According to producer Criterion, Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit is about going “really f***ing fast” and that much is certainly true. But it’s about much more than just raw speed and motion blur. It’s about bravery, split second reactions and the willingness to die by the sword you so effortlessly thrash around Seacrest County. NFS: Hot Pursuit is an adrenalin filled triumph but just how have Criterion taken this at times troubled series back to the top of its game?
The first thing that will surprise people who have perhaps left the NFS series in recent years is that Hot Pursuit doesn’t have any kind of story or narrative. Paul Walker and Vin Diesel have been banished to the corporate Disney cash cow and thankfully show no sign of returning. Some might see the lack of story a weakness but it probably saves the game from the uber cliché any cops vs robbers story would tell.
As a cop your task is simple, to stop the bad guys by any means necessary and as a racer it’s to dance across the finish line well ahead of the local law enforcement. It’s a tried and tested formula but Criterion have provided plenty of variables to keep the game fun and interesting.
Cops and racers are pitted against each other in a number of different events including 1v1 duels, all out street races, gauntlets and time trials. The events are broken down by car class and grade you with either distinction (gold), merit (silver) or pass (bronze). For winning you gain bounty and the more bounty you get the faster you level up unlocking cars, upgrades and events as you go.
The events themselves can be a shade repetitive at times with the goals only ranging predictably from getting across the line as fast as possible or either capture or evade. But the way these races play out is where the variety comes in as the AI of your opponents and the weapons on offer make for wildly different outcomes.
The handling of the cars in NFS: Hot Pursuit is great. This game doesn’t profess to be the “ultimate simulation racer” and neither should it. The handling is geared for fun and that’s exactly what it delivers. The controls feel alive, responsive and extremely well balanced. There’s also a good spread of feel between the different cars with the wild a brash McLaren F1 the total opposite of the calm and precise Audi R8.
Solid handling is a huge plus but you can’t just ram your opponents off the road every time now can you, where’s the fun in that? And to fill that destructive void Criterion have provided a rather impressive arsenal of weapons.
As a cop you can deploy spike strips, EMP’s, road blocks and of course a big shiny helicopter, all of which are available via the D-Pad. But your weapons do have their limits with only certain types available in each event which at times poses real tactical conundrums. These weapons will also upgrade over time allowing you longer helicopter air time and probably most the fun, multiple spike strips.
As a racer you have two weapons which are entirely appropriate and two which are not. The Turbo Boost which takes the game speed from blistering to “oh my god I’ve just shat myself” and the Police Jammer fit brilliantly. However racer EMP’s and racer spike strips do not. There’s something rather unnatural about deploying spike strips as a racer and I feel Criterion could have innovated some other racer weapons rather than simply copying half of the police arsenal across.
The quality of the AI actually surprised me somewhat because I wasn’t really expecting it to be so good. As a cop the AI of the fleeing suspects really shines with racers actively trying to ram you off the road, using shortcuts intelligently and even turning round and blasting back the way you came. It really is a cat and mouse affair and you’ll need to be right on top of your game to stay in touch with the most hardened felons in the later events.
Playing as a racer is perhaps then a little disappointing when compared to the excellent AI experienced playing as a cop. As a racer the Police will ram you, set up road blocks, deploy spike strips and call in helicopters but they never do anything totally unexpected. That’s not to say the AI is bad by any means it’s just simply more fun to pursue than be pursued.
The most important part of any racing game is without doubt the cars and in NFS: Hot Pursuit you’ll never find your self short of a super car to thrash around. The roster of cars isn’t massive and in no way compares to the 1000+ available in GT5 but the wheat has been firmly separated from the chaff with only the production car elite making the grade.
The distribution of cars through the career portion of the game has been well laid out too with sequential unlocking of faster more exotic models as you level up through the ranks.
A really clever addition though is the use of preview events which allow you to test drive a car well beyond your current career level. After driving the early cars for a while (not slouches themselves) being thrown a Pagani Zonda changes everything. The raw speed and power is truly frightening and unlocking this beast becomes your number one priority
The scenery on offer in NFS: Hot Pursuit would make even the finest of oil painters proud. The landscape chops and changes beautifully between snowy mountain climbs, arid desserts and winding forest roads. The weather effects are superb too, when you race through the landscape at night, in the rain you’ll be left utterly spell bound I assure you.
The cars themselves look fantastic too, glistening in the wonderful lighting effects and vibrant colour palette. I think it’s a fair statement to make that every super car in history would look better as a Police car and in NFS: Hot Pursuit you’ll quickly find that out.
The game is built on extremely solid foundations as well. Regardless of speed, conditions or the number of cars piling in to each other NFS: Hot Pursuit maintains a rock solid 30FPS. Which for a game that relies on such split second reactions is crucial and I challenge anyone to find a stutter or impurity.
But if there’s one thing graphically Criterion know how to pull off, it’s a fantastic crash. The damage model works brilliantly at representing all kinds of impacts from crunching head on collisions to side swipes and nicked paintwork. Seeing a wrecked Aston Martin somersaulting in your rear view mirror should be an upsetting experience but its beauty is only enhanced by the stomach churning impact of twisted metal.
Its all sounding rather good isn’t it, great graphics, great handling, lots of fancy cars, weapons, good opponent AI, sprawling scenery and enough speed to leave you literally quaking behind the controller. These things all add up to a great but perhaps familiar racer, I mean all the above we’ve seen before in plenty of other racing titles. But Criterion has a royal flush up their sleeve which drives NFS: Hot Pursuit from great racer to out of this world. Autolog.
The entire game is hung together on a centralised social hub called Autolog. It pits you and your friends against each other in every single event NFS: Hot Pursuit has to offer and it’s done to absolute perfection. Completing events and gaining distinctions feels rewarding but being top amongst your friends is something else entirely. Nothing can quite describe the feeling you get when you beat your friends “best” time, especially if they’ve been “giving it large” before hand.
Live updates about your friend’s performance are delivered directly to your Autolog Wall and also appear on the Career Mode map. Your friends can also recommend events which you haven’t unlocked yet to see if you’re up to beating their latest time. You can add photos and comments to your Autolog posts too for that extra dose of profanity and bravado. Autolog is wonderfully simple and wonderfully implemented, I really can’t stress enough how much social competition increases this games appeal.
NFS: Hot Pursuit does have a segregated Online mode but with Autolog the entire game feels online. Everything is so integrated and so cohesive that the lines between offline and online have been well and truly blurred. The games landscape is always evolving around you and its your friends and their friends that are doing it. Miss a few days and you can guarantee the bar will be set even higher forcing you to try and squeeze out precious seconds from the already stretched laws on physics. Autolog is in a word, genius.
NFS: Hot Pursuit is a breath of fresh are for the franchise and its no coincidence what so ever that’s it’s happened as Criterion have got behind the wheel. The studios stamp of quality is all over this game and they deserve huge praise for what they’ve done with Need For Speed brand.
It’s occasionally repetitive perhaps and it lacks the open world we were afforded in Burnout Paradise but those things pale when compared to the wealth of positives this game possesses. The only thing you’ll care about is having just one more heart stopping thrill ride through Seacrest County with nothing but pure adrenalin fuelling your journey.
The shining light though is Autolog, without it NFS: Hot Pursuit would be just another great racing game but with it, the game moves through yet another gear. Addictive, competitive and well designed Autolog isn’t just a triumph for NFS: Hot Pursuit its one for the entire gaming industry. In creating one of the most fun and addictive racing games I’ve ever played, Criterion might just have unearthed something which changes the face of gaming as we know it.
Gaming without Autolog? No thanks.