It was hard not to be excited for Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit. Here we have my single favorite racing game developer, Criterion Games, lending their mettle to one of the more entertaining entries to have flown under the Need for Speed flag. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a better recipe for success prior to getting my hands on a title. Racers, Cops, spike strips and helicopters, all going 200 MPH down beautiful country roads? Sign me up.
To kick things off, lets talk about the primary game mode: Career. In Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit you’ve got two paths, both immediately accessible from the game’s world map. You’ll become a bad boy racer, driving through this speeder’s paradise, trying to beat your fellow outlaws and not get busted by the police; or you can play as the cop trying to bust those racers. What’s great about the setup here is that you can bounce back and forth between these careers, so if you tire of just racing around you can switch over and bust some nogoodniks instead.
There’s a decent amount of variation in the events, from straightforward races without police interference to preview rounds where you get to test drive a supercar before you’ve actually earned it. My least favorite type is the “Rapid Response” police event where you’re asked to respond to some crime scene and get time penalties for hitting walls or other cars on the road. I get what they were going for, but just didn’t care for them. Honestly, the cat and mouse gameplay is what sets this series apart from other racers. Each side has their own tools to try and either bust racers or evade cops. While it sometimes feels a bit too much like a cart racer (EMP? Really?), it’s never anything less than radical and exhilarating. Criterion once again proves they know how to make arcade driving games feel and look nearly perfect.
Progressing through the game is as easy, or difficult, as driving against the rubberband AI which at times can be absolutely ridiculous. Shortcuts become almost pointless unless you see your AI opponents take them first, due to the fact that they’ll just catch up to you no matter what. Making others crash is also completely fruitless. With just a mile left on one specific race during my career, I forced an opponent into a guardrail and received a ‘takedown’ notice. He outright crashed, but ended up passing me with ease to win the race at the last moment, even though I was nearly at top speed for the rest of the race. That’s controller throwing garbage right there. You’ll gain bounty (experience) for performing certain tasks during events and when hitting milestones, but the largest rewards come from getting gold medals, so a second place finish is far from optimal. Luckily, you’ll always be earning bounty in every event and mode, so even if you finish dead last your bad race won’t be for naught. Those points go towards unlocking enhanced equipment, new cars, and ‘leveling up’, but that’s about it. There’s no car customization to speak of, other than choosing a paint job, and the level progression really just serves as a dedication meter.
While missing the Burnout moniker, Hot Pursuit certainly borrows plenty from its two-years-older brother, making it impossible to avoid comparisons. Game engine, detailed crash slowdowns, even the way you earn boost is a carbon copy of Burnout Paradise. Things are a bit toned down this time though, grounded with reality instead of taking place in a fantastical racing world. While still an arcade-style racer, the fully licensed cars feel weightier and require more finesse than the twitchy generics of Paradise, and the game takes place in a much more realistic landscape. Cars even have drivers at the wheel, how’s that for realism?!
Environments are varied from long stretches of open road in sparse desert land and cliffside roads overlooking majestic waters, to thick redwood forests and snow covered mountain peaks. Full day night and weather systems are also in place and look great particularly during transition or a violent thunderstorm. The wide armada of vehicles all feature great reflection effects when seen up close, and certainly look like their real world counterparts. There are even nice little environmental touches every once in a while while racing, like an airplane flying overhead or fireworks going off in the distance. Everything in the game is wonderfully detailed and looks fantastic, but it comes at a price. No longer does the Paradise engine run at 60fps, locked instead to 30.
Other shortcomings of the engine also exist, like not being able to use manual transmissions on cars (I don’t think they make an automatic shifting Bugatti Veyron) and not being able to adjust video settings in-game. But at least the Paradise engine allows for some open world antics right? Kinda, but not really. Instead of granting the ability to drive around looking for events to partake in, Criterion went with a menu approach. You’ll see an overworld map, get to pick your event and go right into it in a more compartmentalized and linear approach. They still give you the option of just grabbing whatever car you’ve unlocked and drive it around the world unhindered, but it’s a completely pointless, throw-away feature. It would have been nice to have the Multiplayer based in this open world, but again, that just goes through a normal, menu based matchmaking system instead of the fully integrated approach, removing any chance of emergent gameplay. Without that true open world, exploration based aspect, there’s not much here really pushing you forward other than getting new cars and ranking up to level 20 in each career.
Instead, the newest competitive addition is the Autolog system which acts as a glorified, nagging leaderboard. Whenever a friend beats one of your times, a quick press of a button will post that achievement to their Autolog wall which is monitored by the game. If you’re in the menus, the game taunts you with a very calm, “Your friends have beaten you” vocalized message, and suggests you to pull the right trigger to attempt the event they just won over. It’s terribly effective as I spent way too much time trying to regain my top spots. The wall also acts as a place to share any quick in-game screenshots you take (click the right stick at any time), or any of your “Dream Shots” which are taken through the pause menu’s photo mode. Best of all, this Autolog information is integrated with EA’s NFSHS website, so you can check out what your friends have done while you’re at your desk at work. Overall statistics are strangely absent in-game, and the website claims they’re ‘coming soon’. Fun fact: the images in this review were taken, by me, in game on the 360.
The actual competitive multiplayer is a bit of a mixed bag at current time. You’ve only got three modes and while it’s awesome to go cops vs racers with 8 real people, 9 times out of 10, the racers win due to the cops not working together as a team, blowing their weapons arsenal too early. Also, I’ve experienced a plethora of connection related issues. I’m not entirely sure if that’s the case due to lack of connection strength indicators in the lobbies, but I’ve had spike strips appear directly in front of me with no cops or helicopters in sight, the mini map not updating to show that cops are nearby, getting t-boned when no one was around, cars blinking all over the road, and have seen cars drive right through other vehicles. Frustrating, but hopefully the issues will be resolved in the future.
Criterion Games certainly knows speed, so it made perfect sense for Electronic Arts to enlist their know-how with the slumping Need for Speed franchise. While they absolutely nailed the actual racing elements and created an extremely addictive competitive system with Autolog, the surrounding elements leave a lot to be desired and certainly could have used a bit of same streamlining that’s apparent on most of the exotic rides in the game. You won’t regret your purchase as the racing is truly fantastic, but you may get frustrated with the package as a whole.
4 out of 5
Originally posted at Evil Avatar.