Developer: Criterion Games
With the successful rebranding of Need for Speed as something a bit more serious with last year's NFS: Shift, EA might have wished they hadn't already tasked Criterion Games with taking on the old brand instead of working on a new Burnout game. But hell, we were all more excited than we'd like to admit at the possibility of a Burnout/NFS hybrid even if EA couldn't be arsed coming up with a new name. But is it a Brangelina or a three-thumbed hillbilly?
Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit straps you into the seat of some of the world’s hottest cars as both a racer and a police officer in the fictional US location, Seacrest County. Sea crest consists of many, many desert roads, beaches and mountain passes. But mainly deserts. While the races take place on tarmac there are loads of shortcuts you can take to gain an advantage. Often they'll be more hazardous and over rough terrain, so you'll have to judge which ones work best for you and the car you're driving. There are even a few that may take longer than the original route, you'll have fun checking them all though.
Bounty points are rewarded for taking part in events and for your actions during them. There are extra points available if you can get a gold ranking too. These points level up your racer/officer and regularly award you new rides.
The Fast & The Fuzz
As a racer you’ll compete in standard races, duals and time trial events. More exciting though are the Hot Pursuits where you have to escape from the cops and still win a race. You have a few tricks to help you out; you can nitro boost into them to cause damage or you can use rear-deployed spike-strips, EMP blasts to hammer the electrics and stun them and a jammer to mess up their map and screw with the chase helicopter's tracking. Later on you’ll also unlock a turbo boost that will send you tearing down the road at an unmatchable speed.
When playing as a member of the Seacrest County Police Department you don’t take part in races, it's 'protect and serve' remember. Instead you have Rapid Responses which are like time trials where seconds are added for hitting traffic (fair enough), but also for touching the fences at the sides of the road, which is complete bollocks and makes this mode utterly miserable as you watch your time swell. But you do get to blow off some steam with the Hot Pursuit events from the right side of the law. Your goal is to take out every racer with blunt force trauma or with your own weapons. You share spike-strips and EMPS with the racers but you also have a few exclusive toys. Road Blocks can be set up ahead, with only a narrow gap for the racer and yourself to get through. Early on, you’re more likely to hit it than the racer, as they often fire through the gap with little trouble. Helicopters can be called in too, to keep track of racers and drop in spike-strips.
All weapons and gadgets are activated with the d-pad. You get a limited number of them and usually different mixes too depending on the event. As you work through the events you'll unlock better versions of them too.
The camera pulls away from you to show one of your successful weapon strikes (think Burnout) but it often returns, putting you in control again, at the worst possible time such as mid-corner or just about to hit some traffic. You can’t turn it off either which is really annoying when it causes a race-screwing accident.
The new Autolog system tracks the times your friends completed an event in and displays a leaderboard at the event selection screen. This adds to the replay value if you're very competitive, but it's hardly the revolution that EA are making it out to be seeing as NFS: Shift and Burnout: Paradise had similar features. It's just a lot more in your face now with facebook-style notifications and reminders if your time has recently been beaten. You might be tempted to delete a few friends that are a little too good.
With all the emphasis on the Autolog system and competing against your friend’s times it’s a shame you can’t retry most events straight away. This is mainly because whenever you unlock something like a vehicle, part or level rank, you have to view a brief reward cutscene that then returns you to the events menu.
Sights & Sounds
Graphically the game scores well with shiny cars and smooth textures for everything along the road, even at drastic speeds. The nicest touch was the snow blowing off the top of a mountain pass tunnel, it caused more than a few rubber-necking accidents. The traffic cars are a bit basic though and many of the routes feel too samey, slightly uninteresting and overly familiar. Too many of them favour long straights over decent cornering sections too. Compared to Paradise City and the globe-straddling locations of the PS2 Burnout games, they're the very definition of meh. And nobody wants to race through 15 miles of meh at a time.
The music is worth mentioning too as it's unbelievably awful. Racing games should be full of heart-pounding rock or adrenaline-soaked dance music, not the safe pap found here. One Pendulum track is about as good as it gets. Still, it's better than the FIFA games.
Criterion have really toned down the handling compared to the Burnout games, possibly due to the presence of real motoring names. The cars feel much heavier, almost to the point of being sluggish. They're quite reluctant to drift and they lack the crucial responsiveness you'd want when avoiding oncoming traffic. It's far from poor, it's just, well, not that fun.
Criterion have remembered that we enjoy nitrous boosting though and you earn it with the familiar methods of driving on the other side of the road, near misses, slipstreaming and drifting. Cops don't earn it for oncoming traffic, but do for near misses with civilian traffic which is a bit unbalanced, but it fills up naturally over time too. For both sides it takes surprisingly long to build up and you can't chain boosts or earn more while boosting. It's like Criterion have been shackled with the chains of reality.
There's a decent range of cars though, ranging from muscle cars, sports, super and hyper ones. You can see what car your friends used to get a top time too, making it easier to attempt to beat them.
Racing game veterans will be familiar with the concept of rubber-band racing and slyly scripted races, both of which invade the action here. No matter how well you race, sometimes you're just not allowed to catch up to the rest of a race pack until a certain point in the race or get far ahead of the cops in a pursuit. It's really frustrating seeing cars suddenly zoom off into the horizon without them using any boost or turbo. I can understand Criterion trying to keep the races feeling competitive, but they feel so blatantly staged at times.
The surprisingly difficult nature of the game can be quite off-putting, fortunately playing online feels like a much fairer playing field thanks to people's unpredictable nature.
The races are fine, but the Hot Pursuit events are absolute multiplayer gold. You'll be swapping sides each time, trying to get to the end as a racer and trying shut down a race as the cops. Playing as the cops is very much a team effort, but there are a few morons out there trying to barge you off the road as soon as the pursuit starts.
With the vehicles being able to handle a decent number of crashes before losing, everyone's got a fair shot at success. Pursuits on shorter roads will suit the racers more as they don't have to survive for as long. Hurtling towards that finish line is epic in all the right ways, especially when the racer's on their last legs and an officer is desperately trying to reach him before the finish line.
Bounty points can be earned online too, which can be a much more exciting way to unlock the game’s cars if you get fed up with the single-player game. Online events are very smooth graphically and technically, with none of that weird graphical twitching that you sometimes see when other players are drifting.
To be honest the online action, is considerably more fun than the single-player game, which clumsily stamps all over the line between a decent challenge and fun. We're looking forward to seeing EA's upcoming Shift 2, but perhaps it's time Criterion got to work on a new Burnout game.
Killer online modes
Autolog system is great for compulsive competitiveness
Tougher than most NFS games, so it will last a while...
...but is it a bit too tough, especially if you want to Gold everything?
A-B tracks lack ambition and originality
Rubber-band / scripted racing at its most obvious
The Short Version: For the most part it's lacking the fun factor of other racing games when played offline. Get online though and the Hot Pursuit events come alive with thrilling chases that offer more excitement than most racing titles. The Autolog system is great to consistently compete with your fiends for the best times too. Just shy of essential, but worth a try.