It takes a couple of hours for Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit to start to click. Truth be told it takes nearly that long to get past the interminable trailers, intro sequences and tutorial videos, but that’s slightly besides the point. No, it takes a couple of hours before you get a sense of what Criterion, makers of the wonderful Burnout series, are really trying to do with EA’s venerable racing franchise.
At first, you’re sort of expecting another Burnout title. There are takedowns and boost that’s topped up by drifting and driving into oncoming traffic. There are gold, silver and bronze medals. Even the reward structure is similar. Cars, equipment and rank promotions fall upon you like confetti after every race. At times it becomes annoying. You’re unlocking car after car, many of which you’re denied access to until later in the game despite them appearing in your virtual garage. Still, it’s fitting for a pure arcade racer, where the old adage about never rewarding the player too much holds true. This is no Forza style simulation. The cars may be beautifully modeled. The licenses may be official and expensively obtained, but there’s no grind. No hours of meandering around empty tracks minutes ahead of your opponents just to earn enough money to buy a second-hand hatchback. In Hot Pursuit you start off with a Porsche Spyder and are quickly behind the wheels of Lamborghinis and Maseratis. Gran Turismo this ain’t.
It’s also not Burnout 6. Early on, you’ll get the sense that Criterion sort of wanted it to be. So many features are lifted wholesale from the developers’ previous series that it almost seems like Hot Pursuit was originally designed to be a Burnout title, before being hastily switched to plug a gap in EA’s franchise line up. That’s not the case though, and it eventually becomes apparent why. What this is, is the best of both worlds. While Burnout was fun, it was sometimes too shallow. The spectacular slow-motion crashes and game-breaking multiple-boost moments were thrilling in the extreme, but often times you’d career so fast into a melee that you’d have no chance to avoid a collision, and no idea how or why you’d taken out half your opponents in the same conflagration. It was manic fun, but it lacked finesse. A sort of automotive Dead or Alive. Welcome then to the vehicular Street Fighter.
Gone are the ridiculous face-melting turbos and drop-of-a-hat ten car pileups of Burnout. The crashes and takedowns are still there, and still a key part of the game, but they’re not so easily triggered, and are more punishing when they happen. Crashing in Burnout was something to be celebrated, with aftertouch and detonations. It was often inevitable and nearly always accidental. Here it’s the result of carelessness or the superior skill of an opponent, and is always something worth avoiding.
Gone too are some of the worst exceeses of recent Need for Speed titles. In the past few years the series has had a worryingly adolescent obsession with the Fast and the Furious movies. Most Wanted and Carbon were both excellent arcade racers struggling to shrug off their immature, testosterone-soaked clothes. Thankfully this time around, while the music is still bad, there are no decals to be applied to your car, no custom wheel trims, and no gurning FMV Vin Diesel-alikes to provide a laughable veneer of narrative. In fact the fiction of Hot Pursuit is admirably thin. There’s a quick intro movie explaining that Seacrest County is a magnet for reckless street racers and their exotic machinery. This apparently explains why the local police are prepared to invest in million pound Bugatti Veyrons to ram the miscreant motorists into the scenery. It’s flimsy at best, and is a notion that thankfully makes itself scarce once the career mode begins in earnest.
While the “underground” stuff has been left behind, there are still vestiges of the old system in evidence. Shortcuts still feature prominently in races, and that old street racing stanby Nitrous Oxide is a central part of proceedings. Here, though, the NOS is part of a broader economy of power ups and weoponary that forms the core of the game’s namesake mode – a battle between cops and robbers that proves the highlight not only of the single player career mode, but of competitve online play too.
Starting out in Seacrest’s career mode, you’ll begin two parallel lives. One as a hot blooded racer gunning to outrun your opponents and the law to be first to tbe finish line. The other as a hard-headed highway pursuit officer determined to take down groups of racers in entirely ungentlemanly ways. In single play you’ll weave between events in both ladders, selected straight from the world map. Seacrest County may be a giant open road network similar in scope to Burnout Paradise’s titular city (though entirely rural, with no urban areas at all) but there’s no need to cruise around looking for events to play. You’ll dive from racing to police interception to time trials. There are also duels, guantlets and preview events that let you complete a timed run in the kind of hypercar you’ll be driving by the time you reach the game’s later stages.
