There’s so much new in Hot Pursuit that the game feels the need to hold your hand as you open up each menu option, forcing you to listen to the voiceover long after you’ve pressed every button to skip it. Racing games used to be immediate, but this Criterion developed (and EA published) title requires that you be patient and listen, at least at first: there’s a lot to take in and there’s a great deal that regular buyers of the now annual Need For Speed franchise will need a little time to feel comfortable with. If this is you, then allow us a couple of paragraphs to ease you in and settle your nerves. It’s worth it.
The car selection, the pre-race revving and snarling, the nitrous: it’s pure Underground, exhausts dripping fuel and the camera shaking like a hyperactive two year old. But once behind the wheel it’s back to Burnout of old – a bumpless ride, simple drift mechanics and huge understeer to make the most of those wide, sweeping corners and straights as far as the eye can see: on the plus side it’s like the best of the two classic series fused together as one, finally, but the reverse is that hardcore fans of both recent Need for Speeds and Burnout titles will need to readjust their outlook a little: Hot Pursuit isn’t really like either.
You can’t fault Criterion here, though, they know how to make a racing game and this Need For Speed is probably the finest since the long-running series began, bringing in the best aspects of Wanted with the very essence of what made the 1998 version of Hot Pursuit so enthralling, but it’s a Need for Speed that is so distinct from it’s recent forebearers that you can’t help but wonder what happened to the ridiculous spoilers or hammy acting – they’re not missed, of course, rather than their absence belies the name on the packaging. Likewise, emphasis is (mostly) removed from gratuitous metallic carnage, something that the Burnout lineage is famous for.
This ‘somewhere in-between’ sensation is purely the result of the developer’s name on the box, and whilst Hot Pursuit is the reason we’re not being graced with a new Burnout title this year, fans of the latter shouldn’t skip this simply because it’s branded under a different moniker. By virtue of a studio fully aware of their market (and that of the classic NFS games) and a publisher willing to let them flourish, Hot Pursuit has turned out to be rather enjoyable – not without quirks and a few missteps (and a slight loss of character under all that pristine sheen and insanely high production values) but on the whole it’s a convincingly solid title.
The good? There’s a huge amount to do, and you’re free to dip in and out of the races, challenges, time trials and events as you please, unlocking them in a refreshingly open, non-linear manner. The racing mechanics are finely tuned, too, preferring intuition and instinct over rote map learning and repetition, the last minute handbrake drift essential when you’re rocketing along a dusty road at over 200kph. The choice of cars, too, opens up nicely (with rides available for ‘free’ once you achieve the required level) whilst ensuring that each class of car remains attached to a particular event removing the need to keep trading up.
Likewise, the Autolog is an inspired (but slightly underdeveloped) addition, a Facebook-esque interface that tracks everything you do and pits you against your online friends in its own submenu and your in-race HUD, offering up an endless array of challenges assuming you’ve got mates of a similar skill level (and if you haven’t, the game can suggest new friends that are more suitable). You can also comment on your friends’ photographs in the ‘wall’, another social networking aspect slickly carried over. It would have been nice to have constant in-race updates as to your location against others though (rather than just the end time) but it’s a solid start and one sure to be replicated in the future.
There’s potentially a hugely addictive online portion, too, featuring full races with fellow petrolheads and the single player’s neat split between street racers and the police (you can follow both career paths simulateously) carries over intuitively into the multiplayer. There’s no split-screen, but if you’re someone that likes to spend hours battling with friends over the ‘net, Hot Pursuit’s various races and chases might be right up your street – it’s tricky for us to test this aspect pre-release, mind, and EA hadn’t sent over an online access code that the full game will contain, so our time online was strictly limited.
The bad? There’s some heavy rubber-banding in the single player which keeps the races nice and tight (as is useful when you’re behind) but also means that races can be lost at the last corner through no fault of your own, save for your ability to see oncoming headlights, naturally. There’s also the fact that the courses aren’t particularly thrilling, playing out across vast open spaces rather than the tightly packed (and hence far more charismatic) previous entrants in the series. Think Drift and Pro:Street rather for reference, rather than Underground (and Burnout Paradise) and you’ll be somewhere close.
Another downer is the liquid smooth framerate wasn’t carried over from Criterion’s last, instead we’re locked at thirty frames per second which, whilst affording some lovely visual trickery can’t hope to replace the sense of speed you get with the full sixty. My heart always sinks a little when a current-gen racing game rolls off the production line without having that, to me at least, single most important aspect, but it’s clear the developers chose graphical fidelity, draw distance and texture detail over sixty frames per second – sure, the game looks incredible in the photomode, but the difference in-game is apparent.
When all said and done, though, Hot Pursuit represents a remarkable return to form for the series, and a considerably brave one for the publisher. The game’s deep but flexible structure offers up a smooth difficulty curve and the constant rewards (be they new courses, cars and bonuses) keep the interest high. The addition of ‘weapons’ seems a little forced, but the ability to call in road blocks or drop spike strips behind will be much more appreciated online when you’re sure the AI isn’t cheating their way around your obstacles.
- Deep single player and extensive online options
- Autolog is a cool feature
- The cars look and sound fabulous
- The races aren’t always as exciting as they should be
- The framerate, although solid, is a disappointment
Hot Pursuit is a refreshing reboot for a series that’s become tired and disjointed, with Criterion’s grip tightly controlling the direction of the game as much as the publisher. As a result, this latest Need for Speed is the best it’s been for years, and although it’s naturally not going to be a game for everyone (and up against the juggernaut of Sony’s exclusive Gran Turismo 5 next week) anyone looking for a solid racing game this Christmas with a signficant emphasis on online competition should find this is well worth investigating, especially if you liked the demo.