Need for Speed: Most Wanted (commonly abbreviated to as NFS: MW or just Most Wanted) is a racing video game developed by EA Black Box and published by Electronic Arts. It is the ninth installment in the Need for Speed series. The game features street racing-oriented game play, with certain customization options from the Need for Speed: Underground series. The game is succeeded by Need for Speed: Carbon, which serves as a sequel to Most Wanted.
Most Wanted is like other Need for Speed games, where the player selects one car and races against a time limit or other racers to reach a destination. Police chases have once again been integrated into certain racing sessions, in which the police employ vehicles and tactics to stop the player's car and arrest the player, like Need for Speed III: Hot Pursuit, Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit 2, and Need for Speed: Carbon. As players take control of faster cars and increasingly rely on nitrous oxide speed boosts, the oxide meter now refills automatically for the first time since its introduction in Underground, and driving sequences become fast-paced and intense similar to the Burnout series.
Three distinct regions are offered in the city of Rockport, along with cycling weather. Racing events take place between sunrise and sunset, unlike in the Underground where the events took place at night. A Grand Theft Auto-like Free Roam mode is provided as in Need for Speed: Underground 2, but is still limited to Career mode, as well as pursuit-based events in other modes.
Brand promotion from Underground 2 still continues strongly, with Old Spice and the presence of Burger King restaurants, Castrol oil, Axe Unlimited and Edge shaving gel. The Cingular logo is still visible in the game's wireless communication system. Performance, body and visual parts that can be bought in the game are also from real life companies. However, Best Buy stores did not return from Underground 2.
The game provides players with three game modes. The Quick Race mode allows the player to select a car and an event and immediately start racing. The available cars and events are unlocked as the player progresses through the storyline in the Career mode. Achieving goals by winning races and performing a number of actions, dubbed "Milestones", during police pursuits, as well as a minimum Bounty are needed to advance in the storyline and race against any of the mode's 15 Blacklist racers. In the Xbox 360 version, the player is awarded with achievements each time a Blacklist opponent is defeated. Career mode introduces a new feature – the ability to win a Blacklist opponent's car ("pink slip"), bonus functions, extra cash or car parts and decors, after defeating the opponent in question. These come in the form of six markers – the rival's pink slip (which is concealed as a bonus marker), two bonus function markers, and three custom backroom parts markers of which there is a body part, visual upgrade, and performance marker ("Junkman Marker") that the player can select – of which the player can choose only two. New cars and parts are also unlocked as the player progresses through Career mode by beating Blacklist racers.
In addition to the Quick Race and Career modes, there is also a "Challenge Series" mode involving 69 progressively difficult challenges where players are required to successfully complete Tollbooth races and pursuit challenges, such as tagging a number of police cars. The pre-tuned cars used in each Challenge is fixed, ranging from mostly Career cars with poor handling to traffic vehicles such as a dump truck or police cars. Additional bonus cars may be unlocked as the player progresses through Challenge mode.
In terms of actual variations of races, Most Wanted inherits several racing modes prevalent in its Underground predecessors. The game's four existing modes: Circuit races, point-to-point Sprint races, lap knockout races and Drag races, remain largely unchanged since the first iteration of Underground, while Drifting, Street X, Underground Racing League tournaments and Outrun racing are removed. Meanwhile, Most Wanted sees the introduction of two new racing variations, which places emphasis on speed. The first mode is known as "Tollbooth," where a player races alone to designated checkpoints along a point-to-point route before time runs out; the more time a player has as they reach a toll booth, the more time they have to arrive at the next one. The second mode, dubbed "Speedtrap", sees racers competing with each other to get the highest accumulated speed record at multiple traffic cameras. At a speed trap/traffic camera, players accelerate their car to aim for the highest possible speed. Accumulated speed is reduced over a period of time after an opponent crosses the finish line first.
There are a wide range of cars available for the main Career mode of the game. Cars such as the Fiat Punto, Audi TT and Cadillac CTS are only seen in Most Wanted and tuners return from Underground 2 (e.g. Toyota Supra, Mazda RX-7 and Mazda RX-8) but SUVs do not return except as non-playable police vehicles. Exotics like the Lotus Elise, Lamborghinis, Porsches make their first appearance since Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit 2 and classic muscle cars featured in the Black Edition (e.g. Chevrolet Camaro) are new to the series. As the game progresses, better and faster cars are unlocked and races get faster and more intense as the player makes his/her way through the game. Cars must either be purchased at car lots or won by getting the pink slip to a Blacklist Racer's car, as detailed in the Modes section. Cars can be purchased at car lots in stock condition with no enhancement whatsoever. Not all of them are available or affordable for purchase at the beginning stages of Career mode and must be unlocked by defeating a certain Blacklist member. While the game features police cars, Most Wanted does not allow players to play as a pursuing police in chases. However, players may drive several police cars in Challenge mode, but are solely used in checkpoint races and police pursuits, where the police are still pursuing the player.