Review by BloodGod65

"Proving The Chase is Every Bit as Good as the Catch"

Just this once, I'll forego the spiel about the steady decline of Need for Speed. After all, the series has been in a downward spiral for the entirety of this console generation and at this point, talking about it is beating a dead horse. So let's talk about something new, shall we? Something like Need for Speed regaining its former glory. Doesn't that sound nice?

From the moment Criterion was revealed to be the lead studio on the project, expectations were high. Seeing that Criterion is one of the best racing game developers out there, many were hoping that the series would experience a complete turnaround. It should come as no surprise that Hot Pursuit is the best we've seen in years. However, the full recovery of this storied franchise remains elusive due to a few poor design decisions.

In returning to the Hot Pursuit era, Criterion has ignored most of the changes made to the series between Underground and Shift. This means cars can no longer be customized, the car roster focuses almost exclusively on exotics, there is no goofy narrative tacked on, and the open world exists completely independent of the career mode rather than acting as a hub. For the most part, none of that matters.

Instead, the game uses a career structure that both resembles Hot Pursuit 2 and Burnout 3, with its map based event selections. As with Hot Pursuit 2, there are two career modes; one that places you in the shoes of the outlaw racers, and another that allows you to play as the cops. In both careers, you'll take on unique events and earn special vehicles.

Over the course of the racer career mode, you'll play through standard races, duels that pit you against a single other driver, time trials, and gauntlets, which are time trials with police pursuit. In the police career mode, there are interceptor events – which charge you with taking out a single suspect – and rapid response events – which are essentially time trials that penalize you for hitting traffic or obstacles. Naturally, both career modes have Hot Pursuit events, which either charge you with getting to the finish line intact or taking out all racers before they escape. Unfortunately this event type is also the most infrequent, making up perhaps one in ten events in each career. What's more disappointing is that the most unexciting events – the time trials – are by far the most frequent. It's a shame that a game named Hot Pursuit features so little actual pursuing.

However, when you actually unlock one of these events it is an occasion worth celebrating. Regardless of which side you are on, Hot Pursuit events play out like high-speed demolition derbies. Cars crash into each other with the aim of wearing down opponents and ultimately taking them out of the fight. When a car finally succumbs to the onslaught, it crashes in spectacular fashion. Criterion's tenure with Burnout is immediately obvious in the slow-motion cutaways and the frenzied nature of these events. As exciting as they are, the intensity only rises when weapons are introduced into the mix.

While everyone has nitrous, the weapon loadouts for each group are tailored to what they do. In the case of racers, this means weapons that help evade pursuit, while the cops have weapons that are meant to stop the racers. Racers have an EMP blast ability - which damages and temporarily disables vehicles in front of them - spike strips, a jammer that leaves cops blind and disables their weapons, and a turbo boost that functions like nitrous on steroids. The cops also have EMP and spike strips, but also have the ability to call in roadblocks and helicopters. The helicopter tracks racers and is supposed to throw down spike strips, but the one time I actually witnessed this happening was when they dropped it right in front of me. The roadblock is also problematic, because the game gives you no indication of where the opening is. Even though it is meant to stop racers, it usually has more of a chance of stopping the player, while the racers slip through.

Even so, most players will learn the best ways to use the weapons and experience few problems after the initial learning curve. However, there are more significant problems to be found in Hot Pursuit. The first, and one that will strike racing fanatics as the ultimate heresy, is the lack of a manual transmission option. While Criterion has never included this option in their games, its omission from a Need for Speed is a questionable departure from the norm, to say the least. While this is initially a turnoff, especially in the beginning when the cars are slower, as things start to pick up it becomes less noticeable. Eventually everything begins to move at such a speed that you won't even notice. Like Burnout Paradise, you'll have to dedicate every bit of your attention to the road and the action at hand in order to stay in the race.

