TGL is looking back at our favourite games of 2012. Next up – Criterion Game’s “Need For Speed: Most Wanted”.

Need For Speed: Most Wanted was released back in November for PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PlayStation Vita, PC and mobile.

Need for Speed: Most Wanted is Criterion Games doing what they do best. Most Wanted’s impressive production and presentation might fall under EA’s established Need for Speed brand moniker, but under the bonnet of these shiny fast cars, Criterion’s latest racer has as much, if not more in common, with the developer’s most famous property, Burnout. A seamless juxtaposition of NFS’s omnipresent style and Burnout’s ominous substance, Most Wanted is arguably the most impressive and layered racing experience of 2012.

Most Wanted anchors itself to an open-world freedom that is as much Burnout Paradise city as it is the city of Fairheaven. The Burnout influence is apparent in everything but name. The premise here is quite simple, you must best ten of the Most Wanted racers in Fairheaven, out race them on the streets and take them out – all the while avoiding antagonistic cat and mouse interactions with the party spoiling police. The career mode is refreshingly subtle. You’re not implored to just robotically speed from one race to the next. The game unravels itself quite organically and as such, this innate freedom and accessibility allows you to complete the game not according to a stock set of Criterion rules but to explore and interact with the greater experience as you see fit and to your own set rules. The balance is perfectly executed. There’s no macho stuff in here, no cheesy dialogue or overindulgent story lines. All you’re asked to do is drive fast and drive better than everyone else and always have one up on the cops. It’s an exhilarating experience from beginning to end, with no single overcooked layer or deposit undermining the racing.

As you begin to build up a garage of vehicles, Most Wanted’s layers begin to unravel. Each car comes with the core basics, standard tyres, standard chassis, no apparent boost etc. However, as you start to acquire “Speed Points” you can start to upgrade your vehicle. “Speed Points” can be simply earned through any number of exchanges with your environment, for example speeding through billboards, setting off speed cameras, eluding the authorities or by entering and winning street races. The latter is the quickest way to earn some impressive points tallies, thus allowing you to bulk out your chosen racer much quicker. Each car can race in five competitive races, ranging from easy to difficult, with races not limited to the typical “first behind the finish line wins” motif. Apart from the typical “you versus them” racing styling’s synonymous with these kinds of street racers, you’ll weave through ubiquitous traffic at break neck speed during “Speed Runs”, putting it all at risk to maintain a constant speed that earn you unlocks and perks for you vehicles. It’s all very Burnout. From new gear sets, new chassis, varied tyre sets and much more to acquire in terms of upgrades, the options for customization and enhancement are surprising exciting. While the cops will constantly attempt to diffuse your high speed racing in general, “Ambush” events are such that they are defined by how you can directly respond to an imposing chase from the authorities. Eluding them is simple, that is, if you know what you’re doing. Drive fast and drive efficiently and you’ll lose them every time. Alternatively, you can find a place to hide and take cover out of sight. The higher your “heat” rating, the more the cops will throw at you in order to get you off the roads.

These chase sequences are perhaps the best indicator of just how well the game and its cars actually handle. Criterion nailed it. All your car’s strengths and vulnerabilities are perfectly captioned by your control. It’s tight, unassuming and effective. Practise will certainly see you improve your high speed styling’s and the introduction of nitrous induced drifting certainly challenges your driving competence, but the handling is such that it feels complicated without ever feeling intimidating. There’s no such thing as an impossible race. Yes, the first few times there will be certain races that might seem impracticable and unsympathetically taxing, but as your driving skills better, so too will your finishing positions on the “podium”. Things can get frustrating, particularly when you drive straight into the back of a car that seemingly appeared from nowhere at over a hundred miles an hour only to buckle your car into a beautiful Burnout-esque display of mangled metal. But this frustrating tension is relieved once you conquer the racing task that caused you so much rage to begin with.

Multiplayer offers much, but feels slightly diluted, not least because the cops and ambush chases are curiously absent. Multiplayer puts an impetus on both competitive racing and co-operative racing, never undermining the inherent freedom of the experience, but giving you enough structure so that it isn’t too organic. “Speed Points” can also be earned online by winning races, taking out other racers, competing in team events and smashing through billboards. As expected, the multiplayer is seamlessly integrated into the experience, allowing you to drop in and drop out as you see fit.

Need For Speed: Most Wanted is a wonderfully crafted game. Much like the Burnout franchise that Criterion Games built their reputation upon, Most Wanted is the kind of racer that everyone will enjoy, even those who do not particularly enjoy traditional racing experiences. It’s an exhilarating experience, anchored to a balanced competitive tension and a bracing and familiar need for speed. Get it.