You begin initially with relatively slow cars, and work through a progression system before you're behind the wheels of a car that you'd drool over on Top Gear.
That convention's broken in Need for Speed: Most Wanted. The vast majority of the cars are available from the beginning. Parked and hidden around Fairhaven, the open city the game takes place in, you've just got to find them to race them.
It's a fresh invention, in practice meaning that you always keep half an eye on parking lots, parks, construction sites and such as you whizz past racing or driving around the city's roads.
Thus in the first ten minutes of my game I'd acquired a Porsche 911 Carrera S, the Aston Martin V12 Vantage, and an Ariel Atom 500. Not bad.
Need for Speed: Most Wanted is developed by Criterion Games, who also was behind 2010's Hot Pursuit, and before that had crafted the terrific Burnout series. Most Wanted follows the same basic form as the studio's previous titles, which means arcade handling, powerslides, and rewards for reckless driving (near misses and racing on the wrong side of the road) in the form of extra nitro boost.
Its predecessor Hot Pursuit introduced Autolog, which more or less set the standard for asynchronous multiplayer racing games, and has been copied by just about everyone and everything since. The idea is that it's more fun to compete against friends than strangers, and therefore every race in Hot Pursuit saw your friends' best times displayed - and you trying to beat them.
The system returns in Most Wanted, and has been expanded tremendously. Virtually everything that can be measured is recorded by Autolog.
Speed cameras and billboard advertisements are scattered liberally throughout the city, and for the former Autolog measures how quickly you pass them, and for the latter, how far you fly through the air after having hammered through them, and tells you immediately whether you have beaten your friends' records. You will of course be notified if your top score's beaten by a friend, and with a couple of button presses take up the challenge to recovery your position.
All these activities are rewarded with Speed Points, which is the central part of the game's progression system.
Fairhaven is dominated by the ten "Most Wanted" drivers, and those you should obviously challenge, so you can steal their cars and take their place on the top tier.
In order to challenge these ten, you must earn enough Speed Points, and so you work your way up to earning the right to drive in the game's most exclusive cars, such as the Bugatti Veyron Super Sport, Pagani Huayra, Koenigsegg Agera R.
As you win races with your different cars, you unlock upgrades for them. Various transmissions, tires, chassis changes are waiting for you, and it is relatively obvious when to use them.
Track tires for extra speed and grip (but are awful outside asphalt) while off-road tires have the opposite effect. Long gear increases top speed, while the short gear improves acceleration. A lightweight chassis offers more speed, while a reinforced version makes your car more hardy, so you can easily do takedowns.
All can be replaced on the move via the Easy Drive menu, which is accessed via the D-Pad - so in theory it is possible to change the tire while driving 300 km / h. Although you'll probably smash head-on into another car when you try.
Criterion's usual sense of arcade racing is present in all aspects of the game, and whether you're in the middle of an intense race, or just cruising around to explore and find cars and billboards, Fairhaven is a pleasure to drive in.
The city has it all, from small dense streets to wide open highways, from parks to construction sites and disused airports. The surroundings are full of great curves and small shortcuts, and many races also offer alternative routes. Moving away from the beaten track, there are also plenty of places to explore, and it's like car parks, industrial estates, construction sites and easily hidden gravel roads call to that unspoken belief: "there must be a car back there". And rarely does that belief lie.
Is Most Wanted the perfect arcade racer? Unfortunately no - at least if you play alone. Despite a large open world and lots of cars, the game's content feels on the thin side, due to how the developers have chosen to divide up the events.
Each car has five events associated with it - and only five. So you can quickly gather all the upgrades and run any race, seeing everything a given car has to offer...and you're pretty much done with it. Unless you wish to use it to go up against one of the ten Most Wanted drivers.
It means many cars quickly feel redundant. Who wants to run in the relatively slow Tesla Roadster or the Bentley Continental when you have the amazing Lamborghini Gallardo in the virtual garage?
Life is too short for American muscle cars when you have access to top-tuned European sports cars that eat curves for breakfast. The list of cars available to me, having not even bothered to acquire the Boost upgrade (not available from the start), is already long. Why work up the line when you can skip the queue entirely?
When many of the events (which different cars have access to) are the same, you quickly feel you've seen it all.
Autolog can of course correct any of this, since it quickly becomes a matter of honor to compete with friends. Unfortunately, I have seen a tendency for Autolog Recommends challenges where a friend has marked a time of a car that I have not found yet.
Yes, it may well be that my colleague Arttu has beaten my time on this one track - but he did it in an Audi R8 Spyder, and the only car I have that can run that race is a duller and heavier Mercedes. So it is almost futile to try.
On the other hand as we move online, Criterion makes good with a varied bag of events not available, nor could be done, in single player.
When you join a game online, you drive around at random until enough players have joined. At this point the host selects from a series of Speed Lists, groups of five different events.
These cover everything from regular racing to team based variations where there are bonuses to spot and smash opponents, competitions for longest run, longest leap, fastest time past a particular camera or, for the really intricate, the likes of leaping off a bridge, landing on a crane and keeping yourself parked there for at least twenty seconds.
Before each event, you drive to a joint meeting point where the details and any restrictions are revealed, and there is ample opportunity to hammer takedowns (and score points) along the way, and there is a bonus for being the first man on the spot.
The variation is high, and although some of these events skirt the border of being gimmicky, the vast majority is still about racing.
The idea of the Speed Lists are great because it eliminates the waiting time, lobbies and all that kind of abuse, and instead you can just concentrate on driving and have fun. And smash opponents.
Soundtrack: Hot Pursuit was, to my ears, one of the best-sounding racing games in a long time, and although Most Wanted does not reach quite the same heights, its still got effects that'll rattle your eardrums. When you race through a tunnel at full throttle, you feel the roar in the seat of your pants.
Need for Speed: Most Wanted is a solid and competent arcade racer that missing some content on the single player front, but in turn compensates fully when moving online with friends.
Criterion's trademark arcade handling is intact, and if you're more into smoking tires and flying sparks than gear ratios and closed race tracks, it's a safe purchase.