Remember when Need for Speed was about racing down the open road in an open-top exotic whilst evading the police rather than who has the most tasteless body kit? Of course you don’t, because the last half a decade or so has seen the once unbeatable racing franchise begin to rust as each iteration became progressively low in quality.
Thankfully, last year saw a turning point with Need for Speed Shift, a thoroughbred track racer that started the restoration process. I rather liked it, too, yet I was still longing for that classic, awe-inspiring Need for Speed experience I grew up with: I even went as far as pleading for a new Hot Pursuit game at the end of my Shift review last year.
Mercifully it seems that someone out there was listening, as here I am, over a year later, playing the rebranded Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit (the first game in the series to bear the Hot Pursuit subtitle in eight years), with development duties this time handed to the talented creators of Burnout, Criterion Games. The bonkers Burnout series remains a firm favourite of mine as well, so the prospect of Need for Speed merging with Burnout was positively salivating to say the least. After all, if there’s one developer that’s up for the task of rebooting Need for Speed, it’s surely Criterion: the chase is on.
The location for your driving delinquency is Seacrest County, a vast locale that’s brimming with variety, from bustling freeways to twisting mountain roads and rural forests that are clearly a direct nod to the classic Hot Pursuit games. Spanning an area larger than that of Burnout Paradise, it’s very picturesque thanks to a particularly sleek graphics engine and is teaming with useful shortcuts to outwit your pursuers.
Determined to disturb the tranquillity however are the renegade racers, who fearlessly tear down the streets at absurd velocity in all manner of high performance supercars. There are certainly no slouches in Hot Pursuit’s garage, which largely consists of contemporary exotics including the Aston Martin One-77, Koenigsegg CCXR and the Mercedes-Benz SLS, along with a handful of classics such as the McLaren F1.
Do not think that the opposing police force is of no match, however. While the traditional Ford Crown Victoria makes a whimpering appearance, it turns out that the SCPD has an enormously inflated budget that can afford fleets of Lamborghini and Bugatti Veyron police cars – almost every car available to racers is also accessible as a police car. It’s a perfect setup that marks the OTT tone for the game that only Criterion could pull off with such self-assurance.
In contrast to Burnout Paradise’s open-world structure, Hot Pursuit’s career mode is driven by selecting events from different locations across the map, resulting in a more focused gameplay experience. The more challenging later events are locked, but you can play any of the available events in any order.
Playable racer and SCPD events are also designated into separate careers, which run on a familiar, level based ranking system (labelled as wanted level or bounty depending if you’re a racer or SCPD). Additional cars and rewards are awarded as you progress, although it sometimes feels like the game is being overly generous, spoiling you with a brand new car after virtually every event. Nevertheless, you always feel like you are making progress and the new streamlined structure compliments the arcade style.
If there’s one gripe I have it’s that the career needs a single race mode, as there is no option to simply dive into a custom game with your own event, car and track of choice. While a free roam option is available, it serves little purpose other than familiarising yourself with track routes: randomly triggered pursuits, for example, could have made free roaming a more worthwhile venture.
Burnout’s influence is readily apparent: the handling is sharp but arcadey and initiating drifts is as easy as double tapping the brake and accelerator. As with Burnout, driving recklessly will fill up your nitrous boost, and as you drift around blind bends at breakneck speed you feel that familiar sense of intoxicating danger that no developer has replicated quite like Criterion.
The staple Hot Pursuit events are the quintessential highlights, which have you simultaneously racing against three other drivers whilst fending off the pursuing police intent on subduing you with dogged determination. The result is an unrelentingly heart-pounding game of cat and mouse at 200 mph, evoking a sense of tension that is only amplified by the dramatic orchestral soundtrack triggered during pursuits.
Playing as either side of the law is tremendous fun, but both offer distinctly different gameplay styles to help bolster the variety. These cops are utterly ruthless and will stop at nothing at using brute force to bring these degenerates to justice: “annihilated” would be more appropriate than “busted,” as each arrest usually results in a horrific accident for their heinous crimes of, well, speeding,
Crashes play an integral role in Hot Pursuit, since the most effective way for making arrests is simply slamming into the fleeing felon with well-timed nitrous boosts. Once enough damage has been inflicted, the camera swoops round to reveal a delicious slow motion wreck in a similar vein to Burnout’s takedowns – it’s a cross between Burnout’s Road Rage and the forgotten Chase HQ. Of course, the police are just as susceptible to these attacks, though it sometimes feels a bit far-fetched when your lightweight supercar is capable of taking out a heavy duty Crown Vic designed to withstand such force.
