I rented Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit for the Xbox 360 because I like the Burnout series and the original series. I enjoyed over 20 hours of over-the-top racing and cop pursuit action, typically never dropping a car below 100 mph and having a blast doing it. Once I decided I had had my proverbial way with the game, I figured I would try some alternative methods of play over those I was accustomed to before I send it away.
I don't play online games. I find the experience taxing and full of pressure. Can't pause? Yeah, not for me. If some collection of the words "free" and "trial" are involved however, I am usually inclined to see what all the fuss is about for a brief few moments. This is after all where the cash and attention in gaming are being injected nowadays so let's just boot up Autolog and-SHUT UP FAGG*T F*CKING B*TCH F*CK EAT YOUR MOTHERS HORSE FAGG*T *SS T*TS BLEHHHHhhh
Ahem. Sure, I expected this. I've heard about it, been apart of it during rare moments of my gaming life, seen the Youtube. Typical bored American male, undersexed over hyped, testosterone-laden no real outlet for energy blah blah blah. Is this aggression inevitable though? I began to ask myself why the ultimate instinct for most online players with microphones and a wandering sense of Quick Play loyalty is to delve into fierce, name-calling competitiveness. The game certainly calls for intense rivalry, as it pits Racers against the ever ravenous and weapon-heavy Cops and is a great example of hyper, modern, adrenaline-laced gameplay. So I considered yet another alternative; how I might play Need for Speed if I was inclined to pay for the Xbox Live subscription, an EA online pass, and a microphone-headset for my system (pfffffftttt) and what it would mean considering the time I spent with the game on my lonesome.
The most important aspect of any game is the world in which the play takes place. NFS: Hot Pursuit's world is precisely attuned to what the player seeks from the promised objective: moving fast. Seacrest County is large and colorful, yet most of it is streamlined and sectioned off, and for good obstacle-less reason. The objective is delivered expertly and with pitch perfect grace, but the trade off is a world that feels empty and forgotten, when considered under a more logical, real world light. Roads never lead out of Seacrest; there is no bridge that is perpetually "under construction" to at least give a plausible in-game reason for such a secluded world to exist. There are no pedestrians, street lights, or wildlife. How does it operate? Does it exist for the racers' purpose alone? Is it all in their heads? Acting out a cops-and-robbers fantasy until the day they are knocked from their self-induced slumber?
But there are thunderstorms, the distinct chirping of unseen birds, an ever-cycling day and night rotation, and tall pine trees that sway in an unfed breeze. NFS is a conundrum because it is practical and concise as a game world but alluring and mysterious as a simulation of the outdoors, especially while exploring in Free Drive mode as opposed to entering into one of the main events to do your misaligned meandering, where you would be timed and pushed to accomplish a stated goal. I am surprised NFS even includes this mode as it offers none of aforementioned practical gameplay mechanics, it just exists so that you and your pretty race car may be.
At the heart of the environmental details are the graphics. The crisp HDMI renderings in NFS are probably the most tangible I've interacted with in my life. I'm sure it'll be topped by another big name triple A title that I'll never play soon, but as a reference point, this is it for me. With such polished games like NFS I often wonder how hard the developers worked on the engine as opposed to secretly whispering prayers to an unforeseen pagan god for nine months until scads of code erupt on their laptops that a pristine game environment can easily emerge from. Realism in video game graphics are not very "videogamey" to me so despite the obvious labors put into Criterion's creation, it still manages to baffle me to the point of whimsical doubt.
Let's return for a moment to that "hypothetical" online gaming version of myself. Stripped of my usual single player tropes and alignments, I wander the Incipisphere for players and matches to ruminate and snuggle all up inside. So cozy! There is friendly competition sure, but this time with the sincere undertone of appreciation for the game as a simulation and a complete realm. I communicate this to my opponents and happenstance teammates and attempt to appeal to their sense of humanity and earthly community for an unlikely moment. Just to revel in some common knowledge of the world and the achievements of our fellow men to replicate it. I get called a d*ck-s*cking fagg*t and am kicked almost immediately.
Is it because these environments have served as a backdrop to their own play so long that it no longer feels like a fresh and vibrant world? Or because what I suggest is less about continuing the urge to dwell in the sensationalist racing fantasy and more about well...life on Earth? I wonder how aggression, no matter how inconsequential and intangible, can translate from such a distinct sense of worth from the play and player. Criterion gave us a gift, a tool to be utilized however we wish. There is a narrative here sure but isn't it when we break these narratives that games become more of our own? Precious and memorable and more than just some measly flash of saccharin entertainment?
Most of my observations of Seacrest County came from exploring the world during Free Drive. Here, the day-to-night cycle continues endlessly and you can traverse all across the expansive map at your leisure. I took my Bugatti Veyron from shiny rain-slick roads in the deep forest to the snow-dusted curves of the highways in the mountains. I turned the soundtrack off and surprisingly found an ignition switch by pressing the left stick and listened to the birds chirp in relative quiet along the coast while the wind whistled across the desert miles away and a full moon followed its sequence in code to a T. I slunk through the dead of night, a field of satellites for a company that was created specifically to convince the player that Seacrest is real, and you can visit it like this someday too. Unauthorized access. I found endless 5-second loops in the driveways of houses that only served as shortcuts in the main races, slowed down and parked to them like a robo-couple in the robo 50's. As you do. Listen.
In trying to understand my alternative ilk, I found peace in a game that I would never have thought would ever provide a lick of it. Slowing down my car and catching up with the blurred textures allowed me connection with Seacrest County. I wanted to step out of my mega-tuned rocket car and just walk perpendicular to the perfectly realized road. In the silence, away from the din, and forward into the reality that digital interactive art will always contain, if you happen to look for it. It is in moments like these, perhaps, that the dredge of online masses could discover some solace and communal understanding in their thumping little aortas.
Or drifting around rain-slick highway bends at 150mph while being chased by scads of cops in race cars is just way more fun. There's always that.