An addictive revival of a long-dormant series and genre
It’s not often that I wipe out a review and start from scratch, but a good amount of time with Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit has essentially forced me to do so, thanks to its overwhelming first impression and infuriatingly aggravating early-game AI. Once you fully understand how to play it, however, Hot Pursuit will rewardingly reveal Criterion’s successful effort at reviving a franchise that’s been near-dormant for years--as well as reviving a style of racing game that’s been dead for far too long.
As previously mentioned, Hot Pursuit makes a pretty overwhelming first impression by detailing the uses and features of Autolog, the game’s biggest feature, immediately at the start of the game. It essentially works like Burnout Paradise’s Road Rules system or Game Room’s (I totally made that comparison, yeah) challenge system. The game has a “Wall” where updates, pictures and posts are automatically posted comprising of taunts, challenges or silly messages. It’s a terrific feature that directly integrates into each event with the Speedwall, a leaderboard of you and your friends’ times that is instantly updated at the end of a race. If you beat a friend’s time, you’re given the option of sending them a challenge to beat said time onto their Wall. If you leave for a period of time, lose the top place on the Speedwall and comeback later, the game brings up an Autolog Alert, informing you of the events you’ve been beaten in and lets you quickly jump to said events to reclaim your top position on the Speedwall. It’s a fully fleshed-out version of the Burnout Road Rules and it all integrates seamlessly into the game, making it a feature that would definitively be nice to see in other racing titles from EA.
That said, the most welcome of changes is one that fans of older NFS titles will greatly appreciate. Gone are the awful storylines of past NFS games, gone is the upgrading system and gone is driving around in beaters like Civics and Jettas. Instead, Criterion has graciously given us Porsches, McLarens, Veyrons, Gallardo Interceptors, a giant and picturesque open-world, ridiculously high-speed chases and most importantly, events, events and more events. This is the Need for Speed of old and in an age where almost every genre requires some form of context to it, it’s incredibly refreshing to have a modern-built/pure-in-spirit racing game. When you enter the game’s Career Mode, you’re shown nothing other than a map filled with events and that’s it. You pick an event that has set conditions and presets and you go race. The wonderful feeling of spending hours completing events one after the other is back along with the ability to just get a quick race in before leaving for class or work in the morning. I can’t commend Criterion enough for going back to this kind of addictive formula.
The only real bummer of the Career map, however, is the game’s inability to properly let you know what you’ve actually unlocked. Completing events unlocks more events, of which you’re left searching to find since the game only lets you know with a very small “NEW” icon displayed on areas around the map. Those poorly notified events consist of two different types: Race and Cop. Both categories have a variety of events, mostly boiling down to Race, Time Trials and Pursuit chases. There are a few twists in every few of those events to keep things interesting but by and large, you’ll be doing the same kind of stuff all the way through the game. Luckily, the game’s ecstatically fast pace will never make you feel like you’re slogging your way through the game’s career.
The Career mode will also introduce you to the game’s backup/powerups. While back-up and spike strips are nothing new to the NFS series, Hot Pursuit gives both sides an arsenal of four ‘Powerups’ to use. Both sides share the EMP and Spike Strips which are the first two introduced to the player. Racers also have the Jammer (which disables a cop to use backup) or Turbo (a short-lived, constant burst of Nitrous that is far more effective than said item). Interceptors, on the other hand, have Roadblocks and Helicopters that can be called in. All of these powerups upgrade the more you use them, allowing for them to be more effective in higher-level events.
Upon completing events, you’ll earn “Bounty”: the game’s persistent levelling system. Earning Bounty makes you rank up, which unlocks new events, cars and vehicle classes. All of this carries over online, so what you’ve unlocked offline is what’s available to you online and completing online events will net you Bounty that can progress your rank further, even in the offline portion. It works well enough, though I kept feeling like that rank and XP bar should of probably meant a little more to me than just a “lol rank up and unlock more stuff!” meter.
Thankfully, a lack of usefulness is something you’ll quickly stop giving a shit about when you try your hand at racing online. Despite its bare-bones feature-list, the 3 game modes offered are all that you would ever need to stick with this game for a long, long time. The standard Race and Interceptor modes are there but the real match type is Hot Pursuit mode. Four racers versus four cops, all of which have an arsenal of backups to use against each other. Players are then dropped into a point-to-point race and are given a simple objective: Racers need to get to the end in first place, cops need to take them all out. It’s some seriously frantic stuff and gets to be a ton of fun when it boils down to just one or two of left on each team. There’s no complex stuff that comes into play, it’s just racers against cops and the action movie-like pace of the game makes it all the more fun.
Unfortunately, the game does have its faults. Past its addicting leaderboard updates, fast-paced gameplay, beautiful graphics, incredibly well-rendered cars and relatively decent soundtrack lies some pretty obnoxious AI. The game has a pretty good learning curve and doesn’t necessarily do its best at telling you the steps you need to take to overcome it. Things like “drifting aren’t always the best option” and “only use your nitrous when accelerating” are never mentioned upfront, so you’ll be cursing at the screen when AI opponents use these kinds of tactics that you need to figure out for yourself. It doesn’t help that the AI can sometimes take a hairpin turn at double the speed you can, have infinite amounts of nitrous or smash through traffic at full speed (while doing so yourself causes an unskippable crash animation to trigger). And that’s not even mentioning some of the worst rubberband-AI you’ll see, either. If you can see past those problems and learn how to take corners and use nitrous properly, there’s some seriously rewarding racing waiting for you.
If you had asked me what direction the NFS franchise had to take to be relevant again, I didn’t think going back to a pure arcade racer would have been answer but, thankfully, it is. With some truly addictive friend list integration, great single-player and multiplayer experiences and a car list to make you awe, Hot Pursuit does a hell of a lot right. While the teaser trailer for Shift 2 that is included at the very start of the game is a curious inclusion, it makes me sincerely hope that the future of the Need for Speed franchise lies in the hands of Criterion. If Hot Pursuit is any indication, they’re more than capable to make the series a major contender like it was years back.