Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit Review
Calling in Criterion to reinvigorate the Need For Speed franchise is one of the best decisions EA has made in a long time. Longtime developer Black Box continuously beat the Most Wanted formula into the ground in an attempt to recapture the magic of this generation’s first truly great racing title, and bringing in a seasoned developer to put a fresh spin on things will no doubt keep Need For Speed from becoming the embarrassment it very well started to be. Ironically, Criterion’s "fresh" spin was to take the series back to its roots, resurrecting the Hot Pursuit moniker and most importantly, the signature cops-versus-racers gameplay.
The game is broken up into two separate, sizable campaigns: Cops and Racers. Although it will ultimately come down to personal choice, I was far more interested in the Racer offering. There are five tiers in the campaign, each featuring increasingly powerful vehicles and longer, more dangerous tracks. The many missions you’ll take on include A-to-B races, time trials, duels, and the titular Hot Pursuit mode, which is where the game truly shines.
Hot Pursuit mode sees a number of racers attempting to cross the finish line first (or at all, in many cases), while also contending with an entire police force out to crush them. The police will use everything at their disposal -- road blocks, helicopters, spike strips, EMPs, and their own vehicles when all else fails -- in an attempt to bring the racers down. This three-way battle royale is extremely exciting, and the ability to launch a counter-attack with technology such as turbos, EMPs, and radar jammers gives you a fighting chance.
The officially licensed vehicles all feel suitably powerful and weighty in an arcade sort of way, but the game’s power-sliding will take some getting used to. I’m not asking for an on-rails system similar to Ridge Racer, but many cars don’t take corners well whatsoever, losing too much speed no matter how perfectly you drift. However, there are a handful of specific cars that handle like an absolute dream; I'll gladly sacrifice the engine power of more advanced vehicles for the ones with far superior handling.
As with many racing games, Hot Pursuit’s tracks are laden with shortcuts that are particularly integral to your survival and success. Although some shortcuts are actually deceitful dead ends, many of them are extremely useful and can help a struggling racer go from last to first, or a winning racer to extend his lead even further. In Hot Pursuit mode, it’s an excellent way to bypass police traps altogether. The downside is that if the other racers take the shortcuts too, you will be at a great disadvantage if you miss them or a police car rams you right when you were about to cut off to the side. Similarly, time trials and previews should not have included shortcuts as they’re basically mandatory at that point.
Part of what makes the whole experience so exhilarating are the superb visuals. Need For Speed and Burnout games have always looked exceptional, but this one is by far the best yet. For the first time ever, Criterion has gotten their hands on some of the most sought-after officially licensed exotics in the entire world. Aston Martins, Lamborghini, McLaren, and a slew of companies I can’t even pronounce.
Likewise, the virtual locales of Seacrest Country, ranging from the beach to the desert, are beautifully crafted. The number one reason Forza and other simulation racers bore me to tears are not because the cars don’t have frickin’ lazer beams attached, but because the tracks are so plain and repetitive. This is not the case in Hot Pursuit, as Criterion has truly outdone itself with the level design. Dynamic weather effects and time of day cycles round out the visual assault, proving to Polphony that it does not take five years to make a game with realistic rain.
The audio nearly rivals Split/Second’s remarkable, subwoofer-rumbling sound design, but the soundtrack should be turned off immediately. Seriously, who picks the music at EA? I guess we should take comfort that at least Avril Lavigne wasn’t included this time...
So what’s not to like about Hot Pursuit? It makes an extremely strong first impression that lasts for several hours, but it doesn’t take long for the cracks in the foundation to start to show through. The enemy AI is unfairly capable of inhuman feats, for example. Even after playing racing games all my life, I struggled to master Hot Pursuit’s drifting technique, but the AI will take every turn so perfectly that not only do they not loose speed, they actually gain a considerable amount upon exiting a corner. This problem is mirrored in their respawning capabilities as well. In one duel, I was driving alongside my rival at maximum speed when they suddenly hit a car and crashed, hard. I not only continued along the straightaway at max speed, but also hit my nitrous to increase the gap between us. All of the sudden, the enemy respawned far behind and caught up to me in a matter of seconds, far exceeding the limitations of his vehicle and especially the limitations placed on human players. That rubberband AI drastically tarnishes any racing experience, and I’m disappointed that Criterion, after all these years and all these games, still has to use it.
Although I stated Hot Pursuit mode as my favorite part of the game, it’s also one of the most potentially frustrating. With everything you have to contend with all at once, it’s quite common for the road to become impossibly congested with a combination of spike strips, wrecked cars, and police barricades. The barricades themselves are a source of constant frustration, as they require Matrix-like reflexes that only, of course, the AI seem to possess. There is an achievement for driving through a police road block without hitting anything named “Eye of the Needle”, which sadly, is not an exaggeration. It's called "Need For Speed", not "Need to Come to a Screeching Halt so I Don't Crash Again...Goddammit". Not only will the AI avoid the road block 9 out of 10 times, but even if they do hit something that would undoubtedly cause you to wreck, they are barely troubled by it and proceed on their marry way.
