Having never played a Need for Speed title before, I was a little anxious when I sat down to play Need for Speed Hot Pursuit at a preview event last Wednesday. Sure, I'd played Criterion's Burnout series -- heck, I'd even written a special edition of 'What's Game Rant Playing?' about how much I enjoyed it -- but would Hot Pursuit be too different for me to enjoy? Would my obscenely high expectations be thrown to the earth with a shattering thud? Thankfully for both Burnout and Need for Speed fans alike, Hot Pursuit plays like a marriage made in heaven... were that marriage conducted by a mischievous priest with a race-driver history.
To begin, we were presented with a single-player time-trial level titled 'Vanishing Point,' presumably so called due to its long straight roads vanishing into the horizon. 'Vanishing Point' was a clear reminder of how much skill you'll need to employ when racing in Hot Pursuit. Although there were no opponents attempting to take you down, the level presented a simple objective; make it to the end as fast as you can, and don't mess up.
As the car boosts to reach its maximum speed, an odd sort of peaceful tranquility washes over the entire situation. The fact that your car is now traveling at well over 200 miles per hour fades into insignificance as the game seemingly responds to every thought that you make. With every sandy corner that comes by, the car effortlessly drifts about it, like water gliding on a kitchen surface; and the moment your gliding wheels hit the tarmac and begin to weave in-and-out of oncoming traffic is something altogether magical. With no opposition to chase you, nor any to hinder your performance, 'Vanishing Point' offers an incredibly wonderful juxtaposition against the fast, furious multiplayer stages that we came to next.
Those of you who have played the currently available Xbox Live / PlayStation Network demo (you can read our impressions here) will already know about the ability to play as both the 'Cops' and the 'Racers' in Hot Pursuit. However, while it may seem that the game's multiplayer will be reminiscent of the single-player, that statement couldn't be further from the truth. Although the idea is still the same (either evade capture as the Racer, or capture the scoundrels as the Cop), the fundamental gameplay dynamics change as soon as the once-AI-controlled opponents are taken over by humans.
Of course, most racing games experience a gameplay shift when your opponent is human, but the way in which Criterion has designed Hot Pursuit really accentuates those differences. When going online, each member of your team will have to work together cohesively, otherwise the prospect of failure will rear its ugly head soon enough. While the racers can occasionally afford to take the path of the 'Lone Ranger,' if the police aren't working together, then there's no competition -- you've lost.
Of the two, I preferred playing as a Cop. The cars we were given felt weighty -- far weightier than those of the Racers, and even heavier than anything felt in Burnout Paradise -- and so the pure, unadulterated carnage that followed felt incredibly good. Although the cars feel heavier, they still handle wonderfully, leaving you with just one thing to focus on: taking down the Racers. Starting about 100 meters behind your targets, the gap closes itself relatively quickly; the first time I forced my beautiful new Cop car to collide with a Racer was one that stuck with me for the rest of the race -- not least because I'd made myself a new enemy, and was determined to shut him down. Of course, this brute-force mentality only goes on while your weapons are charging at the beginning of the race. The battle you find yourself in feels similar to a scene straight out of Rocky; as each car collides yet again, another surge of adrenaline rushes through your body, leaving you feeling animalistic and feral.
Once the weapons charge, the gameplay adapts once again. Starting as a game that's solely about incredibly visceral, close-quarters combat, and quickly changing into one that requires skill, thought and dedication, it's the second part of Hot Pursuit's Cop gameplay that is the most enjoyable. Once you manage to dodge past the traps ejected by the Racers, the ability to use your own weapons offers a sweet form of revenge. Each direction on the D-pad offers a different weapon, and within minutes it becomes second nature; catch up with a Racer, ram your vehicle into the back of his, overtake, then lay some spikes down to bust his tires. In case that didn't work, call in a helicopter to take care of him for you. It's simple, effective, and overall, it feels fantastic.
But then, you have to wonder: what does it feel like to be on the other end of this barrage of violence? Are the Racers overpowered by the overwhelming force that is the Seacrest County Police Department? The long answer is: no. Whereas the Cop cars are heavy, and feel as cows that steer like fish, the Racers control like Hummingbirds on a mission. Darting in-and-out of oncoming attacks, speeding away from other Racers, taking shortcuts off the beaten path... it's all in a day's race for these superbly designed supercars.
The Racers' arsenal also feels well-tuned to combating the Cops. Although they don't have the power of an airborne squad to get rid of the Cops, their simple ESP-Jamming signals and spike strips can be incredibly effective when attempting to speed away from your rival. Considering the most important aspect of the Racer career is your relatively low health bar, it's the simple-yet-effective combination of speed and defensive weaponry that mean it's still enjoyable to play as the Racer.
Whether it's tearing through the sun-scorched desert in 'Sun, Sand and Supercars,' or racing through the night in 'Blacklisted,' Need for Speed Hot Pursuit's demo showed us but a glimpse of the game's final overworld. Although we weren't able to see the fabled free-roam mode -- an EA Rep stated that they wanted to keep some things secret before the game's final release -- there was enough diversity in the few levels we did see to ensure I wasn't worried about a lack of variety in the final game. If you click the image above, you'll be able to view a full map of Seacrest County, and it should be clear to see that Criterion aren't messing about. This is going to be a giant game.
All in all, you should excited by what Need for Speed Hot Pursuit has to offer. While the initial demo may have left a bitter taste in some people's mouths -- with just two levels to play, it's hard to judge the variety and quality -- I've no qualms with saying that Hot Pursuit is fast, it's furious, and when all is said and done, it's a beautifully-violent yet painfully-serene racing game. What more could you want?
Need for Speed Hot Pursuit will be racing its way onto Xbox 360, PS3, PC and Wii on November 16, 2010.