Going back to the series' roots, Criterion has re-envisioned the classic Need for Speed gameplay with exotic cars, striking scenery, and exciting escapes from the highway patrol. Is this new Hot Pursuit a turbo boost for the series, has the much-admired Burnout developer sullied its good name?
Your career in Hot Pursuit takes you across fictional Seacrest County as both a cop and a racer, with two separate paths unfurling as you complete events for each role. As you win events, bust racers, and set new times, you'll unlock weapons and vehicles specific to that path. There are 60 events for racers and 48 for the police, ranging from straightforward races to frantic hot pursuits. Duels and interceptions pit you against a single wily opponent, and preview events let you try out high-end cars before you've unlocked them. Instead of navigating an open world, races are selected from points on a map, but the roads are all connected, and you can drive freely across Seacrest County with any car in your garage.
Hot Pursuit's car selection favors exotics and supercars, totaling 100 in all, split evenly between cops and racers. There's some overlap, but the police do get unique rides like the Carbon Motors E7 and the new Ford Interceptor that's due to replace the classic cop car, the Crown Victoria. There are no tuning or customization options beyond choosing from pre-set paint jobs, and Ferrari cars are notably missing.
Online multiplayer options are straightforward. You can engage in eight-player races or split into teams of cops and racers, and interceptor events let you go one-on-one to bust a friend. Experience carries over between single and multiplayer, so you can compete with the same cars and continue building your level online.
Friends leaderboards are nothing new, but Hot Pursuit's autolog feature takes it to the next level, keeping that data in your face at all times. Every time you finish a race, you'll see how you rank against friends. When you're selecting a car, friends' names are displayed under the ones they used, and you'll get extra experience anytime you top an event leaderboard. Whenever a friend beats your time, the autolog feature will notify you, and it's as simple as hitting the right trigger to jump back to that event to reclaim your crown.
Similar to a social networking site, the autolog features a wall that updates as friends set new times, letting you post comments and photos. The system also suggests new friends, allowing you to create a community for Hot Pursuit separate from your main Xbox Live or PSN friends list. While it's a relatively simple difference, autolog changes the way you play the game, turning the entire career into an intensely competitive experience.
Like most games in the series, Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit has simple handling that lets you focus on dodging traffic, beating the cops, and drifting around corners. However, there are still plenty of nuances to master as you learn each course and vehicle. Some side routes are made for dodging the law rather than using as shortcuts and lower-riding cars slow down significantly in the dirt. The game also demands that you be more aware of how you use nitrous, encouraging you to save it to climb hills, go off-road, or recover from a crash. Like Burnout, racers gain nitrous for driving dangerously and slipstreaming behind other cars. Since cops are meant to protect and serve, danger isn't part of the equation, and you'll gain nitro simply by driving fast, and use it more for ramming than catching up.
Whether you're racing or trying to shut down the race, pursuits are intense. Each side has four weapons that are introduced and upgraded throughout the career, and they can be triggered with a simple tap of the control pad. Both sides have EMPs to blast drivers ahead and spike strips to drop in front of following drivers. Racers can use jammers to block EMPs or engage a powerful turbo function to rocket ahead. The police can call in road blocks or helicopters for back up, requiring racers to nimbly thread the eye of the needle while cops try to close the gaps.
It takes more than a single spike strip to eliminate a player, so you'll have to keep hitting the opposition to wear down their health. It's definitely strange at first, but it gives racers a fighting chance to make it to the finish line. Helicopters also seem unimpressive initially, as they simply drop oversized spike strips, but with upgrades, they can stay out longer, making several drops each time you call them out. Later events in the career challenge you by limiting your toolset, bringing stronger forces to bear against racers, and providing more wily and unpredictable drivers for cops to try to keep up with
Seacrest County is absolutely gorgeous, with sunny coastlines, rocky canyons, redwood forests, and snowy mountains. Each event has varying conditions, with rain, thunderstorms, and a day and night cycle that's in place as you free-drive. The world has an intricate level of detail with licensed cars populating the traffic, out of the way locations, and you even have control over your headlights and ignition if you should choose to drive in the dark or park and admire the flags waving in the breeze. Car models aren't top of the class and won't lose doors or exhibit extreme body crumpling, but they still look great and get convincingly beat up. Textures are sharp, reflections run smoothly, and all of this comes with a rock-solid visual performance unhindered by choppiness or pop-in. What it does lack is the stunning cockpit view introduced in Need for Speed Shift.
The audio package is similarly strong with powerful engines, bouncing pebbles, and cracks of thunder. The soundtrack is varied with rap, rock, and dance tunes playing during time trials and races, but when the cops give chase, the game switches to a more dramatic soundtrack to highlight the thrill of the hunt.
Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit is excellently crafted, letting you take the world's fastest cars across miles of stunning landscapes. Chases are exhilarating from either perspective, and the autolog feature completely changes how you compete with friends, keeping you hooked until you've wrecked all of their scores. If you've been waiting for the real Need for Speed to make a comeback, get ready to jump in the driver's seat.
Reviewed on Sony PlayStation 3.