Need for Speed: Most Wanted takes on the gameplay style of the first Most Wanted title in the Need for Speed franchise. Most Wanted allows players to select one car and compete against other racers in three types of events: Sprint races, which involves traveling from one point of the city to another, Circuit races, each having two or three laps total and Speed runs, which involve traversing through a course in the highest average speed possible. There is also the Ambush races, which start with the player surrounded by cops and tasked to evade their pursuit as quickly as possible. Cops are integrated into certain racing sessions, in which the police deploy vehicles and tactics to stop the player's car and arrest the player, like the original Most Wanted. At each event there are two upgrades that can be unlocked for the current car, one of them is unlocked for players who manage to finish at least in second while the other is only obtained by winning. The game features a Blacklist (also known as The Most Wanted List) of 10 racers, similar to the single-player section of the original Most Wanted, which featured 15 Blacklist racers. As the Most Wanted racers are defeated, their cars are added to the player's roster. In this reiteration, the focus shifts from Rockport, the city in the original, to a new city called Fairhaven.
Most Wanted has been likened to the Burnout series. Destructible billboards and fences; and drive-through repair garages, all of which originated from Paradise, are also featured.
The game uses Autolog, the competition-between-friends system developed by Criterion for Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit, and since used in other titles in the Need for Speed series. Autolog in Most Wanted plays a larger role and gives more information to players. Activities in-game allow players to earn Speed Points which can boost players up on the Most Wanted list. Autolog recommendations have now been integrated into the game world, rather than sit externally on the menu system. Most Wanted features a new social system called Cloudcompete, which strings together Most Wanted across all platforms in an inspired example of cross-compatibility. One profile is used for all versions of the game, allowing the player to rank up on one format and continue progress on another.
The driving model of the game has been described as "deep, physical and fun", not as arcade-styled as the Burnout series and Hot Pursuit, but far from a simulator. Most Wanted has a range of real-world vehicles, a mix of muscle cars, street racers and exotics, described as "the wildest selection of cars yet". The cars can be altered with visual and performance upgrades, such as paint colors, reinflatable tyres, suspensions, engine, nitrous oxide, and body work that enables players to crash through roadblocks. A feature called EasyDrive enables players to customise their vehicles while in action. For the first time in Need for Speed history, all of the cars are available from the start, hidden in different locations throughout Fairhaven; the player has to discover them in order to unlock them.