The Need for Speed brand name hasn’t meant much since it became a schizophrenic social outcast. Is it a street racer? Is it a sim? No it’s a cash cow. Enter Criterion to create a Need for Speed game about one thing and one thing alone. Fittingly, that’s speed.
Hot Pursuit is fast. Even driving the tamer breed of cars, cars capable of reaching pitiful speeds orbiting the 158mph mark, the world cascades by in a haze of colour and petrified civilians. Car handling is less slippery than in Burnout but you’re still free to draft round bends with the acceleration held firmly down. Piloting a machine like the suicidal Bugatti Veyron through a twisting mountain pass creates that treading-on-thin-ice effect that is the pulse of all Criterion games. Risk is reward and there’s little more risk involved than not bothering with the brakes. Suffice to say it’s non-stop edge of your seat stuff.
Of course, if you’d already played any of Criterion’s vast catalog of arcade racers you’d have probably assumed that already.
The 100+ events that make up Hot Pursuit are split between two separate campaigns, one for racers and one the police, the former boasting the lion’s share. Housed within the campaigns are the familiar blend of races, time trials and preview events that allow you to test-drive some of the more exotic cars early on in the career (although these are just thinly veiled time trials). Police have interceptor events; one-on-one stakeouts against a rogue racer while the racers have standard races against one another.
But the best events are those where the two sides clash fully: the hot pursuits. Playing as the police is like an episode of Traffic Cops: No Mercy Edition; a case of stop the racers at any cost including, but not limited to, driving into the back of another car at 250mph. Seacrest’s finest clearly have no budget issues either as they’re more than content lining up a wall of Porsches as a million dollar roadblock. Economic crisis? Not in Seacrest County.
The dynamic between racers and the police is deft. The racers’ primary goal is to survive, secondary to be first to make it to the finish line. The police have to stop them. It’s as simple as that but the simplicity is integral.
Both sides have a limited selection of weapons to wield against the other. Roadblocks, helicopter assistance, EMP blasts and spike strips form the police arsenal. The racers have access to the EMP and the spike strips as well as a jammer which blocks EMP blasts and, inexplicably, causes spike strips to evaporate. The EMP requires a brief lock-on period and doesn’t deal too much damage while the police helicopter is indisputably a product of the United States army because I lost count of the amount of times it dropped spike strips directly in front of my racing line rather than the racers’. Friendly fire aside, the weapons each serve a valuable purpose, there’s no chaff and more importantly no blue shell.
The fictional world of Seacrest County is the backdrop. Unlike Burnout Paradise there’s no free roam component between races; the events instead accessed through a detailed map screen and save for a sprinkling of shortcuts, races are linear A to B affairs. Seacrest County isn’t as charismatic or memorable as Paradise City, notably devoid of the many ramps and secrets dotted about Burnout’s wonderful world, but the tracks form an eclectic mix of tight country roads, curvaceous mountain passes and long desert straights perfect for maxing out speed.
Criterion hasn’t skimped on the vehicles either with more than 50 divided into five classes. For car aficionados there’s a sexy voiceover on the car selection screen that details each speed machine in a flurry of technical jargon; words like cabriolet and an abundance of others I don’t understand are thrown around by a sultry female if you’re inclined to listen.
Chances are you won’t be though because Hot Pursuit is a game ingeniously designed to keep you fixated on the next race. A neatly incorporated ranking system is the first salvo; post race you’re rewarded with XP for all manner of things – position, vanquishing friend scores, driving skill etc. There’s a separate ranking tree for both the police and the racers but both reward you with new cars, races and ranks. Weapons are also upgraded based on how successful you are with them over time. What that amounts to is a constant feeling of progression that will have you just-one-more’ing well into the night.
But Criterion’s masterstroke – and a feature that will no doubt weave its way into all future arcade racers – is the Autolog. The Autolog transforms Need for Speed into the greatest multiplayer single player game ever made.
Autolog is the beating heart of Hot Pursuit, a hub of races, scores and leaderboards that anchors every aspect of Hot Pursuit in one convenient place. At first glance it’s a 3D map chock full of events you can jump between and enter at whim. But it’s so much more than that. On that same map sit leaderboards for every race so you’re always aware of friend scores. It means that you’re racing not only the AI but friends too. First place on the podium is no longer enough and in one of many strokes of ingenuity, friends are able to challenge one another and the AI voiceover is quick to blurt out when someone has eclipsed one of your own precious records.
Every aspect of Hot Pursuit is accessed through the Autolog, meaning as long as you’re connected to the internet and have at least one buddy with the game you’re always going to be vying for leaderboard positions. It infuses Hot Pursuit with something that shames Facebook integration, makes youtube accessibility seem superfluous and trumps all other attempts to merge social networking with gaming.
So what doesn’t work? The obligatory EA soundtrack demands to be muted early on. Prolonged loading times between races contradict the engaging nature of the Autolog and the races and are exasperated by some gratuitous mini cut-scenes prior to each race. Later, when events become trickier and every misstep is a cue to restart, the elongated restart process becomes Hot Pursuit’s bane, especially when you’re forced to watch the opening video again (although you can skip it, the game loads during the video so you’re always watching 10 seconds or so before you’re back in). Trials HD got it so right, Hot Pursuit by comparison so wrong.
But even that seems trivial in the grand scheme of Criterion’s accomplishments.
Hot Pursuit is a bravura arcade racer and the Autolog feature is surely one that will be ham-fisted into every arcade racer released in the near future. In fact it’s hard to imagine a racing game that doesn’t push social competition to the forefront of its design after Hot Pursuit.