Possibly the closest thing to a perfect arcade racer.
It sounds like typical reviewer hyperbole, but honestly I believe that Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit is possibly the closest thing to a perfect arcade racer. It's hard to believe that this game actually came out in the first place, as the Need for Speed series has been drifting around the mediocre scores of gamers since NFS: Carbon almost literally. it's hard to imagine that the less popular racing series EA had which was Burnout, taking up the Need for Speed name and making their own game under it. For a lot of us, especially in the Giant Bomb community, we always thought it would be the other way around or at least that Burnout's low sales would justify just slapping the Need for Speed name on it. Though cynically you could say this is what happened, but it more seemed like Burnout came to the rescue of Need for Speed than the other way around. And my god, what a combination.
If your not familiar with either series, Burnout is developed by Criterion Games, and lets say that their specialty is crashing cars at very high speeds with the most defined car damage ever seen in games, and also a tense driving system which rewards you for driving dangerously. Need for Speed on the other hand is developed by Black box, and their specialty is mainly doing licensed cars and cop car chases ever since the original Hot Pursuit days. If you took the gameplay of Burnout, and the licensed cars and police chases of Need for Speed, what you'll end up with is this game.
Hot Pursuit takes place in Seacrest County, an amazing location that's incredibly diverse, containing icy mountain roadways, thick forests, sandy beaches, and desert mountains. Racers from all over the world come to Seacrest to drive on the naturally amazing roadways. Unfortunately the County police decides to have none of that and will shut down any sort of speeding or street racing in the area, even if it means matching up to the racers with their own exotic supercars.
How the single player works is there's basically two routes, there's the police route and the racer route. All with their distinct tracks and objectives per race, and sometimes even their own distinct police vehicles. For the racer there's basically 3 types of races. The time attack, where you simply race against the clock and hope not to crash into some guys poor Dodge Caravan along the way. Races where you race against other cars in the same tier. And Hot Pursuit which is a race against other people but thrown in a bunch of exotic cop cars, a helicopter or two, and some roadblocks that may or may not be blocked by SUV's. The police route is similar but the time trial has penalties for crashing into walls or other cars on the road, encouraging you to drive very cleanly. And the race has been replaced by an intercepter mode where you basically chase a single car around the open world and hopefully taking him down as quickly as possible. The Hot Pursuit mode is reversed, and your objective is to take down all the racers before they cross the finishing line. Each race you do will gain you bounty which is basically the games XP system, and with enough bounty you'll level up and gain access to new tracks, events, and cars for the respected side your playing.
The main attraction is the Hot Pursuit mode, obviously. Whether your playing as a racer or a cop, it's incredibility exciting and incredibly stressful, but in a good way. As a racer, you not only have to deal with the other racers overtaking you or getting in your way, but you have to deal with the police and their ability to deploy multiple weapons from their cars such as spike strips, car blocks, EMPs, and helicopters, oh and also their natural ability just to ram you off the road. As for the racers, to even the playing field, they also have their array of weapons but in place of the roadblocks and helicopters, they have a jammer preventing any of the cops ability to use their weapons, and also an eye shattering turbo system on top of the cars nitrous system, causing you to go to record breaking speeds. These weapons add a meaningful addition to the Pursuit mode, changing driving habits and constantly requiring the drivers attention for danger on both sides. As a cop, you can't simply tailgate into another racer for fear of them simply dropping a spike strip and you having no way to dodge it, and as a racer you can't simply worry whats behind you but also ahead of you as roadblocks, and possible helicopters ready to drop spike strips could be up ahead.
It's difficult to explain mechanically why Hot Pursuit works so well. It's a lot of little things that come together to make it work so well. One of those things is the cars in the game. You get the impression that Criterion has some pent up car passion that was never expressed in the years they made Burnout when they made Hot Pursuit. One example of this is the fact that every single car in the game has a narration of a woman talking about the car, and it's historical importance, specifications, top speed, and goals of the manufactures. In the game itself the passion shows even more, as the finest of details are not skipped on the car models both as a standing piece of art and, the car in motion. The Bugatti Veyron's spoiler crawls up from the body of the car when you start to pick up speed, and will turn into a massive air brake like in real life when you hit the brakes. There are also no boring cars in the game, you don't start off in some old Kia and work your way up from there, the first car you get on the racer side is a Porsche, and it just goes on from there. Mazda RX-8, Mitsubishi EVO X, onto Jaguars, BMW M3's, then Zondas, Aston Martins, then the Mclaren F1, and the fastest production car in the world the Bugatti Veyron. While the handling of the car is massively exaggerated, the top speed and acceleration of the car is as true to life as it can be. 0-60 times are the same, and so are the top speeds of the cars as it's real life counterparts. And the engine noise is as authentic as the counterparts in real life. Just look at how the the Lamborghini Murcielago Lp-670 SV, roars and howl in the game compared to the Top Gear report on it.
