Game Review: Need for Speed: Most Wanted

Holiday-season TV ads would have you believe that lots of people get brand-new cars for Christmas. With giant bows on top.

I hate to play Scrooge, but you're probably not one of those people. But why settle for one real car when you can buy one video game with dozens of virtual rides? Plus, when you take these vehicles out on the highway, you don't have to worry about insurance, gas prices or speed limits.

"Need for Speed: Most Wanted" (Electronic Arts, for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, $59.99; PC, $49.99) is the most gleefully irresponsible of this year's racing games. It was developed by Criterion Games, the British studio best known for the "Burnout" franchise, and it shares that series' obsession with vehicular mayhem.

"Most Wanted" is set in an open-world environment called Fairhaven City, which is more of a playground for speed demons than a plausible place to live. While cruising the streets, you'll come across signs inviting you to participate in an assortment of events. In sprint and circuit races the object is just to get to the finish line first, while in the ambush and pursuit events you also have to escape the police.

Dozens of cars are available from the start, and race victories earn vehicle modifications, like road-gripping tires or a more aerodynamic chassis. You have to win the "most wanted" beauties - say, the Lamborghini Aventador or the Porsche 918 Spyder - by beating them head-to-head.

"Most Wanted" also includes robust online competition that you can slide right into without having to navigate through a bunch of menus and lobbies. But even if you just want to zip around Fairhaven, flying off ramps and crashing through billboards, this entire package is a blast. Three-and-a-half stars out of four.

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