The long-running Need For Speed series has come a long way over the years, becoming one of gaming's best selling franchises. This generation has not been entirely kind to the series from a quality standpoint, however. After 2005's "Most Wanted", the series went through several less exciting iterations. "Carbon", "ProStreet" and "Undercover" didn't feature police chases at all, considered by many to be the best part about Need For Speed. Enter Criterion Games, the creators of the popular Burnout series looking bring their signature brand of destructive racing to the next level. Fresh off their flawed, but promising 2007 release, Burnout Paradise, does Criterion have what it takes to put the Speed back into Need For Speed, or does Hot Pursuit crash and burn?
Hot Pursuit is set up as a big sandbox in the fictional, but picturesque Seacrest County, with about 50 different events to choose from as either a cop or a racer. Burnout Paradise was set up in a similar manner, but it was all very cumbersome, having to physically drive to every event and drive all the way back to the starting live if you failed. Fortunately, a little more foresight went into Hot Pursuit, so now you have a large, overhead map that allows you to choose from any available event. You can switch between racer events and cop events at any time, and there is a decent variety of events to choose from. Racers have standard time trials, races against the AI and 1 on 1 duels. They can also participate in Hot Pursuit events which place you with a pack of other racers while trying to evade police, or Gauntlet events where it's just you against a multitude of cops and without any equipment to defend yourself. Cop missions also have time trials (though it is a frustrating variant called "Rapid Response" which penalizes you for every mistake), but most cop events are Hot Pursuit races in which you bust as many racers as possible, or Interceptor events in which you throw everything against a single opponent. The game is at its best when cops and racers battle it out, so I would have liked to see less of the time trials and more Hot Pursuit, Gauntlet and Interceptor events. It's a good, lengthy campaign, though, clocking in at over 15 hours, which could easily be extended if you decide to pursue gold medals for each event.
The Need For Speed series has always boasted a line-up of licensed, real-world vehicles, and Hot Pursuit is no different. There are about 100 cars from manufacturers like Lamborghini, Mercedes, BMW, Pagoni and more, though 50 of them are merely police variants of the available racers. Curiously absent, however, are Ferraris. The Italians manufacturer probably didn't want to see their cars getting banged up and running each other off the road. After all, they probably didn't want to encourage another incident like the one former Gizmondo president Setfan Erikson was involved in. That poor, poor Enzo! You'll unlock new cars as you progress, and more powerful vehicles can make or break a race, especially as you near the end of the career. The difficulty spikes abruptly and significantly in the second half of the game and you may find yourself on a bit of a grind as you try to unlock better cars. Anyway, the cars all look great and do receive damage, but not nearly at the level of the Burnout games.
To dish out said damage, both cops and racers have some useful equipment at their disposal. Cops and racers both come equipped with Spike Strips and EMP Bursts. Think of the Spikes Strips sort of like banana peels from the Mario Kart series. They are dropped behind your vehicle and will spin out the first car to drive over them, causing a damage along with it. EMP, on the otherhand, is fired ahead of you and temporarily disables your target. You need to maintain a fairly steady line of sight to keep your targeting reticule locked on, and it's best used as your target enters a sharp turn. The Racers' 2 unique abilities come in the form of Turbo Boost and Jammers. Turbo Boost is exactly what it sounds like and rockets you forward at high speed with green fire erupting from your exhaust pipe. Jammers are an incredibly handy device, probably the most useful in the whole game. Firing off a Jammer shuts down a cop's heads up display and disables the use of their equipment for a short time. It also allows you to see upcoming roadblocks, as well as jamming EMP lock-ons and even spike strips. Cops are treated to 2 very different unique abilities: Road Block and Air Support. Calling out a Road Block sets up a wall of police vehicles across the road ahead to try to stop incoming racers. Their effectiveness is a bit of a mixed bag since there are often large gaps in the defense, but they have their uses. Air support call in a helicopter that zooms ahead attempting to drop spike strips in front of racers. Like the road blocks, they are not 100% effective and you'll probably spike yourself more than once. All the equipment is upgraded as you progress through the career, and using them strategically when they're available is often the key to success.
