Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit Review

Dan Webb

I was in a large branded supermarket – whose name shall not be uttered – the other day, browsing the electrical section – you know, testing my willpower and what not. It was then when I noticed a small young child wandering aimlessly around the aisles. Desperately looking for his parents. Completely and utterly lost. For all intents and purposes, we’ll call that supermarket ‘the racing genre’ – what a ridiculous name for a supermarket! – and we’ll call that small young child ‘Need For Speed’ – terrible name for a kid, I know. Need For Speed in the real world though is very much like that child; a franchise that has become so completely lost that it wouldn’t have been out of place marooned on an island after the inevitable crash of Oceanic Flight 815. Moments later the child’s parent walked into view and grabbed the small child’s hand and led him out of the store. We’ll call that parent Criterion, the king of racers, and that in essence is exactly what has happened with the once great racing franchise. The Guildford based developer has literally taken a lost and diluted franchise and put it back on the road to glory. Wow, it feels good to say that.

"The cops on your right. The fresh mountain air. Pure bliss!"

So what makes a Need For Speed game great? Criterion would tell you that it's epic drives, exotic cars and the boys in blue. By inserting all of those, Need For Speed is every bit as good as the original series that thrust the racer into the hearts of fans. I would argue though, that the Need For Speed formula is slightly more complex than that, and it’s those three ingredients, coupled with insane shortcuts and more argy-bargy than a Liverpool-Everton derby that made the franchise so great. Thankfully, all five strands of the Need For Speed formula are in place with Hot Pursuit.

At the heart of the game is Criterion’s gimmick called Autolog – a social network for the high speed racer. You kind of get the feeling that it’s meant to be all-encompassing and the heart of the experience, but yes, the truth is, it’s a gimmick. Equipped with a Facebook-style wall to post comments and upload photos, take on “Recommended Challenges” from the career and so on and so forth. It’ll spend most of its time telling you if a friend has beaten your time, telling you whether you’ve beaten a friend’s time or it will recommend one of the three or so available races. Watching it disconnect and then struggle to reconnect is also an issue. In short, you’ll play Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit for the racing and not for this.

With that behind us, we can finally look forward to what matters: the action on the roads. The career aspect of Hot Pursuit is split into two separate experiences, each with their own ranks and rewards, with those of course being the racer and the chaser – AKA the cop. The beauty of such a setup is that Criterion has enabled it so that you can switch seamlessly from one to the other; so when you’ve had enough of racing, you can turn your arm at the chasing the very next race.

"But officer, I didn't see the stop sign or spike strips..."

Naturally, we found ourselves gravitating to the traditional racer action, with it being the fundamental aspect of the Need For Speed franchise – well, the one that we all know and love anyway. As a racer there are 60 events to get lost in, which are made up of Time Trials, Duels, straight-up Races, Previews – which are time trials with rare cars that you haven’t unlocked – and of course, the game’s namesake, the Hot Pursuit – where you race against fellow racers while battling the cops for control of the road.

On familiar ground - the Hot Pursuit - Need For Speed excels on almost every level and is truly one of the most intense and rewarding experiences in the franchise for nigh on 8 years. However, the problem is that in the single-player structure, there are almost too many mundane events – like the Time Trials and Preview events – that finding a Hot Pursuit to complete is a bit of a rarity. I almost wish that Criterion would have cast aside the lonely point A-to-B races in favour of what makes the franchise so great.

The cops’ career on the other hand suffers from the same downfall essentially: not enough Hot Pursuit, too much A-to-B crap. The cops’ 48 event career does have a little more than the Hot Pursuits to rely on for fun and satisfaction though. Sure, there are Preview events and what Criterion call Rapid Response – which are essentially the same as one another – where in contrast to the racer, they penalise you with time penalties for any sort of contact with anything, but they also have Interceptor events – which are essentially one-on-one open-world Hot Pursuits, which are equally as fun as the more chaotic namesakes.

The action on the road is as explosive as ever, thanks to the inclusion of various weapons for each of the two factions. The racers will be equipped with jammers, spike strips, turbo boosts and EMPs; while the police are armed to the teeth with roadblocks, spike strips, helicopter assistance and EMPS also. These are in limited supply per race though, so how and when you use them becomes an integral part of the game.

