Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit promises to return one of the most successful racing video game in history to its roots, delivering an easy to understand, but still deep driving experience to gamers of all kinds... including fans of Mario Kart.
Hot Pursuit is two games in one. Players can take on the role of street racers or the police who chase them, using not just driving skills, but an arsenal of car-stopping technology to win a race or shut one down. Layered on top of the constant cat-and-mouse of illegal street racing and real-world power-ups is a surprisingly robust, surprisingly effective social network that tracks your best races and notifies you the instant a friend has beaten one.
Racing fans who prefer the pleasure and instant gratification of arcade-style racing over the nitty-gritty realism of games like Gran Turismo and Forza Motorsport.
The Need for Speed franchise is the most successful video game racing series in history, but that doesn't mean it can't be improved upon. Criterion Games, the studio that popularized crash-and-burn racing in their Burnout series, brings with them a sense of visceral, over-the-top mayhem that could help introduce a whole new type of gamer to the franchise.
Is this basically the next Burnout game with a Need for Speed name slapped on it? Not exactly. It's closer to the original Need for Speed than it is the Burnout games, opting to find a sweet spot somewhere between simulator and arcade racer. For instance, the game is packed with real world cars, each of which handle differently, but the driving doesn't require the finesse of a game like Gran Turismo. Instead Criterion Games seemed to have concentrated on making the game as instantly accessible as possible without turning it into something you'd expect to play in an arcade. And for the most part they've succeeded.
How do the cars handle? While I would never say they're as touchy as the real thing, it's obvious some care went into making sure that each vehicle behaves a bit like the real thing. Cars at high speeds will rock on their suspension, some feel more back heavy, some handle better on dirt roads than on paved ones. There's a sense of realism in the game's driving, but just a sense.
The game is divided into a police and a racer mode. How does that work? The entire game takes place along the fictional, wonderfully eclectic roads of Seacrest County. The game approaches this top down map as a sort of open world, but to fully explore it you have to take on and win challenges. The challenges are broken down into police and racer events. The game tracks each differently, awarding new cars, new pursuit equipment, new courses and leveling you up separately as a racer and as a police officer.
Players can take photos of their favorite rides in mid race.
How different is being a cop in the game to being a racer? While the driving experience itself is very similar, the challenges, vehicles and pursuit equipment you have are all very different. As a police officer you'll be asked to respond to an emergency call in a given time, while as a racer you may take on a single opponent in a street race. My favorite challenges involve both cops and racers. As a cop you're tasked with shutting down a race by destroying all of the cars participating, as a racer you want to place first. There are also more subtle differences. Cops in the game tend to work together, at least in the campaign. Racers will as soon as take you out as they would a cop. This dichotomy creates two fairly unique experiences.
How does this pursuit equipment you keep talking about work? Think of it as almost-real world versions of the power-ups you might find in Mario Kart... absent the Blue Turtle shell. While cops and racers have access to a couple of similar bits of technology, there's a lot different too. Both cops and racers can drop road spikes behind them or hit a car in front of them with an EMP burst. Only cops can call in a helicopter to zip ahead and drop spikes in front of you. They can also call for assistance from other cops to set up a roadblock. Meanwhile racers get access to a jammer that will block a cop's EMP and prevents police from dropping spikes or calling for help. Finally, racers have a turbo, which is like an industrial version of the nitrous both cops and racers can use. The inclusion of these almost-real, car-stopping weapons helps to both separate the two sorts of experiences, but also makes the races a much more enjoyable experience.
How does the community thing work, the Autolog? While pursuit equipment helps to make the game feel much more adversarial than your typical racer, the inclusion of the Autolog is what helps to separate Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit from the rest. Autolog plugs you in to not only your friends' experiences playing the game, but also actively looks for strangers to match you up with. The second it sees that someone has beaten your best time, or pushed you from your position on the "speed wall" it alerts you. The result is a sort of indirect competition that has you vying with friends and strangers to see who can capture and keep the best time on a particular career challenge. I've spent entire mornings methodically working my way through CheapyD and Fahey's top times to bump them from the wall, only to discover hours later they had done the same to me. It's like passive-aggressive racing.
Is there anyway to compete directly with people? Absolutely, on top of the always present, always watching Autolog, Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit has three more traditional forms of competitive play. Interceptor pits one cop versus one racer in a drive across the county. Online race is a straight-up, classic race. Hot Pursuit splits players into two teams, cops and racers, and has you racing to see if you can either stop the racers or cross the finish line. The mode adds a neat twist by rewarding the entire winning team. This leads to some neat group efforts, to make sure your team wins.
Is there anything you didn't like about the game? There's a lot to love about Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit, a lot to recommend it. But there are a few things that nagged at me a bit. I'm not a fan of how much like car advertisements the introduction of each vehicle feels. I also hate that the game comes with a single-use "online pass." That means you won't be lending this game to family members or friends with a different console, if you want them to be able to play online. And used purchases will require the gamer to buy the pass separately. I know this is a growing trend among many developers and publishers, but I still don't like it.
While Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit will likely leave the milling crowds anxious to play Gran Turismo 5 cold, it's the perfect sort of racer for everyone else. Criterion Games worked the best bits of a nail-biting Mario Kart race in with the metal-twisting, cuss-inducing crashes of Burnout and came up with something that's a blast to play, win or lose. The extra hook of the constant back-and-forth oneupmanship of friends easily makes this my favorite racer of the year.
Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit was developed by Criterion Games and published by Electronic Arts for the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360, released on Nov. 16. Retails for $59.95. Kotaku purchased a copy of the game for reviewing purposes. Played through to level six police officer and rank six racer on the Xbox 360. Played quite a few matches online both in multiplayer matches and to topple folks from the speed wall.