Know what I miss?  Burnout Paradise.  There, I said it!  Years ago, Criterion Games really did a number on its ongoing series, and while it didn’t exactly recapture the thunder I first experienced (and continue to on my original Xbox) with Burnout 3: Takedown, it’s a great open-world game that’s fun to play with friends, especially when you’re challenging each other to stunts.  Thus far, nothing beats it – but this fall, Criterion might be topping themselves at their own game.

In 2010, the company tried its hand with the Need For Speed franchise by making an upped version of the classic Hot Pursuit, a game that blended together the frivolous thrills of police chases with the crazy racing action that it’s become known for through other entries in the series.  As a result, it thoroughly set the pace for what Need For Speed has become known for, and we were eager to see what was next.  Now we got that with Need For Speed: Most Wanted, a game that, ironically enough, channels Burnout Paradise.  In fact, if it had a Crash mode tacked on and Guns n’ Roses blaring in the background, it could very well be a sequel.

The game takes place in an open world structure, similar to what Burnout used.  You’ll race across a virtual city, taking part in racing events in an effort to get you a ticket to the Most Wanted racing list, where ten champions await your challenge.  Along the way, you’ll not only engage in high speed events, but also trick runs that can help earn you speed points to add to your ranking and, as expected, police pursuits that keep things interesting.  And like in Hot Pursuit, these guys are desperate to end your run, by any means necessary.

But perhaps the biggest thrill is the multiplayer.  In Burnout Paradise, you could simply hop in and out of the world however you pleased, challenging certain runs and scores and posting your best times to the leaderboards – something you can still do with the game today.  In Most Wanted, you’ve got a similar system, once again using the AutoLog set-up that Shift 2: Unleashed and Hot Pursuit used.  Here, you’ll see where your friends stand as far as racing times go, then give it your best shot when it comes to lapping them and putting them in your place – that is, if your foot is all the way to the floor on the accelerator.  And it is, isn’t it?

What’s more, the chase mode is really what gets the game cooking, as you can compete against cops while using the open world to your advantage, attempting to lose them or take part in stunt runs where you can really wreck ‘em.  Yes, the biggest feature of the game is the return of the take down, where you can crash cars and give yourself some leverage when it comes to retaking the necessary lead to win the race.  Driving smart is one thing, but driving aggressively…that’s a tool that’s vital in order to win in Most Wanted.  We suggest keeping that in ample supply when you enter this world.

The gameplay in Most Wanted relies on the usual Criterion formula.  They don’t overtweak it when it comes to vehicular handling or adding a whole bunch of tricks.  Instead, driving feels quite natural, as you go through turns, bash into cars and go flying through the air like good ol’ Bandit from Smokey and the Bandit.  The stunts are just part of the show-off fun, and you’ll perform them to no end as you build up your reputation and try to wipe out the Most Wanted list – a pleasure in its own right, even if the drivers on the list mean serious business.

Along with strong multiplayer support and no shortage of single player events, Most Wanted also has a great appearance to it, possibly the best we’ve seen in a Need For Speed game to date.  The car models are outstanding, taking minimal damage but still looking like dream machines as you go scorching for the finish line.  Likewise, the open world has tremendous appeal as you run through it, with multiple paths at your disposal and no shortage of destruction that you can dish out.  The game comes packed with a powerhouse soundtrack as well, though we only heard part of it from the demo we were playing.  The full song list should be revealed in a few weeks’ time.

Though Criterion’s Burnout Paradise is still the game to beat, all these years later, when it comes to player interaction and really getting a city’s worth of content, we feel that Need For Speed: Most Wanted could very well be the game to get the job done when it pulls out of the garage on October 30.  Keep a close eye on it – it could be the next king of the road.