Nov 20, 2010

Hot Pursuit review: Slipstreaming perfection.

This game has been on my radar since I saw the first reveal and gameplay trailers for it, and it has finally hit the shelves.

Hailed as a reset of the classic games NFS3:Hot Pursuit and NFS: Hot Pursuit 2, it is also the first Need For Speed game developed by Criterion Games, the minds behind the popular Burnout: series. As such, expectations for the game have been very high, as it has been on Criterion's shoulders to completely revitalize a racing series that has fallen far from popular grace with the poorly recieved NFS titles released over the last decade. Equally though, common expectations for the game have been very low, because of beforementioned poorly recieved games.

There were also big expectations from fans of the old Hot Pursuit games and Burnout series, that the game would stay true to its origin. Yes, it had to play like the old Hot Pursuit games and Burnout, two quite different games. All that said, a lot of people are going to have their hopes and expectations shattered by this release, indeed in the three days since the game was released I've read very outspoken objections against the game. "It's not Hot Pursuit 1/2!" "It's not Burnout:Paradise!" "It's not Gran Turismo V!" "It's too arcade like!" "It's not arcade like enough!" Believe it or not yes all those arguments I've seen from people who have played the game (or the xbox360/PS3 demo).

I think the only way to properly review this game is to take it from scratch. Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit is a game that puts the player in the role of an illegal racer in fictive Seacrest County, tearing it up against other racers or their adversaries, the Seacrest County law enforcement. The racers compete against eachother while trying not to get busted by the cops, while cops' sole goal is shutting these races down. On both sides you will find the most amazing cars you can imagine. Yep, in Seacrest County if you're speeding, you run the risk of getting chased down by a Nissan GT-R SpecV, or a McLaren F1 police car. Both parties have access to weapons as well, racers can use turbo systems, radar jammers, EMP missiles and deployable spike strips, and the police have EMP, spike strips, helicopter support and road blocks at their disposal.

This is pretty much the core of the game, and Criterion has made zero effort at making it look any deeper than it really is. What you are getting with this game is gorgeous cars driving at ridiculous speeds in not entirely simulator like ways in gorgeous fictive Seacrest County, in very tense races. And what delicious racing this is! The cars handle well, races feel balanced, and the feeling of speed grabs you to the point you're afraid to blink in fear of missing oncoming traffic or a the exit to that shortcut you desperately need to shake off the cop on your tail.

As mentioned, speed is of the essence and is the major gameplay factor for both sides. And if there was any doubt: This is not a realistic driving game. It is by all accounts a very arcade like racer. All the cars handle and behave differently (Seriously, the Bentley feels like I'm trying to steer a tank at 300 kph!).

I'm convinced there's some "rubberbanding" behaviour by the computer cars, that is to say if you are too far ahead they will drastically speed up to catch up, and when hopelessly behind they slow down a bit. This has always been an annoyance for me and the same is true in this game. Other than that little gripe, the gameplay itself is rock solid. The beautiful tracks you race on are also full of alternate routes you can take either to get a breather from the police, or sometimes save some time. The "shortcuts" are typically dirt roads, and the different cars perform very differently off the tarmac. With a lot of the cars you may opt to just stay on the asphalt instead.

When playing solo, you embark in a fairly open ended career mode as either cop or racer and unlock new races, faster cars and  upgraded weapons as you win on either side. You can switch between cop and racer careers at any time. These unlocks as you level are also linked to your multiplayer profile and available car selection

 At the core of Hot Pursuit is also the Autolog system, which tracks everything you do when you play, and also that of all your friends who also have the game. This means when you start the game there's a good chance the first thing you'll see is a message that one of your friends has shaved a second off your record time on a race possibly along with a juicy taunt depending on your friends. If you are anything like me, that record has to be beaten. Autolog is in my opinion a small stroke of genius adding a lot of replayability to the game, and it also gives you a sense of playing your friends, even if they're not actually online or in the same race as you. Sort of like Facebook, except for a game.

The multi player races are excellent. There is no noticeable online lag as I have noticed so far, in 8 player races with several players logging in from over the great sea. You have the option of taking part in Hot Pursuit, Race, or Interceptor modes. In Hot Pursuit, the lobby is split into racers and cops in what more often than not turns into an insanely entertaining cops and robbers chase, which strangely doesn't feel unbalanced no matter how skewed the teams look. I've played as a solo cop against two racers and taken them both down, and been on the recieving end of it as well. 6 cops and 2 racers, no problem. I can't really explain how it works, it just does. Race mode is a standard race without law enforcement or weapons involved, also very fun. Finally Interceptor is a 1v1 race between a racer and a cop which I also enjoyed a lot.

There are a couple disappointments with the multiplayer, though. First of all, and a deal breaker for some there is no split screen multiplayer on the same system. You can't race your buddy on the couch unless he's brought his own console or pc, which they normally don't. Playing online with your friends is also troublesome. I can't invite my friends to a lobby and fill the rest of the spots up with randoms. The options are there in the interface, it just doesn't work. I've tried in a number of ways to invite a couple friends and set the remainder slots to public, but it just starts the countdown for next race and no other players join. In the end we had one guy hammer "quick race" over and over until he got into a lobby with 2-3 slots free for the rest of us to quickly to try join. While it worked after a lot of swearing this should have been smoother to set up.

I also have to say, I was disappointed to see you already have the option to simply buy all the cars unlocked on Playstation Store. One pack for racer and cop cars each, both cost around €2 to basically skip the whole game. Downer. But hey, I guess that's what people want.

In conclusion though, Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit largely gives me what I want, a "cops and robbers" racing game that does ALMOST everything right. Criterion showed me that they have grown from the bloated beast of fun that was Burnout: Paradise. This game is well tuned, damned fast and intense, and FUN to play. Its multiplayer and Autolog features will keep me playing this beast for a long time!

If you like racing and sexy cars, don't give Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit a miss. 9 / 10 !

Addendum: Bit more playtime under the belt and YES, this game is still very fun. I miss incentive to pursue online modes after maxing out cop and police ranks, though. I love the "Speedwall" concept, which acts as a facebook highscore list where you can challenge your mates for the top of the pops, but where is the equalient of that in online play, I wonder? Why can't we at least chase those fractions of seconds of that record while we're playing human opponents, instead of the single player tracks exclusively? As it stands now, game still a fresh release, everyone who has been playing a bit is between level 15-20 (20 being the max) on bounty, as such there is no real reward for winning any race once you actually hit 20. EA/Criterion, give us a ladder system! Give us "Ranked" mode in addition to the existing game modes, and yes that goes for all the game modes. I want Ranked Hot Pursuit, Racing and Interceptor leagues. Get to work!

Apart from that, Just getting on to surf the tarmac is still a thrill. I have caught myself joining up for races and having a blast at it, all the while I'm maxed out, and win or lose it doesn't matter the slightest. I love the grip the racing has on me while I'm playing, I can't help it!

Adding another video here, if you play it you contribute to the 1 million challenge, for the Hot Pursuit launch trailer to hit 1 million views before des 12th, which will reward its players 3 extra cars as a free download.