Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit, the latest iteration in Electronic Arts long-running racing franchise, is about as polished and viscerally satisfying a racing game as you’re likely to find. Criterion Games brings its years of experience working on the over-the-top Burnout series and uses that to craft a unique racing experience that perfectly straddles the line between NFS and Burnout. While this balancing act can be frustrating at times, Hot Pursuit delivers an experience that racing fans won’t want to miss…as long as they’re willing to compromise a bit.
The world of Hot Pursuit is one that will instantly be familiar to old-school Need for Speed fans, in that it’s all about experiencing the blistering fast dynamics of cops and illegal street racers, pure and simple. Both sides feature their own campaign, and you can jump freely between them at will. Even though cops and racers have similar weapons at their disposal (signal jammer vs. road block, turbo vs. helicopter support), and the driving feels basically the same on both sides, as you’ll drive standard and police versions of some of the world’s most elite cars right out of the gate, being able to pick and choose how much or how little of each campaign you want to play keeps the gameplay varied and always in your control.
Adding to the game’s variety is the picturesque and expansive setting of Seacrest County. The picturesque coastal city is a stunning mash up of various California-inspired settings, and as such, lends itself extremely well to lengthy and environmentally diverse drives and chases. Transitioning from snow-swept mountains to lush redwood forests in a single race never ceases to satisfy or amaze, nor do the gorgeous lighting and weather effects that bring the world to vivid life. Best of all, if you don’t feel like sticking to the designated paths of the set events, you can always just freely cruise around the massive game world at your leisure, without having to worry about cops busting you or having to bust lawbreaking speedsters. This is kind of a shame, though, since I would have liked to have been able to “stumble across” races in a more freeform fashion, but I guess that would have required a whole other level of design that Criterion probably didn’t have the time to implement.
As a cop, you’re main objective is to bring your own brand of vehicular justice to individual racers or groups of racers who think they are above the law. You’ll also be test driving cars beyond your current pay grade or attempting to drive from one point to another to prevent a racer from getting away without taking any damage along the way. These Rapid Response challenges are the weakest of the bunch, and in a way sort of represent the game’s primary overarching problem. But more on that in a second.
On the racer side, you not only have to battle it out with the cops, but with other racers looking to raise their notoriety as well. The race types are your standard fair (time trial, duel, race, etc.), but by far the most intense are those that require you to battle other racers and cops. These races are downright mad as you fight for position at 200 MPH while managing your available weapons to ensure they are used at the proper time and against the proper targets (A spike strip against a cop early on vs. an EMP blast against an AI opponent towards the end of the race?). This balancing act gives the racing an added layer of intensity and ensures that no two races are ever entirely alike.
And everything you do in the game earns you bounty. As you earn more bounty, you unlock more vehicle classes and you upgrade/unlock weapons. You don’t have to win or even place every race to gain points and level up, so even if you lose, you don’t feel it was a total waste of time. Best of all though is that you unlock cars and equipment throughout each level rank, not just when you level up, so you don’t have grind through an entire rank just to unlock one new car or weapon.
Chasing down fast and furious racers in your supped up, policified Lamborghini, or evading bloodthirsty cops at break-everything speeds, is everything you’d expect/want it to be. The cars feel a bit heavier than they do in Burnout, and while you are capable of dishing out plenty of car-flipping, Burnout-ish devastation, the cars themselves can take a lot more damage than they can in a Burnout game, a fact that you’ll constantly be reminded of each and every time you ram into a scofflaw, expecting to see a spectacular takedown, only to watch as your car bounces off the intended target and careens into a guard rail or oncoming traffic.
The game does a fantastic job in its presentation and design to be blend of two distinct racing genres, but I couldn’t help wanting it to be one or the other, especially when it came to bringing down other cars. Spike strips, road blocks, EMP blasts, and helicopter reinforcements help clear up some of this confusion, and they each provide their own unique solution to high-speed problems at hand, but ramming cars into submission is still very much a crucial component in bringing punk racers to justice. So it’s a problem that you’ll either have to just get over, or struggle with for the duration of the game.
This also leads to what seems like an unavoidable problem with all racing games, and that’s the computer AI. While the rubberbanding isn’t as prevalent as in other games, there is a certain degree of forgiveness afforded to computer-controlled cars that is not afforded to you. Ramming into an enemy car will almost assuredly cause you to lose some bit of control, as well it should, however the computer rarely, as long as it’s not a takedown collision, exhibits any signs of being hit. Yet when the computer hits you, not only do they remain in total control, it will take everything in your power to keep your car on the road. Thankfully these frustrations can be alleviated by playing other human players online.
By far the most substantial new addition to the Need for Speed franchise is the new Autolog feature. Not only does Autolog keep track of all of your campaign accomplishments, but it automatically updates and compares your times with those of your friends. It’s essentially a way for players to compete against each other offline when they aren’t able to go head-to-head in online multiplayer. Autolog will also recommend races based on how you play, and give you the chance to instantly jump into a particular challenge to try and best your pal’s newly posted time.
Autolog also includes some social networking elements as well like a wall for posting personalized messages about your latest racing result. You can also comment on other people’s walls, send them in-game action shots or posed shots of your favorite rides. These features won’t be used by everyone, but they are worked into the game seamlessly enough that if you wanted to, you could without much hassle, which is definitely appreciated.
Even though NFS and Burnout fans will have to compromise a little in terms of their expectations and preferences, Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit is easily one of the best racing titles of the year, and should not be missed by either camp. As long as you keep reminding yourself what the game is as opposed to what it seems like it should be, you’ll be fine. There’s also the little matter of it being an absolute blast to play, it looking phenomenal, and Autolog being a fantastic new addition to the NFS series.
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