In the world of arcade-style racers, the Need for Speed franchise is the undisputed king of the road. With over 100 million units sold in the series’ history, it’s easily the highest-grossing racing franchise, and among the top ten of all video game franchises. The series has seen a decline in quality of late, however, with Carbon, Pro Street, and Undercover all garnering less than favorable reviews. Last year, Need for Speed: Shift marked a rebound for the series, but the game lacked focus, and by trying to cater to both realistic and arcade racing fans, left both groups somewhat unsatisfied. Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit, the first NFS title developed by Burnout creators, Criterion, has no such problems, and plants its flag squarely in the “arcade” camp.
As it turns out, a Need for Speed game developed by Criterion is pretty much exactly what one would expect it to be. In fact, many will likely refer to the game as “Need for Speed: Burnout,” since it owes so much of its gameplay to the now defunct EA racing/crashing series. Taking the best elements of the classic 1998 game, Need For Speed III: Hot Pursuit, and Burnout Revenge, Hot Pursuit offers an extremely fast-paced and thrilling police chase experience that eclipses any and all of the games that influenced it.
While Hot Pursuit’s driving physics are far from a real driving simulation, some skill is still required to advance. Getting a grip on the floaty, drift-happy steering isn’t much of a chore, but expect to slam into a few walls and barriers early on. More difficult is mastering the game’s nitrous system, which rewards players for risky driving maneuvers with extra boost. Much like in the Burnout series, narrowly avoiding collisions, causing accidents, and driving on the wrong side of the road earns extra nitrous boost, which is used to accelerate more quickly. Balancing risk and safety with speed and aggression is the real fun of the game, and with different tracks, traffic patterns, and scenarios, each race offers a distinct challenge. Each course is loaded with alternate routes, and making wise use of these is essential to winning races. A word of warning; not all detours are shortcuts, and taking the wrong path can add valuable seconds to a player’s lap time.
Taking a minimalist approach to storytelling, Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit doesn’t bother explaining why you can play as either an illegal street racer or a high-speed cop, and it doesn’t need to. The game’s drop-in, play any time, quick session feel would likely suffer from any additional back-story or character development. The two opposing sides both gain access to ridiculously fast vehicles by completing challenges, and both groups gain weapons, like spike strips and EMPs, as well as unique weapons, like barricades and helicopter support for the cops, and a powerful turbo boost for racers. With two separate career paths to follow, Career mode is a somewhat diverse affair. Racers are entered into hotly contested competitions and time trials, while officers are tasked with breaking up races and reaching urgent backup calls quickly.
Beating challenge after challenge will reward players with new cars and new weapons, but a new feature, called the Autolog, is what will keep players coming back to retry levels again and again. The Autolog keeps track of your performances and compares them to your friends’. This keeps the spirit of competition strong, with the game constantly throwing your friends’ scores in your face, and recommending that you attempt to top them. Autolog also allows players to brag about their scores on a Facebook-like “wall,” adding extra incentive to trump your friends or put extra distance between your score and theirs.
Multiplayer modes consist of a head-to-head pursuit race, an eight-player straight ahead race, and Hot Pursuit mode, which pits four cops against four racers. All the modes work well, but Hot Pursuit is the real draw here. As a cop, players are tasked with wiping out all four racers before they reach the finish line. Racers, on the other hand, merely need to complete the race to win, and both sides can utilize all four of their weapons. It’s a lot of fun, and with online points contributing to your overall level, players can unlock tons of cars without ever touching the Career mode if they so choose.
Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit is a simply beautiful racer, featuring slick, polished visuals throughout every aspect of the game. Tons of real-world cars are represented here, and while there isn’t a Forza or Gran Turismo level of detail, each looks excellent, and provides an epic sense of speed. The various tracks that players race on are equally impressive, as are the cinematic flourishes that occur when taking out an opponent. The only misstep in the game’s presentation comes in the game’s audio, which can be a bit uneven. Crashes sound great, but engine sounds are somewhat generic, and feel reused by multiple cars.
With the exception of some overly long load screens and a bit of snapback computer AI, there’s not much about Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit that’s hard to recommend. By combining aspects of some of the best racing games ever, Criterion has crafted a high-speed experience that never ceases to thrill, and offers as much fun online as it does offline. Autolog is a brilliant addition that will likely (and hopefully) be mimicked by countless games from multiple genres, and it constantly urges players to improve their skills and scores. It’s not the deepest racer around, but it might be the most fun game available on four wheels this year.