You’re battling to win bounty. As a racer, this earns you higher and higher wanted levels from the local police – as a patrolman man it sees you advance through the ranks of the force. Both careers will see you get access to more exciting hardware, both automotively and offensively, as you progress.
All the gametypes have their merits, but it’s the Hot Pursuit mode though that really shines. Here racers are tasked with beating each other, and the cops to the finish line, while a team of police interceptors work together to try and take them down before they reach the chequered flag. Both sides are armed with spike strips and vehicle disabling EMPs. The cops add helicopter support and road blocks while the racers get jamming systems and an almighty, if difficult to tame , turbo boost. You’ll see these events many times from both sides of the fence – and they’re never less than thrilling. At worst they’re the most exciting races in the game, at best they’re a barely contained ten minute symphony of mayhem, excitement and seat-of-your-pants tension. The weapons aren’t overpowering, and aren’t too generously provided, meaning they have to be deployed cunningly and sparingly. Do you use your lone turbo early on to try and escape the initial melee, or do you save it for that last mile panic-stricken dash for the finish line when the cops have wiped out your fellow racers and are closing in on you?
What’s superb is that the balance, excitement and fun of Hot Pursuit mode translates perfectly to a online matchups. The netcode is perfect, and four-on-four races with players from around the globe are amongst the most fun you can have on Xbox Live right now. Online gaming badly needs flagship experiences that aren’t first person shooters, in Hot Pursuit it has one.
So it’s fair to say that the best part of single-player Hot Pursuit translates wonderfully into the online aspect of the game. What’s just as exciting though is how the online aspects of the game translate into the one-player experience. Hot Pursuit features the latest iteration of EA’s autolog system. It puts social interaction at the heart of the game. This isn’t a cheap, tacked-on social layer. It’s not a case of times and scores being posted on Facebook or Twitter. It’s not a simple leaderboard or friend ranking system.
Every race sees your time placed on a speedwall, to be compared with your friends. Beat a friend’s time and you’re invited to gloat on your “wall”. When your friend logs in he’ll see your new time and be invited to try and better it. It’s simple and brutally effective. It’s incredibly compelling to be playing against your friends’ times, and satisfying when you’re able to publicly crow about your victories. It is, though, dependent on you having friends who own the game, and have put the time in to get to the later races. Sadly my Hot Pursuit owning friendlist members seem only to have bothered with the first few races, meaning the challenge has all but tailed off for me (feel free to add me as a friend on Xbox Live, my gamertag is TGIGreeny).
In terms of technical performace the game is good – if not spectacular. The car models look great, and the environments are suitably varied and colourful. The feeling of speed is palpable and impressive, but the framerate seems closer to a bare-minimum 30fps than an arcade-preferable 60. The handling is, appropriately enough, somwhere between Need for Speed an Burnout. At speed the cars are stable and reluctant to do more than swap lanes. Initial understeer is quickly prodded into throttle-controlled oversteer by a quick mid-corner lift or a tap of the handbrake button, and drifting is the best way to get around corners while avoiding civilian traffic.
There’s a pleasing day-night cycle and some lovely weather effects. Of particular note are the late night races through thunderstorms. It can get seriously dark, and you’ll rely heavily on your headlghts. Take them out with a few front-on smashes and you’ll be picking your way around the course blind. Not a smart thing to do when you’re weaving through traffic, police and fellow racers in an Italian supercar on a country back road. Pretty exciting though.
Indeed “exciting” seems to be the watchword throughout Need For Speed Hot Pursuit. It might borrow heavily from its two parent series, but when it combines their best attributes to create a game where the ratio of thrills to grind is this far in favour of the former I, for one, am certainly not complaining.