Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit
This review almost didn't happen. Aside from the fact that we received the review code late, there was one factor above all that put the review in doubt: Autolog. EA's new social networking/leaderboard-type-thing, Autolog is a ridiculously addictive beast. It nearly bought everything to a grinding halt.
At one point, I could have given you a microscopically in-depth look at the First Offence event at Eagle Crest, but little else. Such was my overwhelming compulsion to grab the best time among my friends list. I couldn't leave it alone.
But Autolog is merely dressing. I'll come back to that later. This is a driving game that, for me at least, has completely re-invigorated the genre. With wildly fun and unrealistic handling, enough presentational sheen to drown a horse and some cathartically compulsive online modes, this is the most fun I've had behind a virtual wheel for years.
Need for Speed represents the progeny of a whole mish-mash of driving games, stretching back over two decades. Developed by Criterion, it bears some of the hallmarks of their Burnout series. It also follows on from Hot Pursuit 2, which in turn takes its central conceit from the ageing arcade classic, Chase HQ.
Oh and it's a Need for Speed game as well, obviously, a series that has now stretched so far as to become virtually meaningless.
At NFSHP's heart is the rivalry between illegal racers and their police pursuers. Jumping from one side to the other, both online and offline, you can carve out dual careers for yourself, earning separate sets of experience points to progress your career and unlock ever more powerful super-cars.
As a racer, your events are spread across three different categories; Time Trials, Races and Hot Pursuit. Time trials are pretty self-explanatory, adding only the complicating presence of the police as they try to bump, bash and otherwise harry you from the road. Races, meanwhile, cut out the cops altogether, merely pitting you against other drivers. But Hot Pusuit is the real draw, as you attempt to make it to the finish line without being busted by the police, by any means necessary.
Playing as the Seacrest County Police Department you get a slightly re-jigged spin on these three core modes. Rapid Response is an interpretation of Time Trial, only this time you receive penalties for smashing up public property. Interceptor events charge you with hunting down a suspect over an open map. But again it's Hot Pursuit that thrills the most. Playing as the cops, you have to bring down the street racers and prevent them from crossing the finishing line with a combination of brute force and weapons.Both sides can have a load-out of up to four weapons to aid them in their fight. If the Police find themselves lagging behind they can call in helicopters to drop down tire-shredding spike strips, or order roadblocks (with ultra-convenient car-sized gaps in them). Up close, they can deploy spike strips as well as EMP blasts, all in the name of whittling away the racers' energy bars and earning a prized bust.
Racers, meanwhile, share the EMP blasts and spike strips, while adding a frankly nuts turbo boost, as well as a police radar jammer. All of these weapons, across both classes, are limited to just a few executions, ensuring you'll be ultra tactical in their deployment.
As you level up both sides gain access to improved weapons and defensive systems to aid you in the battle. Earned largely by winning races, getting takedowns or busts and finishing in competitive times, these points called 'bounty' can also be collected by completing a set of career milestones, such as driving in oncoming traffic for a period of time, drifting or reaching top speed. The design manifestation of positive reinforcement, you are rewarded for just about everything, including crashing.
But this is primarily a racer, of course. As such, the game's main qualities are on the track. Hardcore racers may turn their noses up at the arcade handling, but it's an absolute joy. Even the slowest cars are wonderfully nippy, ripping along at ridiculous speeds. Thanks to some beautifully implemented drifting you can charge into corners gunning at 200mph without even breaking a sweat. Chucking the car around with abandon is just fantastic fun.
Perhaps the reason for this is that you always feel in control, even when you've pushed out the backend and are screeching around a corner, while simultaneously overtaking, avoiding a spike strip and calling in a helicopter. Pretty much everyone has made the OutRun and Ridge Racer comparisons, and for good reason. Forget simulation, this is thrilling.It looks good too, with Seacrest County offering some lovely sun-tinged environments, stormy skies and inky black nights. The cars themselves are nicely modelled too, crumpling and rolling in a spectacular fashion when you inevitably go blasting into a wall.
The slick good looks extend to the presentation. But occasionally Criterion take things a little too far. Playing as a racer in single-player Hot Pursuit, for example, the game takes control away from you for a fraction of a second to show a little cut-scene of the police scorching off to intercept you. This split second can be disastrous, leaving you no chance to zip out of the way of oncoming traffic or line up correctly for a corner. It's massively frustrating.
As are the way the unlocks are presented. As you can earn bounty without winning a race, you can often unlock a car, or a number of cars, after fluffing your event. These unlocks are represented with some swishy presentational flourishes followed by a narrated video of the car's qualities. Which is great, of course. But annoying when all you want to do is have another go.
And thanks to Autolog, you'll definitely be attempting events over and over. Autolog tracks your friend's achievements and lets you know what times they've set. They can even add pictures and text to your in-game wall, cajoling you into beating them by setting challenges.
Similar features have been built into other games, of course. Blur did a similar thing with Facebook and Twitter integration earlier in the year, for example. Yet they've never managed to get their claws into me in quite the same way as Autolog. Hence me wasting an evening zipping around the same route repeatedly when I should have been charging through the game to get the review done.
The First Offence event at Eagle Crest I was talking about earlier comes incredibly early in the game. But thanks to a certain person on my friends list, I got stuck there. Well over fifty times I negotiated that route in an effort to shave down his 10 second advantage. I couldn't allow myself to be beaten. I eventually got there though, topping his time by a mere 0.88 seconds. Victory!
That was a few days ago now. I checked back in online just before submitting this review. The bastard has done it again. He's beaten my time again by 6 seconds. 6 seconds! Looks like it's going to be a long night.