One of my happiest discoveries at E3 a couple of weeks ago was that this fall's strangely-named Need For Speed: Most Wanted could and maybe should be called Burnout Paradise 2.
This fall's racing game comes from Criterion, the EA-owned studio that made the Burnouts, including the magnificent, open-world Paradise, before apparently getting the assignment to make new Need For Speeds in years neatly divisible by the number two. In 2010 they releasesd the cops vs. racers Need For Speed Hot Pursuit, which was as beautiful and blazingly fast as Paradise but abandoned an open-world drive-anywhere layout for a more conventional level-by-level series of races.
The new Most Wanted, which bears the same name as the very good non-Criterion Need for Speed from 2005, is a return by Criterion to open-world racing games. You will drive around a metropolis called Fairhaven, looking for races and challenges, while the time it takes you to drive down any of the city's roads is instantly compared to that of your friends, Paradise-style. Every piece of pavement is potentially a ramp to the top of some new leaderboard. (You're also trying to evade the cops, which is what the "Most Wanted" part refers to.)
Paradise had some of the best online gaming systems ever, ditching matchmaking lobbies and just grouping friends into the same open-world on the fly. As soon as players were linked, they were competing for speeds and times and were being coaxed by the game to converge at one spot on the map to initiate a multiplayer race. The new Most Wanted functions similarly, though there is now the option to either have a computer-controlled "playlist director" or a player themselves dole out the challenges for the joined racers. A bar across the bottom of the screen shows the next events in the queue, indicating that, say, a head-to-head race will be followed by a speed test or a test to get the most air. In public games, the game will control that; but in private games, a player can run their best playlist. Gamers who are joined in games still have to drive to meeting points to initiate each challenge, and the developers still haven't determined if or how they will punish players who refuse to converge to kick off the next event.
As players compete, they'll earn speed points, which unlock new cars or parts. Thankfully, however, the game seems more about the actual gameplay of competitive driving than of car-shopping. The developers gleefully encourage players to try to ram into each other to derail their efforts to score top speeds in timed challenges. They want players to feel like they're always in some sort of racing contest. And here's something interesting from one of the creators who showed the game at E3: "With our handling, players are able to 'dance' with their cars." Sounds good to me!
Criterion is an extraordinary racing game studio and a consistently, pleasantly cheeky one. One more carry-over from Paradise: the game's city is filled with billboards you can smash through. The twist this time: the billboards show the names of other EA development studios such as DICE, BioWare and Visceral. Smash through them and they're replaced with Criterion signs.