Need For Speed: Most Wanted (Xbox 360/PC/PS3) is not a game about cars. It's a game about toy cars. It may as well have giant hands moving all the vehicles and replace the engine sounds with people saying "vroom vroom". It's silly and shallow. But it is also fantastic, hugely fun and just about the best multiplayer driving game of the year.
The central theme in NFS: Most Wanted is well-worn, if not stale. Drive about in an 'open world' map containing a city ("Fairhaven"), as well as mountains, motorways, tunnels and, if you look hard enough, a railway line, and race other cars in a variety of events while also avoiding the cops, looking for cars to 'jack' and then crash into brick walls, lots.
Pleasingly, the map itself is varied with a decent enough level of detail to feel 'real' (ish), while keeping speedy routes obvious and without filling the roads with awkward traffic. Yes, like most 'open' worlds (see Forza Horizon and Driver: San Fransisco) things aren't actually all that open. The game knows where it wants you to drive, and except in a few places it's hard to break out of that maze of hard shoulders. It is also a traditional closed loop. The motorways go nowhere. All roads lead to Fairhaven. But there are a good number of 'secret' areas, industrial estates and train yards to keep you busy, and the shifts in landscape are clever enough to give a real sense of place. It's not as beautiful as the Colorado of Forza Horizon, but it's more entertaining to drive around.
Your anonymous character's aim in NFS: Most Wanted is to win races, gain cred and defeat the ten racers on Fairhaven's list of deadliest drivers. If you earn your way onto the list, you can race the diver and take his car, and so on to the top. It's a simple mechanic, and it's in no way dramatic, but it gives you just enough structure to stay motivated - and the ten secret vehicles are worth attaining.
That said, it is to NFS: Most Wanted's credit that every other vehicle in the game is unlocked from the start - you just have to find them. Notice a car with the telltale badge artwork above the hood, press 'Y' and hop in. Any cars you find are all accessible by the handy 'Easydrive' menu, from where you can also select upgrades, races, most wanted challenges and every other important game mechanic.
The result of this is that you can start having fun immediately. Unlike other games, you don't have to drive a Ford Mondeo for six hours before levelling up to something decent - find a smokin' sports car right away and off you go, racing for upgrades and dodging the cops.
The racing itself works extremely well, mainly because the handling is tuned to how supercars should drive, rather than how they really do. Acceleration is punchy and loud, hard turns and drift are ridiculous but, well, groovy, and every track feels edgy and dangerous without being so wacky you lose all suspension of disbelief.
The best NFS games have always placed racing the rozzers front and centre, and NFS: Most Wanted is no different. The police are aggressive and persistent, but not infallible and omnipresent, and the game seems to judge well when you want to get stuck into a pursuit and when you'd rather go unnoticed. The fact that crashes are never fatal - if you're 'totalled' you simply respawn with a bit of lingering damage - means that pursuits can carry on pretty much indefinitely, and even if you do get busted you just respawn with no penalty. That takes the stress of getting caught, but it doesn't take away the fun of trying to escape. It's low-stakes, but exhilarating.
Multiplayer is where NFS: Most Wanted really shines, however. The much-hyped 'social features' - integrated speed trap leaderboards, records, challenges and billboards that update with the picture of the player with the longest-jump are all nice, but it's the racing itself which makes the game come alive. As you bomb around the city with your friends, setting and breaking challenges, dashing to arbitrary landmarks and generally causing havoc, you feel like you're back in school playing capture the flag in the woods, running from place to place with no thought except as to what sounds like a good idea at the time. It's immediate and funny, and the game lets the rules emerge rather than tell you how you should play it.
Yes, the problems are obvious. It's not a deep game, the number of racing and pursuit modes are few (that's about it, actually), the graphics are occasionally ropey (the undersides of cars are totally flat, for instance) and the soundtrack is mind-numbing, out-dated and short. There is no story, no character, no realism. It really is a driving game imagined by a four-year-old.
Which is awesome. For NFS: Most Wanted achieves what Forza Horizon wanted to, and failed - it makes an open world driving game that's both anarchic and thoughtfully designed, in which you'll spend hours just seeing what you can do and what you can get away with.