Without a doubt, Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit's most outstanding contribution to racing is the Autolog feature. Autolog, at its core, is just like Facebook. You have a friends list and a wall where you can post your times and pictures and send challenges to your friends. You'll also be notified any time one of your friends beats one of your times or challenges, which will, in turn, offer you a new challenge to beat. It instills a constant spirit of competition into what is already a smartly designed single player campaign. You'll likely find yourself checking your challenges all the time, striving to surpass the friends on your list. The best part is, Hot Pursuit won't litter your Facebook wall with posts about your in-game accomplishments, unlike other games that use the actual Facebook in this way (I'm looking at you, Blur). It all stays on Autolog, making it far less intrusive. It's a great feature that EA has already confirmed they will be using in future installments of Need For Speed. My only concern is that it can sometimes prove to be unstable, disconnecting you from the Autolog servers and being unable to reestablish a connection. Even if your internet connection is working, you can't even play multiplayer if Autolog goes down. It doesn't occur TOO often, but it occurs often enough to warrant mention and I do hope they iron out these issues.
In addition to the huge single player campaign, Hot Pursuit contains online multiplayer for up to 8 players, though it is somewhat less fully featured than the single player. There are only 3 event types to choose from: Hot Pursuit, Race and Interceptor. Races are self explanatory, while Hot Pursuits pit a team of 4 racers against a team of 4 cops and is easily the most exciting option available. Unfortunately, being knocked out early can be a real drag since you're forced to sit and wait until the match ends. Interceptor races, as in the campaign, pit a single cop against a single racer. Unlike the campaign, however, the course has no boundaries and will continue indefinitely, until the racer escapes or somebody wrecks. To mix things up a little, you are at least allowed to choose from 1 of 5 available speed classes to narrow down your search. The nice thing is that any experience points you earn in multiplayer will carry over to your single player progress, and vice versa. It helps maintain a feeling of constant progress between the game's different modes, and that goes a long way. Even so, Hot Pursuit's multiplayer is lacking compared to it's single player offering. There are no options for matchmaking aside from choosing a gametype and speed class and you'll always be pitted against a seemingly random assortment of people. It's especially harsh for new players, who will often be pitted against players at a much higher level. Still, the gameplay itself is fun and racing against real people will always be more dynamic than racing against (unfairly) rubber-banding AI opponents.
Visually, Hot Pursuit looks fantastic. Seacrest County is a beautiful place filled with winding canyons, beaches, deserts, forests, snowy mountains, small, rural towns, pretty much every type of North American environment rolled into one. The only thing it lacks is a large, metropolitan area, but given Criterion's history with Burnout Paradise's DLC, one can hope they'll go a similar route, adding large new chunks of playable space. Criterion has always been known for producing an extremely intense, over the top sense of speed in its games, and Hot Pursuit continues that proud tradition. When you're driving a Bugatti Veyron at 250 miles per hour, you really feel like you need to hang onto your seat. Blinking your eyes often results in disaster and you'll come away from every victory feeling breathless. The audio portion is somewhat of a mixed bag, however. The cars all sound appropriately powerful, often resembling the roar of a wild animal when you start them up. The issue here is the actual music selection in the game. Obviously, this dives into that ever present gray area of personal preference, but I found that most of the music is simply not good driving music. Even the songs that are most tolerable are often ruined by whiny, high-pitched vocals that make me want to shove a hot poker through my eardrums. By contrast, the music that plays during Hot Pursuits, Interceptors and Gauntlet events is a more dramatic, orchestral score that fits the action much more appropriately. Of course, the game also supports custom soundtracks, so that eliminates the problem entirely.
When all is said and done, Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit is the best game the series has seen in years, possibly the best it has seen ever. Its speed and intensity are simply unmatched, while Autolog takes the spirit of competition and infuses it into every aspect of the game. It's a genre-changing addition that will surely spawn many imitators in the coming months and years. It's not a perfect game (but what is, really?), as it could use less rubber banding on the AI as well as a larger selection of game modes online. Even so, it is easily the best driving game of 2010 (keep your pants on, Gran Turismo fans) and I would recommend it to anybody looking for no nonsense, high speed thrills. It's the game that Burnout: Paradise should have been and that the Need For Speed series should always be from here on out.
FINAL SCORE: A-
Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit is available now on Xbox 360, PS3, PC, Wii, iPhone and iPad