Need For Speed Most Wanted PS3 review – Pride is the new pink slip

If Fairhaven City was a real place, it would have a stunningly high mortality rate. The roads are perpetually soaked in water, although it never rains. A gang of billionaire street racers continually  terrorise the populace by haring around in their Bugattis, and the local police force appear to have licence to outright kill anyone, notching up hefty collateral damage as they go. If you weren’t turned to jam by the windscreen of a Porsche 918 Spyder as you ambled to the shop, you’d be just as likely to have your business premises obliterated by reckless rozzers. Yep, Criterion make fantastic city planners – just never get out of the car.

Need For Speed Most Wanted PS3 review

That seems to be the philosophy behind the new Need For Speed: never stop driving. Once you cross the city limits, Matt Bellamy’s wails and coos accompanying your nippy Aston Martin as it shimmies through traffic, you’ll never need to stop. Thanks to a thoughtful new D-pad-based overlay that gives you access to all the races, cars and customisation options you need there are no menus to wade through, and no lobbies to endure before multiplayer races. Just you, a city full of wicked apexes, unattended sports cars and sociopathic racers.

The sole objective? To become the most wanted. Top dog among the city’s AI drivers, and number one among your mates. Basically it’s the life kids with shaved eyebrows pulling handbrake turns outside Lidl perceive themselves as having, but with infinitely more glamour and less pussy patrolling.

You probably won’t fall into an incredulous stupor when I tell you how well it nails the fundamentals – Need For Speed has been getting that right since tie-dye was acceptable – but the intensity of Most Wanted’s racing is still striking. Trackside debris is at an all-time high, the ubiquitous standing water flicks up in your face, and AI drivers all want to murder you. They viciously shunt, shove, swipe and um, shunt you right up to the finish line, which means you occasionally lose out on a win just seconds before the end. Definitely recovery tea and quiet sit-down territory, but the rabid AI’s infinitely more fun than the constant resetting to track and unavoidable collisions in last year’s The Run.

So far it doesn’t sound far removed from Need For Speed games of yesteryear, does it? Fast cars, cops and adverse cambers, right? But as Criterion proved when it created Autolog in Hot Pursuit, the Brit studio’s a bit of an innovator. And that goes beyond Easy Drive – yep, that’s what it’s calling the D-pad overlay – Need For Speed: Most Wanted is out to change racing game conventions of car ownership, unlockable content and online competition. An ambitious project.

First, the cars: Fairhaven City’s littered with them. There are over 100 Jack Spots dotted around, which let you just drive up and take a car when you find it. It’s madness. If you’d been transported from 2005 your brain would likely implode as it tried to grasp that there’s no in-game currency, no garage, no wide body kits. With the exception of ten cars belonging to those on the AI most wanted list, there’s no limits to the opulence of your drive right from the off. Found a Lamborghini Gallardo, have you? ’Grats. It’s yours forever. And that makes Most Wanted’s whole structure an oddity. Throwing the genre’s must-dos out of the window, it isn’t all about grinding your way up the car list and unlocking the Batmobile. It’s about being – stop me if I’ve said this before – the most wanted.

In practice, that can lead to you feeling like you’re floundering at times, especially if you’re a veteran of the series from the Underground era. Criterion’s asking you to unlearn years of racing game principles and concentrate on earning Speed Point by setting fast race times, smashing billboards and security gates, finding new cars – essentially every interaction you have with Fairhaven is tracked. Big Brother’s definitely watching you, and he’s using all that data to pit you against everyone on your friends list.