You might think that with so much power at their fingertips switching to the Cop campaign would be a great deal of fun, but the tables turn once the control is handed over to the player. On paper, the Cop campaign seems to match the Racer campaign pound-for-pound, but that’s not quite the reality. The law-enforcing counterpart sees you taking the role of a new Seacrest County PD recruit, tasked with earning promotions by bringing justice to high-speed criminals using any means necessary. Cops can do nearly as much as the racers are eligible to do, such as Time Trials (now "Rapid Responses") with the added bonus of losing time for hitting things, but Hot Pursuits are, in my opinion, considerably less exciting from the side of the law.
Whereas Hot Pursuit races are an amalgamation of everything this game has to offer, cops must simply chase down and wreck as many racers as they can before they cross the finish line. It removes several layers from the gameplay, and basically invalidates several others -- shortcuts, for example. Turbo and EMP have been replaced with Helicopters and Road Blocks, but good luck getting these to make a difference against the AI. As a racer, the police can catch up to you no matter how fast or far you’ve gone almost as if they’re teleporting, but as a cop, your magical pursuit powers have been greatly diminished. Given that you only have a set amount of time to bring everyone down, the fact that you can’t take on the lead racer until the game “allows” you to is outright bullshit.
Just thinking about the one-on-one Interceptor missions, where the AI will take shortcuts and flip u-turns in an attempt to lose you, makes me want to eat my keyboard. The player can never reset their position if they get stuck (usually after a road block collision), yet the AI can. So while you try to Austin Powers your way out of a pile-up, the target will just teleport away and carry on about their business. Again, many of the tools at your disposal are no longer effective either: I had a racer down to virtually zero health and called in a road block, which he rammed at full speed... then kept going. Twice. Needless to say, this game could have used another six months of solid playtesting and balancing.
Speaking of which, while the broken AI adds no end to the frustration you’ll have with this game, the things that are actually missing altogether are equally disappointing. Gone are the Chasebreakers from previous this-gen NFS titles: no exploding gas stations or giant donuts to cinematically crush your pursuers. Gone are all the things that made Burnout Paradise’s multiplayer freeroam so much fun. Although you can freely drive around Seacrest Country, there’s no reason whatsoever to do so; no hidden collectibles, no freeroam challenges, nothing. Seems like a major oversight, as is the lack of instant replays. F1 2010 allows replays over an hour long, yet Need For Speed can’t even manage playback of five-minute races?
The only instant replays will be the ones of a rival or pursuing officer crashing by your hand. This is similar to the Takedown cam in Burnout, but there’s no option to disable it, leading to another source of frustration. While you can use the crash cam to skip through road blocks and other hazards unscathed with precision timing and a bit of trickery, more often than not you’ll be propelled into oncoming traffic or another crash-inducing object that you can’t avoid because the game took over control at the worst possible time. It’s literally like someone grabbed the controller out of your hands and then gave it back just as you’re about to T-bone a wall. Why does Criterion hate fun? Yes, there’s a car crashing. Awesome. We don’t need to see it in super-slow motion every single time!
When you’ve had enough of the single-player cheating you out of wins and achievements, you can try your luck online against other players. Races, duels, and Hot Pursuits are all available, and can be quite a bit of fun with the right crowd. Best of all, you unlock points for multiplayer races that will reward you with single-player vehicles and ranks, so your time is not wasted even if you don’t place. Just be careful of randoms, since even when they’re on your team everyone seems to want to ram you.
Upon firing up the game, you’re immediately introduced to the Autolog, a “Facebook Lite”-esque system which acts as the social backbone throughout your Hot Pursuit experience. The Autolog records all of your progress and race milestones, then posts them online for your fellow NFS owners to see, and to challenge your race times. It’s an excellent way to keep the player plugged in with their friends, even when sticking to the single-player, though it is unfortunate there aren’t more achievements or rewards built around enticing players to get more involved with the Autolog.
Although it ultimately comes down to personal taste, not only did I not enjoy the police campaign whatsoever, it actually greatly detracted from my overall experience with Hot Pursuit. The more I played it, the less I liked the game. It's admirable that the two campaigns exist independent of each other, but racing is where it’s at, whether it’s alone or online.
There are a number of major features missing from the game, as well a number of things included that just don’t work well, but then there’s a great deal that does: the cars, the visuals, and when a Hot Pursuit race comes together perfectly -- with all of the game’s eccentricities working for you rather than against -- it’s safe to say that Need For Speed is on track for a comeback. I’m willing to bet that history repeats itself, and Hot Pursuit 2 ends up being everything that this year’s version should have been.
[Reviewed on Xbox 360]