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I was a huge Need for Speed fan back in the day. But eventually, Burnout, and most notably Burnout Paradise, stole my heart and changed my perception of the series. For years I’ve felt like the NFS franchise needed some shaking up, just like Paradise did, when it shook up the entire racing genre.

Thankfully, Criterion Games has stepped up to the plate, and crafted an open world Need For Speed game with a worldmap that tops even Paradise City. Oh yea, and the game looks great so far to boot.

Just like fan favorite Paradise City the game is open world, and it’s fairly varied to the point where you’ll want to explore it. When I say varied, I mean varied: there’s airplane graveyards, industrial zones, beautiful cityscapes, and countryside mountaintop highways. It’s so open in fact, that there’s no real “story,” and there’s hardly anything hidden behind mandatory unlocks.

Every car except the coveted of “Most Wanted” vehicles (which I’ll get to later) will be unlocked from the start, with one caveat: you have to find them in the open world. You’ll have no problem cruising around to your heart’s content either: the best way to describe the physics and driving of Most Wanted is a mix between simulation and arcade action, with a tad more leaning towards the arcade bit.

There’s also no hokey “on foot” gimmicks here: you’ll never get out of your car — instead, you’ll use a series of quick-select menus and instant car/mission switching. Although you’ll have to drive to target areas for new missions, you can instantly warp to completed or attempted missions. It’s a pretty awesome mechanic that keeps things simple, and makes it super easy to switch between modes, races, mods, cars, and multiplayer.

Speaking of mods, just like an RPG, you can swap mods on the fly, which makes for some awesome encounters and memories. For instance, you could switch on your hard body mod when you need to ram through a police roadblock in a pinch, and switch back to the light style chassis when you need to make a quick getaway. This particular strategy is something that I picked up from one of my colleagues about an hour into our playtime, so it’s nice to see that Most Wanted has some depth to it beyond what some of the earlier iterations offered.

Nearly everything you do nets you XP, which keeps you going during long sessions for that “last few thousand points” before bed. The in-game XP system works fairly well, even if it feels a tad bit unbalanced at the moment. Criterion claims that you don’t have to do featured races in order to gain XP, but the fact of the matter is, anything else you can do (smashing billboards, ruining security fences, and other chicanery) pales in comparison to the XP gain you get from races and big events. Thankfully, multiplayer is a safe haven for mad XP gain, which I’ll get to in a minute.

As you start to accrue more and more points, you unlock the main goals of the game  – Most Wanted races. These are the main objective of the game, and unlock the super-hot exotic cars you all know and love. The bad news is: these races are hard. Not only do you have to tackle the practically unfair, rubber-banding enemy AI, but you have to deal with ruthless cops at a high “wanted” rating as well — meaning they’ll absolutely kill themselves just to screw up your day.

After you complete the grueling race, and beat the rubber-banding AI and the FCPD, you’ll have to chase down the car and smash it before you can claim it as your own. It’s a really odd design choice that I found fairly frustrating, especially when the car makes a clean getaway and is nowhere to be found for long periods of time.

All of this is augmented by a very well done social system that’s built into the game. The social Autolog feature from Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit is back, but it’s much better than it ever was before. To be clear, Autolog is now a living breathing part of the game world and not just an ancillary addition. If you get the most air of all your friends when smashing through a billboard, your profile picture will be plastered across your friend’s billboards, in-game, which is a really neat touch.

In the preview event, I spent at least twenty minutes just trying to seek out every billboard I could, so people could recognize my pretty ol’ mug. There was one instance where I took at least ten minutes straight trying to beat one of my colleague’s times in a race, because a notification popped up telling me he had a better time: that’s motivation right there folks! Essentially, this allows more “lone wolf” gamers like myself to play multiplayer without having to play multiplayer, if that makes sense.

But not everything is perfect in Fairhaven City. For one thing, the cops can get a little crazy. Alright, like super crazy — to the point where they defy any semblance of realism the game may have had and throw it out the window. These cops, simply put, will kill themselves just to make a dent in your car. They don’t have families, they don’t have wives or husbands — they just want to kill, maim, and/or destroy you in any way possible — that’s their life goal.

As your wanted meter increases (think GTA), things get even more hectic, and the sports car and heavy duty cops start coming out — then you know it’s pretty much over, and your getaway could last anywhere from 10-20 minutes, if not more.  If you want a break from the cops, multiplayer is where you’ll want to unwind at.

Multiplayer itself is very much like Red Dead Redemption‘s free roam mode, in that it plops a ton of people into one full Fairhaven City map and just lets you have at it, with the occasional activity interrupting the action. These activities range from King of the Hill with cars, straight races, team races, and destruction events.

During the entire session, players who get to the “meet-up” spot (the place the activity is going down) get an extra bonus, and anytime you smash up an opponent, you get a score/XP bonus. It’s a nice touch that keeps everyone on edge and keeps things competitive at all times.

Even during the most basic of challenges, my colleagues and I would race for just about every node and smash each other on the way. Activity filled multiplayer is a blessing in this age of asynchronous play, so I loved it: you might find it a bit too frenetic for your tastes. As someone who doesn’t normally like multiplayer racing modes, I actually really enjoyed this one, and since XP is shared between singleplayer and multi, I have no reason to avoid it.

In the time I spent with the preview build, I completed about half of the Most Wanted races, but there’s a ton of content left to explore. Our review will be coming later this month, so you can get a picture of how the finished product looks!

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