Another one of those little things, if you picked up on the video is the amazing graphics and the sense of speed. We've all heard the debate that graphics don't make the game, but for this instance it's hard to argue that these amazing visuals don't add something incredibly significant to the gameplay. These visuals would be amazing in a game if it was some closed course, but the fact that it's in this open world environment that has almost 100 miles of amazing road is unbelievable. I already explained the incredibly diverse environments, but there are just a multitude of effects on top of the environments that make the driving experience nothing short of literally breathtaking. The way you hit the Nitrous and the rear brake lights start to trail this red line behind you, or when it rains or there's dirt road and how your wheels kick up the rain and dirt at 200 mph. And when you flick on that Turbo switch, it feels like something no one should have, as the vision around you starts to blur, and the camera pulls out a bit, making you feel like you strapped on a Saturn 5 Rocket onto the back of your car. And the car crashes are just as dramatic and devastating as you would expect from the people who made Burnout. They don't wreck up totally like in Paradise, but when they wreck, there's just sparks and debris flying everywhere, and when you get back into the race you clearly see just how messed up your car is after that crash. Windows are smashed, and the rear bumper looks like it's going to fall off. They also add a bit of touch in that if you take down someone yourself the car will basically try it's best to roll over like 3 times before it stops, allowing you to enjoy the full chaos and destruction of it.
The sound in conjunction is very solid. Though not the best soundtrack to come out of a racing game or a driving game in general, there are a few hits like Benny Benassi's Cinema that do showcase themselves very well. Compared to the last Burnout game with Avril Levine, this soundtrack is a welcome improvement. There's also the other soundtrack which is the engine noise. I already explained that they use the real life counterpart sounds, but it really is worth hammering home that the engine noise for all the cars, especially the Lamborghini’s are just spine chilling, especially when you go into a tunnel where the sound just echos throughout. The police radio chatter also adds a lot, and also from a gameplay perspective since you can often hear them setting up a roadblock ahead of you before you can actually see it. In addition to the police sirens, and the crackling thunder, the sound just works and adds a lot to the experience of the game.
The driving model in the game is tuned perfectly for this style of game. Attempting drifts and power slides are remarkably easy, requiring all but a tap of the hand brake or lightly feathering the regular brakes. The use of Nitrous on both sides are important, but gaining them is different for each side. The racer has to gain it by doing some risky driving, such as driving on oncoming traffic, slip-streaming other racers, driving close to pedestrian cars without hitting them, and of course power sliding. All this gives a very satisfying and tense, risk vs reward for the racing side as you may end up in a multi-lane highway, driving on a busy road on the wrong lane to get that extra amount of boost over your opponents. For the police however, dangerous driving is really against what their all about, so gaining nitrous is simply done by driving quickly and power sliding.
So why isn't this game a 5/5? Everything about it sounds perfectly done, and everything aspect of it's production values seem amazing. Well the reason is, that it's not that it has any problems, the game is simply missing a couple of things to really make it the only arcade driving game you really need. For one, on the car side they all are fantastically modeled with painstaking detail and animation, but as far as licensed cars fans go, there are no Ferrari's in the game. It's not exactly fair to level that as a criticism because it's generally Ferrari's fault because they don't want their cars to be seen as cars that can outrun the police, as silly as that sounds. But as for people who would be interested in this games licensed cars, it will come off as a disappointment as you can't run the 458 or a police Enzo. Though that's fairly minor, what isn't is the lack of actual Hot Pursuit events in the game. The Hot Pursuit mode only takes up about a third of the game, and the rest are time trials and standard races, which are fine, but pale in comparison to the main event, and even when you get to the Hot Pursuit mode there are conditions placed at times that are like “convertibles only” or “Italian cars only”. So there might be a Hot Pursuit event that you really like, but you can't match the car you want to it. This is especially a problem once your done with the main game and have played all the events, it's difficult to actually find the Hot Pursuit mode to play with the proper car class you want, and that’s before you discover there’s any conditions about it. The game would have really benefited with a random Hot Pursuit generator that would take a segment of the open world track and allowed you to race on it with any car if your liking. The game also lacks any tuning system causing some cars to be a bit unbalanced or their strengths just never show in some events. This is especially a problem in the highest end hyper cars, where there's only 6, and of the cars and 4 of them are Koenigsegg variations and one is the fastest out of all the others (the CCXR), giving absolutely no reason to use the other ones. It's the same problem down the line in the exotics, where you have the regular Lamborghini Murcielago, and you have the Murcielago LP-670 SV which by all accounts for racing purposes is just clearly better.
Still these issues don't detract themselves by the fact that Hot Pursuit basically has some of the most perfect arcade racing fundamentals down, and with the inclusion of licensed cars it provides the best arcade racing game for those who enjoy the gameplay of Burnout but like the the technical aspects and aesthetic of real cars, and lets face it, driving around in a police version of a Lamborghini or Veyron is just plain wicked. There is a multi-player mode but on the PC you can pretty much forget it unless you have friends as there is almost on one playing online. The autolog system in concept seems cool and from second hand experience it works, but unfortunately I have no one else who's playing this game on PC. The upshot is, on Steam Hot Pursuit runs for only $30 where Gamestops in my area are charging $50 or even $60 for the 360 version. A word of warning is I highly recommend you have a gamepad, and preferably the Xbox360 one as the keyboard control is confusing and highly inaccurate for drifting. Still, especially for $30 and if you're lucky enough to have some friends latch on and buy it with you, you'll have one of the best arcade racing experience this generation. And I cannot wait for a squeal to address these small issues to make this game literally perfect.
(A personal reviewers gripe: The Nissan GT-R in this game sucks)