The reps from Criterion Games were the happiest people I met at E3, passing around beers to friends, joshing with the racers getting demolished in their new game, Need for Speed: Most Wanted. They made off-the-cuff comments about the freedom they have as a developer to do whatever they want with the series following the success of their last Need for Speed, Hot Pursuit. They're grown-ups, but they were giggling like kids given the keys to one of EA's finest rides.
The latest iteration of the annual racing franchise, like their beloved Burnout Paradise, takes place in an open-world filled with friends, challenges and as many rewards as there are streets. Racing is only part of it.
In the multiplayer, demoed for the first time at E3, there's no secondary lobby in which players wait for the next thing to do. Instead there's a constant stream of activities, each beginning moments after the last. The objectives are uncomplicated: be the first racer at this point, bust through however many gates, jump the furthest over a gap, and so on.
At first this pace is overwhelming. How can you always take first place when activities refresh by the minute? And then it hits you: Need for Speed: Most Wanted isn't a game about winning. In fact, it's hardly a game; it's a feedback loop. Everything — from crossing the finish line to spinning out — merits a reward.
On top of that, there's Autolog, a data tracking system originated by Criterion in 2010's Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit, and improved for Most Wanted, that constantly compares both your primary and secondary records against your online friends. Who got the fastest speed on a particular avenue? Who evaded the cops the longest? Who's the king of the takedown? There's always someone's record to beat somewhere. The game is never complete.
There are so many records, even the worst racer should be able to find a secluded corner where he may put himself atop one of the hundreds of micro-leader boards. That's what Most Wanted has to offer that most racers don't: the pleasure of being the best even if you're not the greatest at taking turns at top speeds or being first at the finish line.
About getting to the finish line. Before some activities, all of the racers are directed to a meeting point on the map. In our demo, an experienced driver was there in moments, waiting for the others to arrive and the next activity to begin. He was a sitting duck. The slowpokes noticed the opportunity immediately, slamming on the gas and nitro, speeding into the sedentary driver's side door, before ricocheting into each other, smashing into the air like Hot Wheels. Hyper-realistic, destructible Hot Wheels.
In that moment I felt like a kid with toy cars doing whatever I wanted. Being a kid is contagious.