where parts are bought and no lot where vehicles are purchased.
Instead, these upgrades are won via competitions. Placing first or second in a race awards players new pieces such as nitrous oxide or a lighter chassis. Mixing and matching these parts is the key to victory because each event has its own characteristics. Acceleration is important for short races with curves. Off-road tires are essential for contests in the dirt.
To get new vehicles, players must explore Fairhaven to find jackpot spots, where cars sit, waiting to be discovered. It's an incentive to break through security gates, search seemingly empty warehouses and delve into the diverse landscape of "Most Wanted." The locale itself reminds me of "Forza Horizon's" take on Colorado, except the region is more condensed and lacks a desert.
Despite being smaller, there are plenty of nooks and crannies to comb through. Players will see billboards to smash through and shortcuts to unlock. Speed traps dot the map. Each of these touchstones is registered in the Autolog, a living leader board that's constantly updated with your friends' best scores. Those social elements, wound tightly to the gameplay, is one of "Most Wanted's" hooks.
As for the actual racing, it's a blast at first, as you get a feel for the vehicles and pinpoint a favorite. You'll be sucked into upgrading a car and turning it into an unstoppable speed machine. That's the second hook. But it has frustrating moments in the competitions. Some of them, such as Ambush, aren't explained clearly. Others, such as Speed Run or Speed Sprint, can be maddeningly difficult.
Like all Criterion Games, there's cross traffic during races. You could be ahead and see the finish line in sight when a random vehicle will turn out of nowhere and crash into you, knocking you back to fourth place. This happens a lot. It almost seems as if "Most Wanted" is being vindictive and is preventing you from winning.
There are other moments when you accidentally hit a police car or cause some infraction that sets off a chase. The officers are so relentless that escaping is a chore. Sometimes, it's easier to let the cops bust you. There isn't much of a penalty other than forcing you to drive to a destination again.
These issues had me on the verge of rage quitting. (That's a gamer term for shutting off the system and storming away.) But I've learned to stick around. "Most Wanted" has that type of old-school mentality where it challenges you, beats you down and entices you to try again with a whiff of victory. And once you beat a challenge, there's nothing as satisfying. It's a dynamic that's intrinsic to Criterion's games and part of the reason for this love-hate relationship.
Platform: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC, PlayStation Vita
Rating: Everyone 10+