Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit Review
When EA announced a few years ago that they'd be splitting off their long-running Need for Speed racing series across multiple sub-genres and development teams, I doubt many people really believed the extent that'd happen. Sure, maybe we'd see a couple of games in development at one point, for maybe a little while, then we'd go right back to the old ways of the disappointing yearly title by the same old, tired team.
But EA has made good on their promise. Not only do we have Need for Speed: Shift (and its just-announced sequel) by semi-hardcore racing dev Slightly Mad Studios, but then there's the online-only Need for Speed World currently being worked on and in beta at the moment. Finally, Criterion Games, creators of the hugely popular Burnout series, have just finished putting touches on their new revival of the PC classic, Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit.
Hot Pursuit pulls in much of what made the Burnout games fun, but then firmly grounds it in distinctly NFS-esque racing styles - and then turns that on its head by pitting cops against racers. With a fantastic online system that allows players to quickly create rivalries with those on their friends list, and some intense white-knuckle experiences in both offline and online play, Criterion has tapped into the exact thing I expect out of any good Need for Speed title: extremely intense, addictive arcade racing without ridiculous stories or screens of fine-tuning.
In career mode, you can further both of your roles - as a cop on one side, and as a law-breaking racer on the other - at any time. Your event selections all draw from a lush area that reminds you of the Pacific Northwest, and will cover day and nighttime events as well as a pretty diverse set of environments. You won't find much in the way of dense urban racing here, but there is traffic on the road, and all too often you'll find an opponent nudging you into an oncoming car to take you out. All the while, you'll be unlocking new, licensed cars on both sides of the law, and the names that'll fly by are exactly what you'd expect from a modern NFS game.
When it comes to taking people out, it's important to note that Criterion may be evolving the online system they have been building on in Burnout Paradise, but they're not recreating the gameplay of their earlier hit franchise. Sure, the crashes in Hot Pursuit look good - not quite as detailed as in Burnout's later entries, but certainly better than in any past game in the NFS series. You won't be turning people into twisted hunks of steel by slightly nudging them into a wall, as you'll find that cars often collide the way that two dump trucks going 20mph would collide. You can still get bumped around and might even get put into a wall (and crash in extreme circumstances), but that's not the focus at all this time. Instead, you've got several tools at your disposal - four unique ones for each side of the battle, like spike strips, radar jammers, EMP launchers, roadblocks, and helicopter support - and when the cops ram you to take you out, it's more like the classic arcade game Chase HQ than a Burnout takedown in that they'll need to damage your car enough to shut it down.
While I praised the wonderful sense of speed in Need for Speed: Shift as well as developer Slightly Mad's amazing in-cockpit experience, I was frustrated at their inability to commit to being a serious racer. I felt like it was a waste to ask arcade racing fans to step up their game and try to race (on real-world tracks) like they would in real life, then immediately start rewarding them for the kind of overly aggressive behavior that will get you kicked off of most race tracks. And hardcore racing fans? They had to dumb down their knowledge and expertise just to even start enjoying the game, and I found that most of them didn't last long with it anyway.
I bring all of this up because I feel like there's been an identity crisis plaguing the franchise in the past, but Hot Pursuit winds up being exactly where I think it needs to be. It may not have the immersive first-person experience that Shift had, but Criterion made sure it maintained their signature sense of speed, and here, aggressive behavior out on the open road makes at least a little more sense. And with the adversarial systems for cops versus racers with lots of crashes and collisions, they've created some very exciting matchups.
It turns out that in single player mode, having cops in the game also gives Criterion a good excuse to not have to dumb down their AI. You know how it is in most racing games: the AI hardly makes any mistakes when it comes to speed, braking, wall collisions, or sometimes even collisions with other AI cars, and the only thing you're adjusting when you fiddle with the difficulty is the actual speed they drive at. Here, Criterion has let their AI drivers go pretty damn fast, and then they kick those drivers' asses through collisions with police vehicles. Of course, you can feel the impact of the long arm of the law, too, especially when it seems like one cop is targeting only you instead of, well, any other racer out on the road. But still, I love the feeling that the AI is actually making human-like mistakes, even if it's only because another AI is forcing those mistakes.
Criterion and EA have done a pretty damn good job with the console editions of Hot Pursuit, delivering a rock-solid 30fps and beautiful visuals. On PC, you can get to 60fps at even higher resolutions, although I found that it's a bit of a resource hog, generally requiring a dedicated gaming PC built some time in the last year if you want high details, 1080p-plus resolution, and silky-smooth gameplay at the same time. There are a couple of weird things on the PC, like the need on a 360 controller to use the D-pad rather than the analog stick to navigate menus, and of course EA continues to annoy the hell out of its PC customers with cutscenes and logo videos that you can't skip (which they've been doing for years now). Still, the PC version of Hot Pursuit has all the functionality of the console editions, minus your PSN or Live friends list (as the PC version uses EA's online implementation), and will run faster and sharper on a sufficiently well-equipped PC. And, of course, the steering wheel support, should you wish to go that route, is the best in the business.
All in all, Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit is an admirable return to form on a franchise that I had felt lost its way since NFS Most Wanted was released five years ago. Some will disagree with me on that last assertion, but I think few can disagree that Criterion has brought some great stuff to the Need for Speed world without compromising the core of what puts these games uniquely into their own racing niche. With impressive visuals, fantastic online and social functionality, and heart-pounding chases and races at excessive speeds, this is 2010's arcade racer to beat. EA may be hoping that racing fans have money for two games saved up - since Gran Turismo 5 comes out in less than two weeks - but if you want a solid, exciting arcade racer right now, you've just found it.