This time, there are no people in Need for Speed: Most Wanted. I don’t just mean the absence of pedestrians on the generic city’s sidewalks and in its parks. There is no mute doofus protagonist. There are no trash talking rivals. There is no pandering appeal to car culture with sexy chicks’ midriffs and gruff mechanics and a fast talking sidekick. DJ Atomica doesn’t explain the modes to you. This is a game about cars and only cars, racing wildly and recklessly around a huge generic city brimming with reckless nonsense to do. It has focus, purpose, intent. It has the clarity that any good arcade racer needs, even (especially?) if it’s going to play out in an open world.

Feel the need for Need for Speed, after the jump

Even better than people, Most Wanted has motivation galore. It constantly and keenly answers the question, “Why should I race?”, yet it offers a startling amount of freedom and flexibility. This is the same franchise that loved to shunt you down long wending ribbons of predetermined road, and it’s the same developer who recently laid out a city in Burnout: Paradise without really understanding the point of an open world, much less the best way to do it. And now Criterion’s Need for Speed is one of the best open world arcade racers you can play, nearly on par with Rockstar’s brilliant Midnight Club: Los Angeles or Ubisoft’s curiously subversive Driver.

One of my favorite things about Most Wanted is that it’s a game without an economy. I do not buy cars and upgrades. To get a new car, I just find where it’s parked. Hello, Viper, you’re mine! Hello, little Mitsubishi! Hello Lamborghini! Be sure to turn off the annoying soundtrack so you can hear the music playing from inside collectible cars as you drive around. I don’t even need a garage for all my cars. Instead, each car patiently waits where I found it until I feel like driving it.

But why would I want to drive some of these cars? For instance, once I find the Ford GT (it’s parked near the Ford pick-up truck), why would I ever drive a lowly Nissan again? Most Wanted has an answer for that. Each car is its own bundle of gameplay. Every car has its own races, and the reward for races is upgrades for that car. These upgrades can then be upgraded further by finishing challenges with that upgrade equipped. Each car has its own challenges and milestones. Other games have races, or campaigns, or some sort of cash reward, or RaceBux. Most Wanted just has cars, and the open world city you farm to advance the cars. It is a game without an economy, without money, with only the time you spend with your car.

What it does have is experience points — Speed Points ™ — you earn for pretty much anything you do. The usual wins, challenges, near misses, takedowns, and whatnot. These go into a big ol’ bucket where they’re measured next to my friends on a simple scale. Speaking of which, come on, friends. You’re slacking off. I am the last guy who should be at the top of the Need for Speed: Most Wanted social list. My gamer icon — a little green Darwinian — shouldn’t be on so many of the challenge billboards. This is a great example of an otherwise generic and static open world made memorable and lively with social elements. First the fiendishly effective social net cast by SSX, and now this. When Electronic Arts gets it right, they really get it right.

And speaking of getting it right, the multiplayer reminds me of the excellent but unsung multiplayer in Ubisoft’s Driver combined with the excellent but unplayed multiplayer in Rockstar’s Midnight Club: Los Angeles. Most Wanted’s multiplayer mode moves you through a series of varied challenges catering to different kinds of cars. And it even turns players lose in the whole wide city while doing it, with a separate collection of cars to collect. It’s all the multiplayer goodness, without abandoning any of the open world generosity.

The actual racing is familiar and unabashedly arcade, more rocketsledding than driving, with cops in some races to introduce a little anarchy. It’s loud and hearty. Again, this is a game with focus and clarity. Given the razor’s edge timing and twitch reflexes required to prevail — you’re basically racing the clock with interference from rubberbanded opponents or psycho cops with no regard for the laws of physics — I’m disappointed Criterion still hasn’t figured out a better way to show me the way. The city is too clogged with bloom and glare to allow any functional indicator to see where I’m going. So I have to steal glances down at the minimap. I’m okay with crazy, sloppy, roaring, blink-and-you’ll-wreck split/scond car jinking. It’s effective. It’s thrilling. But help me out here, game. Show me the way. Why can’t more games be like Midnight Club: Los Angeles, which lets me keep my eyes on the road instead of the corners of a HUD?

Maybe that’s part of the gameplay. Do I dare stop watching where I’m going to try to figure out where I’m going? And really, who cares? This dumb, loud, fast, silly, sexy car porn is eminently gratifying. Well done, Criterion. This is the game I’ve been waiting for you to make since Burnout.

4 stars
Xbox 360