Playing Need for Speed Hot Pursuit is like being the underdog in a classic movie. Having to fight against insurmountable odds: outclassed, outweighed, outnumbered; there’s always a reason why you’re guaranteed to fail. It's these reasons why we love the worlds of Rocky, The Karate Kid and other such movies -- we see them beat the odds, and we feel we can too. They give us a sense of hope, joy, and a euphoria that lasts long after the credits roll. Many games have tried to tease similar emotions out of the player, but none so far have managed to beat those giant odds, none so far have managed to evoke that pure sense of utter euphoria. None, that is, until Need for Speed Hot Pursuit.
It's a bold claim to make. After all, Need for Speed Hot Pursuit is an arcade racing title -- a genre not often known for its emotional qualities. It would be a disservice to simply label Hot Pursuit as an 'Arcade Racer', however. This is an evolution of the 'Arcade Racer' sub-genre, and has carefully refined, perfected, and improved every gameplay detail imaginable.
Giving you the option to either pursue a 'Cop' or 'Racer' career, Hot Pursuit begins with a race available to each side and more are unlocked as you win races in each career. Winning a 'Racer' event will unlock more in the 'Racer' category which are dotted around the fictional Seacrest County, and the same goes for the 'Cop' career. It's a progression system that seems incredibly simplistic, but remembering Criterion's comments earlier this year regarding their wish to have a lack of story throughout, it makes sense -- even if it does feel slightly off-base. When jumping from a race in the forest to one in the mountains, the lack of cohesion can feel a little disconcerting, and this dissonance is also evident in other aspects of Hot Pursuit. We'll get to that a little bit later.
Of course, the most important thing in any racing game is the feel of the cars. If they don't handle well, then any possible enjoyment that could be derived from the game is lost immediately. Fortunately for those eagerly anticipating Hot Pursuit, the cars don't simply handle well, they handle beautifully. Controlling the 'Racer' vehicles feels akin to watching a performance of Swan Lake, live on stage -- the cars don't just drive, they glide, float and dance along the roads. Each car also feels incredibly fast, regardless of its actual top speed -- from the very first car in the 'Sports' category, all the way to the last car in the 'Hyper' category, each feels like you're taming an incredible beast. Weaving in and out of oncoming traffic at unbelievable speeds feels instinctual, and contrasts neatly to the 'Cop' cars. They, too, feel instinctual, but for entirely different reasons.
The 'Cop' cars feel primeval and aggressive -- a far cry from the dainty 'Racers'. With a deep, weighty feel to each car, crashing into the 'Racers' has an incredibly visceral feel unseen in most racing games. When chasing down a 'Racer' in a 'Hot Pursuit' mission, it can almost feel like a school bully picking on the clever kid. Pushing, shoving, hitting... it's all par for the course. When controlling the clever kid however, things take on a more innocent, playful charm. With a quick EMP to the Bully's face, a Spike Strip to the rear and a Turbo Boost out of the situation, Hot Pursuit's blend of charm, wit, and a feeling of 'Bad Ass'-ness is utterly delightful.
It's a lengthy game, too. Clocking in at around 16 hours -- not including countless hours that can be spent playing the multiplayer game -- it's hard to deny that Criterion and DICE have created an utterly massive world, full of perfectly designed roads for you tear through. The only real downside is that it's likely you'll only play each race once during the campaign, simply because Hot Pursuit is an amazingly easy title. I don't consider myself an expert at racing games, but I managed to complete the majority of the game's races on the first go -- all with a Gold Medal / Distinction. While there are incentives to go back and play through levels again and again -- such as Autolog, which is discussed later in the review -- there's sometimes a feeling of 'Why bother?', especially during the latter stages of the game, where the races can last over five minutes.
At four times the size of Paradise City, the renowned play area from Burnout Paradise, Hot Pursuit's Seacrest County is huge. From sandy deserts to snow-peaked mountain-tops, and from sunny beaches to shrouded forests, Seacrest County is an impeccable achievement and thoroughly enjoyable to explore. However, this is where Need for Speed Hot Pursuit begins to show its flaws. As mentioned earlier, it's the game's lack of cohesion that lets it down. While every race may take place in Seacrest County, it's a fact that never bears any real effect on your playing experience. Occasionally you might think, "Oh, I remember that shortcut from a race I completed a while ago," and yet, while it has a momentary 'Oh!' surprise value, it still feels disconnected.
Then there's the completely unnecessary free-roam mode. Whereas Paradise City felt like a living, breathing city with subtle intricacies to be found around every corner, Seacrest feels like a number of awesome roads held together by great-gameplay-glue, with less else to say. Despite the ability to enter the County from any starting area, there are no missions, no gameplay objectives, and no real fun to be had when driving around. Sure, scoping out potential shortcuts and enjoying a brand new Beugatti Veyron are enjoyable and productive experiences, but apart from that it feels like a wasted opportunity.
Hot Pursuit cracks further when listening to the in-game soundtrack. Once again feeling disconnected from the overall message of Hot Pursuit, it feels like Criterion was told, "Here are the songs we can get licenses for. Pick and choose, enjoy." Filled with atrocious music that lacks any 'High-Speed-Pursuit' mentality, Hot Pursuit's soundtrack only shines when you turn down the in-game music, and let the sounds of your car engine envelope your playing space. Despite not being a fan of cars, I found the roar of the engines to be positively thrilling -- the primal ferocity coupled with the cutesy charm within each accelerated boost sounds utterly phenomenal, and will leave you with a excess energy that lasts long after you turn off your game system.
The key jewel in Hot Pursuit's crown is the previously-mentioned Autolog feature. Acting like the Facebook of the Need for Speed world, Autolog updates automatically to let you know what your friends are up to in Seacrest County. Unlike Blur's reliance on real-life social networks Twitter and Facebook, Autolog is fully integrated in Hot Pursuit. Friend holding the top score? Tap RT and attempt to beat his. Just had an awesome crash? Take a picture and post it to the Autolog wall. Set an incredible time on a ridiculously difficult track? Post a comment for any friend to view. When every social feature is just a few button presses away, social gaming has never felt more integrated into the experience.
Staying on the topic of social gaming, it should come as no surprise that Hot Pursuit's online mode is terrific fun to play. Mimicking the single-player campaign, the multiplayer offers three distinct modes: straight-up races between the 'Racers', 'Cop' vs 'Racer' experiences in the 'Hot Pursuit' missions, and one-on-one 'Interceptor' challenges. Each feels unique and enjoyable to play -- however, it can become incredibly unbalanced when one player has unlocked every 'Hyper' car and is racing at speeds upwards of 250 mph, while the rest of the players have to make do with their slower alternatives. For more information on the multiplayer modes, check out our hands-on impressions here.
If there's one thing you take away from this review, it should be this: every flaw mentioned, every negative point in this review, every aspect that doesn't seem as polished as the rest of the game... they can't destroy an otherwise brilliant arcade racer. The incredible speed, the perfect handling, and the brilliant track design all add up to an experience that far surpasses any racing game you've ever played. If you're at all unsure about picking up Need for Speed Hot Pursuit, don't be. You won't regret it.
Need for Speed Hot Pursuit is available now on Xbox 360, PS3, PC and Wii. See you in Seacrest, Officer.