Need for Speed: Most Wanted is an open world racing game that returns to the concept of the 2005 game Need for Speed: Most Wanted and it is the second title in the long-running series to be developed by Criterion Studios, following Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit in 2010. The game is set in the fictional city Fairhaven which the player can freely explore from inside a car. It is a busy, urban location with the city centre surrounded by docklands and industrial parks, a departure from the scenic routes from Need for Speed: The Run the year before. The game focuses on an aggressive racing style, weaving through traffic at a high speed, but it still retains many simulator elements compared to the more arcade Burnout series with its takedowns.
Unlike the original game there is no story. The player merely races to become the Most Wanted on the Speed Wall. The blacklist from the original Most Wanted (renamed to "Most Wanted List") returns with ten rivals to beat to acquire their car. By participating in races SpeedPoints are earned to upgrade the vehicles through modifications for boosts, tuned gearing, engine, bodywork (also to crash through roadblocks), suspension and tires. They are also collected by hitting obstacles such as billboards (with distance records), speed cameras (also with records), security gates and other obstacles. SpeedPoints add to a SpeedLevel with over 70 different rankings based on the amount of collected points. Reaching a new SpeedLevel is rewarded with new cars, license plates and opening up Most Wanted races. License plates are also earned as a form of "achievements" through different challenges. They allows players to modify a license plate with a custom 8-digit inscription and each plate has a different design and frame. There are also Knocking Brothers repair shops the car can drive through to repair the vehicle, paint it and refill the bar of nitrous boost. Vehicles can also be earned by locating jack spots. A large amount of locations has parked cars that can be swapped for the current vehicle. Almost all cars are available from the beginning (as soon as they are discovered in the city) and they are from licensed manufacturers with muscle cars, sports cars and more exotic prototypes. Car configurations can be saved into profiles that can be changed in-game (and on the Xbox 360 also through Kinect's voice recognition) to suit specific situations. Many options can be activated right away while driving and without having to access a menu, such as entering multiplayer, selecting races or swapping cars. The system is dubbed the EasyDrive mode and it is similar to the one featured in Burnout Paradise.
The three main race types are Sprint Races to reach a destination first using shortcuts and ramming other cars, Circuit Races with different laps, and Speed Runs where a course need to be completed with the highest speed possible. The Pursuit game mode is triggered by ramming or passing an FCPD police unit at a fast speed, either in races or in regular free roam. Each pursuit is rated with a dynamic heat level system from one to six that determines the amount and types of vehicles, roadblocks and tactics used by the police units. To shake them off cooldown needs to be achieved by losing visual contact shown as a large circle on the mini map. Cooldown needs to be maintained until the heat level drops to zero. If spotted again, the pursuit continues. Police vehicles can be outrun or immobilized. Ambush is a similar game mode where the police need to be escaped within a set time. Events are limited to five per car to encourage the player to explore the full garage of vehicles. Winning an event always provides two tiers of rewards — one for finishing at least second and one for winning.
The Autolog, originally introduced in Hot Pursuit and used in every NFS game since, returns as a social system to compare scores, progress, accomplishments and records against friends and other players. Progress is tracked on a Speed Wall where other players can comment. The system can also be used to shares photos and is integrated into the gameplay rather than an external menu. This game also introduces CloudCompete as a cross-platform system to transfer data from one platform release to another to import Speed Points for instance.
Multiplayer offers different game modes such as one-on-one and team races with additional rewards and modifications. There is a persistent scoring system and a global ranking. The available game modes can be cycled at random to provide variety. Going from singleplayer to multiplayer and back is a seamless experience that can be done while driving and without having to access a menu. The amount of simultaneous players is 12 for the PC, 8 for the PS3 and Xbox 360, and 4 for the PS Vita. Next to the smaller amount of players in multiplayer and a slight downgrade in visuals, the Vita version is identical to the other platforms.
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