Can you remember when Need For Speed meant something? It was a very long time ago and most of us have come to accept that the series has been skidding down a very steep slope. You see, it's becoming increasingly difficult to make an arcade racer stand out from the crowd, and even when you do, there's always a chance that people will end up ignoring it. Just take a look at what happened to Bizarre Creations at the end of last year, the people who brought us Project Gotham Racing and Blur. Good games don't necessarily lead to good results, and when you consider how mediocre past entries of Need For Speed have been, it becomes evident that big brands are putting the little people out of business. However, it seems that Electronic Arts has finally realised that their core racing franchise has been under-performing so they've hired Criterion Games to develop Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit. Since the original Burnout in 2001, they've been at the pinnacle of arcade racing so they're clearly the right team to get the job done. But have they succeeded?
Yes and no. Mostly yes, however the feeling you get from playing Hot Pursuit is slightly more mixed than you might have thought. For the sake of keeping the focus on analysis, let's talk about everything that that makes Hot Pursuit a must-buy for racing fans. Firstly, you'll notice that the game looks stunning. It's not too far behind Forza 3 in terms of quality, the only thing holding it back is the occasional blocky environmental texture but that matters little when you're driving past at break-neck speeds. Amazingly, even when you're tearing it up through a forest, Hot Pursuit's frame rate never drops and locations are truly gorgeous. Then you have the real babes of Need For Speed, the ones with curvy bodies and a great set of... wheels. We all love the design and engineering behind each and every vehicle, so don't be surprised if you end up drooling during a race. All of the cars, whether it's a simple Nissan or a Bugatti Veyron, are amazing to look at. The detail remains consistent even when you zoom in. Combine that with a slick head-up display and user friendly menus, leaving you with the most polished Need For Speed title in years. So it definitely looks the part, but visuals are worthless if the gameplay can't stand up on its own.
There's nothing to worry about as far as the mechanics are concerned, this is a Criterion game after all. Burnout 3 is the most obvious influence that springs to mind here. The vehicles have a genuine weight to them and you feel powerful when the pedal is slammed against the floor. Races are pretty straight forward, so you'll either be evading the police, or chasing the fleeing felons. From the main map in career mode, you can select events from either side, but progression for each has been kept separate. If you drive with more flair, or if you eliminate racers, or if you do any number of other actions - you'll gain experience and rank up. Racers will become more wanted, and police officers will become more respectable. Essentially, this is exactly the same as the Kudos system from Project Gotham Racing, and the more time you spend with Hot Pursuit, the more you'll realise that it plucks plenty of ideas from rivals in the genre.
Mario Kart and more recently, Blur, incorporated brilliant weapon systems to coincide with the driving. Hot Pursuit does the exact same thing. Your artillery is semi-realistic (activated by pressing the directional pad); spike strips and road blocks are the most common, while EMP's give you a chance to pick out and target the driver of your choice. The more damage you cause with each of these fancy tools, the more efficient they become. For instance, spike strips become wider and EMP's will have more range. Obviously the idea is to make drivers more aware and play with a tactical edge, but the weapons are a bit of a gimmick really. If it wasn't for the superb handling and the high-octane action, then Hot Pursuit would be another average and forgettable entry to the Need For Speed franchise.
Strip out all of the sparks and destruction, every piece of shiny metal and scenic view, just appreciate Hot Pursuit for what it achieves in adrenaline fueled racing. The emphasis is on power, especially when it comes to drifting. You can squeeze the right trigger tightly, tap the left and then plough around the corner. When you're playing a Criterion game that feels just right, it's almost impossible to consider buying anything else and when you hit top gear, Hot Pursuit is an absolute pleasure. Career mode offers plenty of unlockable content and a tremendously well implemented leaderboard system called the 'Autolog'. From here, you can interact with friends and post new times - again, nothing new, but something that Criterion manages to integrate seamlessly alongside everything else.
Hot Pursuit's lifespan is lengthy when you're playing it on your own, however, the online elements work so well that it's easy to lose track of your progression. All of the race types are available for up to eight players, and any experience you earn will be combined with whatever you acquired offline. Teams are divided between cops and racers, and the racing always remains intense. Nudging your opponent into a roadblock never gets old. The game handles full lobbies very well, because it needs to, otherwise the collision detection would make it unplayable. Most of the weapons work well too, except the spike strips which are often deployed too slowly and miss their target. Apart from that, Hot Pursuit is one of the smoothest online racers out there.
Now that you've probably been convinced to buy Hot Pursuit, it's time to face some harsh truths. Although the career mode is quite comprehensive, there isn't an awful lot of depth. You can't customize any of the cars apart from changing the colour, and the whole 'Cop vs. Criminal' racing style does become repetitive. Different race types try their best to mix it up but you're still doing the same thing over and over again. Start the race, flag the attention of the cops, battle, rinse and vice versa. In fairness, this is a problem with most arcade racers but you have to understand that you won't get the same amount of value compared to the likes of Forza 3 or Gran Turismo 5. The soundtrack doesn't help either, since when has hip-hop been enjoyable to drive to? What happened to traditional, hard rockin' blues? One or two songs try their best to redeem the lackluster music, but you would be much better off having an iPod in the background. When a chase begins, the soundtrack evaporates and is replaced by a more cinematic track. It's an attempt to make everything seem a little bit more... 'epic', but the sensation doesn't last. On a final side note, Hot Pursuit doesn't have a proper in-car view, which is a pretty ridiculous omission these days.
All of the minor nuisances aside, we're still talking about an excellent racing game that fans will get plenty of enjoyment from. Hot Pursuit is easily the best Need For Speed game since 1994 and there's a lot to like, but it will never be remembered as a classic piece of Criterion craftsmanship. That's a difficult (and possibly stupid) thing to say, but when it comes down to bare bones racing, Hot Pursuit doesn't offer many new ideas. What it does, very well, is copy and finely tune ideas from other racers and put a shiny new layer of EA paint over them. Mind you, the series is definitely heading in the right direction with Criterion, and this was one badly needed reboot. Let's see where the UK developer takes Need For Speed in 2011, but for now, Burnout 3 remains the long-standing champion of arcade racers.