In the end, the most grievous error Criterion has made is with the vehicle physics. In a nutshell, vehicle handling feels too heavy and unresponsive. Not only is this yet another unsettling deviation from the traditional Need for Speed template, but it is utterly out of character with the buttery smooth controls of previous Criterion racers. Because of this, minute adjustments or last-ditch evasive maneuvers are nearly impossible because the vehicles refuse to respond quickly enough to the player's commands. It also becomes a hassle to negotiate the tracks as the cars tend to veer into walls or otherwise oversteer and powerslide through. Like the quirky weapons, dealing with the unusual vehicle physics eventually becomes second nature. Unlike the weapons though, something so elementary and fundamental as moving the car around should not have a learning curve – not in an arcade racer at least. It is, at best, a lamentable misstep that will surely sour many people's enjoyment of the game.

Seeing as how Hot Pursuit is otherwise a very good game, it only seems fair to end the gameplay discussion on a positive note. In their previous efforts, Criterion has been unable to utilize actual vehicles (something about comprehensive destruction and reckless driving usually makes automobile manufacturers extremely uncomfortable). Now that they've finally gotten the chance to use real life cars, Criterion has created a comprehensive list of the most awesome vehicles ever to hit the streets. I'm willing to go out on a limb and call it the best list in a Need for Speed to date. The first tier cars are performance cars in and of themselves; the 370Z and the new Porsche Boxster both appear. The list quickly ramps up to include the entire current lineups of Porsche and Lamborghini. Other mentionables include Koenigsegg, Pagani, Mercedes – with the SLR McLaren and the SLS – and Aston Martin's One-77. There are a few things I could get nitpicky about, such as the inclusion of convertibles over their hard-topped - and better looking - counterparts, and the duplicate cars (the four versions of the Gallardo, for instance), but these are really only things that the most anal gearhead will fuss about.

While the gameplay of Hot Pursuit takes obvious cues from its predecessor, Criterion has also received inspiration from Hot Pursuit 2 in terms of its graphical design. Taking place in fictional Seacrest County, Hot Pursuit manages to encompass a lot of varied terrain, including snowy mountain passes, lonely stretches of desert, winding paths between a sequoia forest, and tight curves hugging sheer oceanside cliffs. Longtime fans will recognize these as the same types of areas that made up the tracks in Hot Pursuit 2. Far from feeling like a rehash, this simultaneously pays homage to that beloved title while updating it with the power of the current consoles. These familiar locales are now absolutely gorgeous and stunning in their detail, and it's tempting to just slow down and take it all in. Thankfully Criterion has built in an option that allows players to drive around the open world without racing just to sightsee. As an added bonus, Criterion has built in shifting times of day, so it's not uncommon to race at night. While the racing is intense enough during the day, nighttime adds a whole new dimension. It's safe to say that nighttime racing ranks right alongside Dead Space as one of the scariest and most pulse-pounding experiences I've encountered in gaming.

As great as the environs are, the cars are their equal in every way. It's been a long time since I've seen cars look this good and it is obvious that the folks over at Criterion are as car crazy as most Need for Speed fans due to the loving attention given to every model in the game.

It also seems like Criterion did its homework for the car sounds. Every vehicle has its own unique sound, and the combined cacophony of four dueling V10 engines and squealing tires creates a rousing symphony of automotive power. But like most EA games, the soundtrack is a letdown. There are some really excellent songs, but the majority of it is a bit strange. Unfortunately, Hot Pursuit doesn't have the usual EA Trax option that allows you to browse the music and turn off the songs you don't like.

Hot Pursuit is an excellent game and certainly the best we've seen in a long time, but I stop short of saying Criterion has resurrected the franchise. Although EA handing the series over to such a respected developer suggests they are finally ready to admit they've let the series slide for too long, Hot Pursuit still hasn't reached a level where it will be palatable to the gaming masses. This is due in large part to the unresponsive vehicle handling – the ultimate sin for any arcade racer. Even so, those who have given up on Need for Speed in recent years and racing fans in general will want to check out Hot Pursuit. I for one hope this is the signal that Need for Speed is finally returning to its former glory.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.0 - Great

Originally Posted: 08/15/11

Game Release: Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit (US, 11/16/10)

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