Need for Speed has been in the impound. The Underground titles were runaway hits and were followed by the successful Most Wanted in 2005. Since then, the franchise has been spiraling into the critical and financial junkyard. EA looked to its UK developers Criterion, home of the game Black and the Burnoutfranchise to jump-start the sputtering title.
Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit isn’t a new name to the franchise, but Criterion decided to put a new spin on it. Cops versus racers has always been the name of the game in Hot Pursuit and was echoed in Most Wanted, but Criterion is putting us in the driver’s seat of the cops for the first time in the series.
The first thing you’ll notice when booting up the game is that unfortunate EA Online Pass prompt. Renting, borrowing, or buying used? You’ll need to spend $10 if you want to play online longer than the two complimentary days given to you.
After that, you’ll see the Autolog. This is a feature Criterion believes will change racing games. I don’t agree with them. I think it could be used to change any game that uses leaderboards. Autolog gives you instant access to the performance of all your friends. Notifications float across the screen detailing your career progression as well as the recent accomplishments of your friends.
Bob just beat your time on that interceptor event you just thought you owned? Instantly jump to that event and try to take back your place at the top of the leaderboard. Need more friends that share your velocity addiction? Autolog will give you friend suggestions based on friends of friends that have been playing Hot Pursuit. Autolog doesn’t just streamline the menu system in Hot Pursuit, it changes how you think about menus.
Head into the career and you’ll find a layout similar to Burnouts of old. While the game features a free drive that feels similar to Test Drive Unlimited, the rubber meets the road in menu-based event selection throughout Seacrest County, a mashup of sun, surf, mountains, and snow that obviously is meant to emulate California. There are dozens of locations in the county, each with a list of events that unlock as you advance your careers.
Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit features not one, but two distinct career paths. One for racers, one for cops. Performing well in these events earns you bounty to unlock cars and increase your ranks. Racer events include races (obviously) which pit you against other racers without cops. Then there are preview and time trial events. These are the same, you against the clock, though the preview events let you drive a high-end car you haven’t unlocked yet.
The cop career consists of preview and rapid response events, which again are the same, pitting you against the clock. For the cops, though, the times are a bit less stringent but penalize you for any damage the car sustains. The cops also have interceptor events in which you alone must take down a lone racer with aggressive AI.
The overlap in the careers occurs in the eponymous hot pursuit event. A team of cops trying to break up a race. If you’re a racer, you’re trying to finish the race and finish in first. As a cop, your job is to take out all the racers before they reach the finish line. This is by far the best mode in the game. Time trials are exercises in frustration, reserved for the Forza and Gran Turismo racers amongst us, but unpopular with the arcade racer crowd. Races are fun, but using weapons and taking out cars are what separate Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit from the pack.
Racers and cops both head into the event armed with EMPs to disable cars in front of them and spike strips to defend the rear. Racers also have a jammer to temporarily disable cop weapons and a frighteningly-fast turbo boost. Cops can call in a roadblock to get in the racers’ way or a helicopter to throw down spike strips in front of the outlaws. Combine these with already tight racing controls and Burnout-like boost for a really fun and replayable mode.
While hot pursuit mode is the best part of Hot Pursuit and pretty much worth the price of admission, the game has some glaring flaws. Rubber-banding is always present. Make a big mistake and you’ll still miraculously catch up with the race leaders. Race the perfect line from start to finish and the other cars are still hot on your heels to the very end. While this keeps the races feeling competitive, I felt I wasn’t being properly rewarded or punished for my driving. The PS3 version of the game also doesn’t have support for the Logitech racing wheels, which are nearly the only racing wheels used on that system, a big oversight.
The online events are rather limited. While hot pursuit mode is where most of the play occurs, there’s also interceptor which pits one racer against one cop, plus race mode that is a simple race. Interceptor usually ends rather quickly, with it becoming obvious right away who’s the better player. Races are fun, but it really feels like you’re missing something compared to hot pursuit mode. Online events also add bounty to your respective careers, keeping the whole experience feeling cohesive.
The game looks quite good. It’s not going head-to-head with Gran Turismo 5 in a beauty contest, but it has great licensed cars, beautiful tracks, convincing speed blur, and graceful crashes. That said, the game only uses a 30 frames per second framerate. Criterion’s last racer, Burnout Paradise, had a dedicated 60 fps and they stressed how important it was for a racing game to have that. It astounds me they put out this game without the dedicated 60 fps.
The game also experienced significant lag and glitching in online multiplayer. Opponents’ cars seem to jump around the track helter skelter rather than smoothly following their paths, making aiming an EMP more than a chore. After being eliminated, even watching someone else racing brought up these same lagging issues. These issues have improved since the first couple of days of release, but they still crop up with some regularity.
Sound design is good if cheap. The cars don’t replicate their real-life counterparts in terms of engine noise, opting for a handful of stock big-engine noises. The soundtrack is terrible, but at least it lets you use a custom soundtrack from your hard drive. The game does a great job playing with surround sound and the effects from the various weapons, sirens, and helicopters really take advantage of this.
Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit gives you quite a bit to do in a game, though there definitely could have been more. Notably missing is the ability to tweak your rides, replaced only by some changeable paint schemes. The free drive portion seems like a last minute add-on and doesn’t provide any challenges or purpose. The single player careers will take 12-15 hours to complete, but any event can be replayed for higher ranks or to beat your friends’ times on the leaderboards. Despite the limited number of online events, hours will be poured into online hot pursuits, randomly switching you from cop to racer and back to keep things fresh.
Of course, this is Criterion. That means plenty of DLC is surely coming down the pipe, probably some of which will be free.
Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit finds itself riding a thin line. If you’re a long-time Need for Speed fan, you’ll be happy to find a title that has infused new life and a double-shot of fun into the ailing franchise. If you’re a Burnout fan hoping to find a spiritual successor to Paradise, you’ll find it comes up short. This game has some fun crash physics and cool weapons, but ultimately is all about speed, speed, speed. But then, it wouldn’t be named Need for Speed if it wasn’t.