Platform: PS3 (also on Xbox 360, Wii, PC)
Developer: Criterion Games
Publisher: Electronic Arts
# of Players: 1 (online 2 - 8)
ESRB Rating: E 10+ (Everyone 10 +)
In Need for Speed Hot Pursuit, Criterion Games' new Autolog feature is very much like a way too loyal robotic dog that lives on a diet of Red Bull-laced motor oil and rechargeable batteries, and that's a both a good and bad thing, boys and girls. If you absolutely THRIVE on competition, It's a good dog (Good dog! Goooood doggieeeeee!) because it keeps you on your toes, notifying you constantly that your formerly best times have been beaten, who beat you and yes, that you should drop everything and go get your record times back. Paradoxically, if you're a casual gamer who happens to plug into PSN or Xbox Live for some friendly competition (or a mere system update before playing the game) Autolog is a bad dog (bad dog! BAD! NO!), constantly interrupting your set racing schedule to let you know someone's peed or pooped all over your best times and how much of a LOSER you are for not going on ahead and racing every fool that's ready to take you down and leave the smell of virtual burnt rubber in your nostrils. Damn you, Autolog! Now go sit in your box... GO!
Such is the life in EA's new arcade racer, a logical extension of Criterion's Burnout franchise, but with real cars, plenty of courses to blaze around on and a mix of spectacular (but sometimes spectacularly underwhelming) crashes that aren't the stars of this road show at all. What's here is an intensely enjoyable pure cops versus speeders world packed with loads of cool vehicles, easy to pick up, tough to master gameplay and a handling model that's respectable yet demands precision and patience. Crazy power slides and arcade physics aside, this isn't as easy as a Ridge Racer game and it's definitely not the showpiece melange that is Gran Turismo 5. In fact, I'd say NFSHP straddles the gap between Eden Studio's brilliant, pure driving experience Test Drive Unlimited (minus the total driving freedom) and the aforementioned Burnout series (sans the total car destruction), adds the good/evil paradox that is Autolog and overall is an amazingly fun experience no racing fan should miss.
Granted, those who crave only ONE type of racing game and don't want so many types mashed together will pick apart Hot Pursuit for stuff they shouldn't. If you're a total purist, the absolute lack of any manual transmission options will be shocking, but, the game isn't a simulation at all, nor does it pretend to be. that and I'm sure that EA got more than enough user feedback against those forced manual transmission events in past NFS games this generation that yes, Hot Pursuit gets "dumbed down" for a wider appeal. Complain as loudly as you like for as long as you want, but at the end of the day, this is a GAME, not something where you can (or should) even think about applying EVERY real-world driving element to every entry in the genre. I don't know about you, but I'd rather not have to worry about adjusting the camber of my tires, altering the car height, or using a clutch properly in a NFS game set in a fictional set of courses where the emphasis is on pick up and play action.
Sure, it might even be a "better" racer without all the James Bond-style weapons and gadgets in your rides, but part of the fun here is USING that EMP blast or calling in a chopper when you want to (hopefully) end a race or chase quickly. The gadgets aren't forced on you in every race and in fact, it's possible to win races or chases without them if you're that good. It's nice that the gadgets are doled out as you level up and some races drop them entirely in favor of testing your car handling skills. Sure, you may hate playing as a cop, but the game doesn't force you to at all. Except for the little fact that it's too damn tantalizing seeing that cop icon winking at you CONSTANTLY on the main map. Next thing you know, you click on it and oops, you're hooked into that mode for ages. Thankfully, you can zap back and forth between cop and racer with ease after an event. Just don't quit a race or chase during a live session... Autolog knows all and isn't ashamed to bark.
The game sort of has a "story" for both cop and racer modes, but its sole purpose is to get you on the road for racing or chasing. In either role, the game is a smartly designed almost invisible mash-up of MMO, RPG and racing game. Race events and win, you get big points, race and place in the money, you get moderate to OK points. Totally stink at the game? You still get some minor points for trying (in some events), but your progress will be slowed greatly until you get some skills under your thumbs. Leveling up for racers means your Wanted level rises as does your notoriety. Level up as a cop and you become more of a respected, hard-drivin' super-cop as the game progresses. By placing the emphasis on cars more than "personalities", Criterion has done a better job with the NFS series that a few other attempts to bring "hip" or "urban" elements to the franchise.
Additionally, new cars, gadgets and great performance upgrades become available, so the game is rarely frustrating and actually prods you to keep trying until you start seeing those new goodies showing up. Autolog tracks all this stuff and the game also doles out points for risky driving, jumps, power slides and other stuff. The hilarious thing about all this stat tracking is how easy it is to wreck badly if you get caught up in trying to read those award messages as they pop up on screen while you're racing. You'll soon learn to ignore them and concentrate on the road and competition in front or behind you. AI is completely relentless, but it also makes mistakes that can get you from last to first under the right circumstances. Granted, getting into first because of a three or four car smash-up is one thing... keeping that position you've gained while trying to blow past anyone else in your way is something else.
Criterion is known for its fantastic looking games and of course, Hot Pursuit absolutely doesn't disappoint. The fictional courses are loaded with detail, breakable objects and many shortcuts to the point that you'll sometimes wreck because you turned a hair too late into a cut you spied a half second after you should have. On the other hand, once you've found certain shortcuts and learn how to chain them together using boosts, you can slice your track times down and earn a ton of bonus points (which of course, unlock even more stuff faster). Probably because of the official licenses, the crashes here tend to be supremely dynamic, but slightly underwhelming (if you balance them against the Burnout series). The game does its level best to get you back on the road as quickly as possible after a bad wreck (unless it takes you out of the race), but you'll wish that cars would roll a bit more or pull off a few more "Hollywood" style wrecks.
Sound design is impressive and yes, you get a bunch of music here to blaze around to thanks to a series of different radio stations. I actually race with the music off, as it ends up being too distracting. This is a game where you'll want to have every reflex possible on point, particularly as you edge up the ranking ladder or go online against live opponents. If you don't have a PSN or Xbox Live account, stick to the standard edition of the game. The Limited Edition gives you access to six special cars, all of which require you to sign onto either service and create an Online Pass. I'd imagine we'll see some sort of re-release down the road with all the DLC and cars on the game disc, but I'd say go grab whatever version of the game that's best for you now if you really can't wait.
Other than the long load times between races and the aforementioned lack of oomph in some wrecks, I've no major complaints about the game. As far as the future of the NFS franchise goes, with the game branching off into "simulation" territory with Shift 2 and the more arcade-like experience of Hot Pursuit in good hands, it looks as if we may see EA tackle both ends of the racing/driving spectrum, a great thing for fans who want more than one type of racer. I personally have no preference of one over the other, provided they're fun, packed full of cars and have plenty of content out of the pack or as future updates. Now if you'll excuse me, I think I hear my Autolog barking...