There’s no doubting that Hot Pursuit’s wreckage is a consistently glorious sight, the slow motion pans accentuating the shower of debris and sparks. The damage modelling isn’t as extensive as Burnout Paradise however: the cars might not mould into unrecognisable shapes of twisted metal, but still suffer impressive deformation for licensed cars. It’s a sight that wouldn’t look out of place on Wrecked Exotics.
The acute line between racers and the SCPD is reinforced by the selection of gadgets at your disposal. Both sides have access to up to four powerups (which are sometimes restricted in events and upgraded as you rank up) which can be absolutely pivotal to the success of an event – racers and cops have access to the EMP and spike strip, the former delivering a tonic blast that temporarily disables their car whereas spike stripes are deployed from the rear of the car to puncture tyres.
I can’t tell you how annoying the spike strip can be to the point it’s an inevitability if you linger behind the rear of a car for too long. The decision to also equip racers with spike stripes is an interesting one though – to me it feels like a perverse police tactic that should have been kept exclusive to the cops.
To complete your arsenal, the police can deploy helicopters that keep track of the suspect and lay down spike strips, and also setup road blocks with the smallest of gaps for you to spot in the heat of the moment. To counter these tactics, racers have the ability to jam police radars, thus preventing them from using any gadgets at the time, and initiate a top speed inducing turbo boost.
Since you can only carry a limited number of each gadget, there is a real element of strategy as efficient timing can be crucial. The limiting stock also makes it incredibly intense when you’re scrambling to reach the finish line without any gadgets remaining.
The remaining bulk of Hot Pursuit’s career is split up between rudimentary time trials and races, but don’t feel quite as exciting without the presence of the police – the more relaxed tone is again pulsated by the ambient music, which switches to a licensed soundtrack of rock and disco.
Then there’s Autolog, which aims to revolutionise the online racing community. The simple system acts as a social networking system of sorts, recommending new friends based on your performance and allowing you to write on each other’s virtual wall: I wonder where they got that idea from?
Indeed, the empowering influence of Bookface is evident, but it seems to work as I’ve already had several new friend requests. Its main aim is to destroy friendships however, by helpfully informing you whenever anyone on your friends list smugly beats your time on events, offering a very clever incentive to repeat events to avoid humiliation.
Hot Pursuit feels like it was designed for online play as, coupled with Autolog, it plays brilliantly with no apparent lag. Hot Pursuit mode again pits up to eight racers and cops but with added human rivalry making chases much more personal. Interceptor depletes the scale with one on one police pursuits but still retains the intensity because you can free roam the environment unlike in Hot Pursuit (meaning you can unexpectedly change direction) and single races are also available.
The only aspect that doesn’t move at such a blistering pace is the mandatory 20 second wait at the car selection screen – even if every player has already selected their car. I also wish it didn’t suffer from dementia and actually remember your last selected car in successive races.
Criterion’s daring revitalising of Need for Speed has paid off in spades, delivering one of the most white-knuckle driving experiences in recent memory: there’s simply nothing more alarming than having an imposing Lamborghini Reventón police car improaching your rear view mirror. All in all, it’s highly polished, maximum velocity, unadulterated arcade racing and chasing at its absolute finest.
The graphics are very slick throughout, maintaining a smooth sense of speed with lush environments and well designed car models. In short, it's one of the best looking arcade racers to date without a doubt.
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Playing Hot Pursuit recalls the intensity of both the early Need for Speed and modern Burnout titles with exemplary execution.
Hot Pursuit's sound design is wonderful and contains an impeccable attention to detail from the roaring engines that echo sublimely through tunnels and pulse-pounding orchestral soundtrack triggered during chases to the incidental police radio chatter.
There aren't that many event types, but the opposing racer and police events offer different gameplay mechanics and there are plenty of events to complete. Autolog ensures that repeating events is compulsory.
This is the Need for Speed I've been waiting for. With its electrifying blend of raw speed, intense pursuits, wince worthy crashes and revolutionary Autolog system, Hot Pursuit is an adrenaline-fueled rush that’s a sure contender for racing game of the year and the best Need for Speed in all too long.