Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit - Review

   22/11/2010 at 08:50       Phil May       9 COMMENTS. - Score 5/5
 - Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit, EA, Criterion Games, Supercars, Autolog

I'm not really sure who to thank for the genius decision to put Criterion up for development duties on Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit. An unseen executive at EA perhaps, tired of seeing the same balance sheet and terrible sales for EA's most famous ritually abused racing series. Perhaps Criterion themselves offered their services and told EA that they could turn the series around.

Turn it around they have, not just delivering a Need for Speed game that erases the bitter taste of this generation's offerings in their entirety, but offering up arguably the best Need for Speed game yet.

It's not rocket science is it, when every single gaming forum or collective of gamers is screaming at you to take the series back to what it used to be all about - high powered supercars being chased by equally high powered supercop cars. If that was on the design sheet from day one with previous offerings, perhaps things might not have gone the way of The Fast and the Turdlicious for so many years.

Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit gives players the chance to exercise both halves of their split personalities. On the one hand, you can join other illegal racers in seeing just how far you can push the envelope in your expensive sports car. On the other hand you can fight for justice, and join fictional Seacrest County's thin blue line of law enforcement as hot fuzz, aiming to take down errant boy racers by any means necessary.

When you first kick off in Career mode you're introduced to the one part of the game that's probably had the widest press coverage (and deservedly so), the Autolog. This genius blend of social networking, Xbox Live (or PSN) link-ups and testosterone-fuelled bragging rights is the key to why this iteration of the Need for Speed series should be held up as a model for any driving game. Though the ideas in it aren't particularly new (Blur did something very similar earlier on in the year and I'm surprised that Activision haven't piped up and claimed Criterion ripped Bizarre Creations off), the execution of Autolog is so seamless and integral a part of the game that you'll hope to god that every other developer copies the idea wholesale.

Autolog keeps track of your career progress, but more than that, it takes your friends list and turns your gaming buddies into fierce, aggravating competition. Every time you win a race and top the leaderboards for that particular challenge, you can bet that some other bugger is hot on your heels ready to steal your crown at a moment's notice.

Autolog doesn't just track the competition, it rubs your nose in it every time someone successfully trounces your time on a challenge, to the point where you'll be seriously considering taking a hatchet to your friends list to get rid of particularly skilled friends who keep kicking you off the top spot (Curse you AsphaltOnline :)

Diving deeper into the game, races take place in various locations around Seacrest County, and in varying weather conditions so even though repetition does set in eventually, there's a fair amount of diversity in the game that should ensure offline players get as much fun out of the whole thing as online players do. What's more, Seacrest County's sunday drivers are out in force to ensure that just as you're about to nail the most fantastic time on a particular track or area, some slow old bastard in a Nissan Micra will inevitably pull out in front of you on a two-lane stretch, turning your shining supercar into a smoking heap of twisted metal.

This sort of realistic (and annoying) AI behaviour is even more prevalent in races against AI competitors. Many's the time I've found myself being used as the bumper in a game of car pinball, as a competitor sideswipes a slowcoach directly into the path of my speeding car. In cases like this, the fact that the game has a quick restart is a godsend.

It's easy to see streaks of Criterion's other racing series, Burnout, hidden deep within the folds of this Need for Speed title. Crashes, takedowns and near misses have been ported across but the game's a little more forgiving if you accidentally brush another car. In fact it's positively encouraged, particularly if you're a copper. Brutalising the opposition by using your car as a direct weapon is a necessary tactic and one that pays off as long as you can stay on the road long enough to get ahead after you've trashed a competitor.

Both sides of the law get other offensive weapons in their arsenal too. Cops get to use spike strips, Electromagnetic Pulse Generators, Road Blocks and Chopper support in order to bring errant racers to book, while lawbreaking speedsers get to use EMPs, Jammers, Spike Strips and Turbo Boost to outrun and outgun the boys in blue. Each offensive or countermeasure system has a limited lifespan and takes a while to build back up again once used.

Cars are also fitted with a trickle-charging Nitrous system, a gauge that fills up every time you perform a particularly skilful move (anything from driving down the wrong side of the road at speed, to sending a cop or speeder off the road to their doom). Nitrous becomes your lifeline for shaving off an extra few seconds from your time here and there, or for getting quickly back into a race if you spin off or get shunted.

Car handling is fairly hefty but fans of the Need for Speed series will feel like they're on familiar territory because this is pretty much how even the best games in the series have handled - with a slight tendency for understeer, and with cars fairly heavy and slightly unresponsive at times. Each of the fantastic dream cars you'll unlock does feel slightly different to the others though, and some of the nippier supermodels are a lot better, handling-wise.

One way in which the games do differ from their ancestors is that drift has been more successfully implemented in this iteration of Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit. Sticking a car sideways into a corner is easy and feels fairly natural. Over-reliance on drift rather than speeding through corners with your balls out, no brakes, will affect your times though so drift should definitely be used sparingly.

It's worth pointing out that I didn't get time to dive into the multiplayer side of the game, but up to 6 racers are catered for in a variety of multiplayer modes including the absolutely essential cops vs robbers style stuff.

Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit is an utterly fantastic game. If you've been put off by the series meandering levels of quality over the past ten years or so, you're in for a treat as Criterion have successfully distilled the essence of Need for Speed, delivering a game that doesn't just return to the series' roots, but builds on the solid foundations laid down by previous Hot Pursuit games (from the PS1 era).

Sadly, it seems EA has decided that next year's NFS title won't be following in the footsteps of Hot Pursuit but will put things back on the track with Need for Speed: Shift 2. The same exec that gave Criterion the gig probably needs a kick up the arse for dropping that sizeable clanger as Shift certainly never felt like it belonged anywhere near the NFS brand. Hopefully though someone somewhere will give Criterion another shot at doing another Need for Speed game in the future, as they've done a perfect job rebooting the series and providing arguably the best racing game of the year bar none.

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