Whichever career path you choose, you’ll unlock cars with alarming regularity, but the truth is, they’ll keep coming at you as you move up the speed classes – of which there are 5. The cars are all wonderfully rendered and there are tons of licensed models and more dream rides here than in Jay Kay from Jamiroquai's garage, ranging from Aston Martins and Maseratis, to the nippier Lamborghinis and pimp-daddy Porsches. The difference between them isn’t that great though that you feel the need to unlock an inordinate amount of cars to progress.

The handling on the track is pretty much spot on for a game of this calibre, with emphasis on building the boost bar via close calls, taking shortcuts and driving towards oncoming traffic; and of course, by drifting. Getting to grips with drifting round the large sweeping corners and boosting at the right time is something that does take a while to master at first, but it won’t be long before you’re flying round corners at 200mph+. Throw in some impressive day/night cycles and crazy weather like thunderstorms, snow and rain, and everything on the track seems totally fresh from one race to the next.

"Pull over sir, you have a tail light out..."
There’s even an impressive amount of shortcuts as well – some of which aren’t strictly shortcuts, bizarrely enough – which is in keeping with the Hot Pursuit tradition. They play out the perfect mantra of, high risk, big reward for the most part. Seeing them (or rather failing to) in the night though can be a bit of a pain.

The only annoying aspect is the slow-mo moments that Criterion uses when you takedown a fellow racer/cop or when it introduces a new unit onto the field, as you’ll often find yourself in a serious spot of bother when you resume normal play. It’s meant to throw you into auto-drive for that split-second, but obviously, that isn’t always ideal.

Because the single-player is tarnished ever so slightly by the ridiculous amount of point A-to B races, racing online seems to be the way forward. Whether you choose to Race, play an Interceptor or delve into the Hot Pursuit races, this is how Need For Speed should be played. The matchmaking leaves a little to be desired and the online community isn’t exactly flourishing at the moment, but I guess that’s what you get for releasing so close to the new Assassin’s Creed & Call of Duty. Otherwise, the action online is the way forward – especially the Hot Pursuits – and your career is persistent as well, so it means what you do online benefits your single-player experience.

The achievements are quite a boring bunch in truth, and aside from a few quirky ones like, spike a cop while driving in a black Snake car and winning 'Muscle Reflex' in a Bee Yellow Chevrolet Camaro SS (AKA Bumblebee), the rest of the list merely exists. Rank up to this level in this career, rank up this level in that career, earn all gold medals, earn all distinctions... way too much grind, not enough fun. For the full 1,000, you’re looking at a long, long time.

While Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit is largely a step in the right direction, it’s quite self evident by the single-player structure that Criterion loses its way ever so slightly. With too much emphasis on time-trials and lonely point A-to-B races, at times, Hot Pursuit loses what makes this game so great; and that’s high octane car chases with bumper-to-bumper combat. Online is where it’s at here, but it’s a shame that Criterion couldn’t have cut the crap in the single player circuit and just stuck with what works... and that’s the Hot Pursuit/Interceptor events. Still, despite that slight grumble, Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit gets the series back on track – for now – and is the best Need For Speed since... well, Hot Pursuit 2, which incidentally was eight years ago!

A brilliant mix of drum ‘n’ bass style anthems is accompanied by some powerful engine roars. ROAR! I’m a lion.

Be. Ewe. Tea. Full. Everything from the stunningly rendered cars to the dramatic weather effects, Criterion has produced a winner here, which is only let down by the odd case of pop-up.

Drifting and boosting is the name of the game. Actually, Need For Speed is the name of the game, but the weapons, the handling, the shortcuts and the sense of speed all wrap up an excellent package on this front.

The single-player is letdown by focusing way too much on the boring stuff, and not enough on what makes the game so great: Hot Pursuits. Online, the action is fantastic though, although finding a game can be particularly tricky.

There are a few interesting achievements in there, but way too much grinding and too many progression achievements for our liking.

After countless sacrilegious efforts in the Need For Speed franchise, Criterion has finally done the label some justice by bringing the heart back to the franchise. It looks like that Criterion did lose their way ever so slightly at times, losing what makes Hot Pursuit so much fun, but as a Need For Speed package, this is the best title in nearly a decade.

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