Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit is a great return to form from a series that feels like it's been slowly losing its way over the last few years. It achieves this by stripping away a lot of the extra junk that's been building up around the edges of the last several games and refocusing on actual driving. You aren't going to spend time tuning your cars, buying upgrade packages, or working your way through some hackneyed storyline in Hot Pursuit. Instead, you're going to build up your arsenal of available cars as both a racer and a cop across a set of single-player challenges and a multiplayer side that's one of the best online modes that the Need For Speed series has ever seen.
The crux of Hot Pursuit is the interplay between racers and police chasers, and at any time you'll be able to take on race events or police events, with a separate set of experience points and unlockable cars for each side. As you take on events, either offline or on, you'll earn "bounty," which increases your level and gives you access to more cars across five different tiers. There are also a set of career milestones in both careers, so you'll get bounty bonuses for crashing 100 times, spending set amounts of time driving at top speed, drifting for a long time, and so on. On top of that, you'll also unlock upgraded offensive and defensive gear when you effectively use the weapons you're given when racers and cops collide.
Those weapons are the thing that separates Hot Pursuit from the rest of the recent Need For Speed games. In events where both cops and racers are present, cops are given abilities like roadblocks, helicopters, spike strips, and EMP blasts. Calling in roadblocks and choppers lets you deal with racers from a distance, while dropping spike strips behind you or firing EMP charges ahead of you are the preferred method of dealing with nearby offenders. The racers, however, can fight back, as they have EMPs and spike strips of their own. Racers can also jam police radar and abilites with a jammer and bust out a turbo boost that's way faster than the standard nitrous oxide system fitted onto every car in the game. These powers don't turn the game into Super Mario Kart or Blur, though. The number of times you can use each ability is very limited, forcing you to be strategic about when and where you use them. They don't replenish at any point during an event, either. It gives the game a different feel than the typical weapon-based racing game, though it would have been nice to see fewer shared abilities between the two factions or some sort of loadout customization.
Hot Pursuit is at its best in the actual "Hot Pursuit" mode, where a team of racers tries to get to the finish line while the cops try to stop them. But in the career, it feels like too many of the racer goals don't have any cops at all, which turns it into a very standard, understeer-heavy racing game. And if an event is going to have a police presence, you always know that up front. A little more surprise about when and where the cops are going to try to stop your races--which is how the series has handled this in the past--would have been nice.
While everything you do feeds into your experience points and unlocked cars, there's also a full career mode with a couple of different ways to attack the events. The default career just gives you a map of event locations and a "new" tag on a location means there's an event there you haven't tried yet. Cop and racer missions are both listed on this map, letting you freely interchange between the two. The map isn't great at letting you know what's next, though, and it sort of leaves you hunting around the screen to see what's new, rather than quickly letting you know what the next event is.
The other way to move through the career is to follow your friends. The game has a set of friends leaderboards that it uses to recommend events to you. It's termed the "Autolog," and it'll occasionally tell you about events you haven't tried yet, but it's more focused on letting you know when people on your friends list have beaten your times on events you've already completed. If you're the type of person that lives for beating your friends, you'll love it. But as someone who was also interested in seeing events that I hadn't seen yet, the whole Autolog feels a little underwhelming and overly in your face.
The single-player events on the racer side often feel like they don't have enough cops in them, but the police side of the career is really exciting. Sometimes it places you up against a full team of racers in the Hot Pursuit events. These aren't too tough because the opposing racers are always following a race track. But the Interceptor events, which gives the AI racer the option to go anywhere and spin around at will, open things up in a cool way. Both sides have point-to-point races against the clock, but on the police side, you're penalized for collisions. Overall, the career is decent, but you're more likely to find lasting excitement via the game's online mode.
There are three online events to choose from. Race is the least exciting of the bunch because it's just a basic race. Hot Pursuit allows up to eight players to break into two teams and battle it out across the game's courses. It smoothly moves from one event to the next and, if you're playing public games, it'll auto-balance the teams and swap you between the two factions automatically. The Interceptor mode is also available online, and it's a two-player, one-on-one mode. It doesn't seem like too many people are playing Interceptor online, as it can be hard to get a game going. It's interesting, but Hot Pursuit is where it's at. That you earn bounty and can upgrade your weaponry by playing online only helps to make the online mode more addicting and exciting, since you're unlocking additional cars every few races.
Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit feels like it's almost always locked at 30 frames per second. While that's not 60, it's smooth enough to convey a real sense of speed. When you've unlocked the fifth tier of cars and start barreling through these courses at like 250 miles per hour, it feels insane. Also, the game has really terrific weather effects. The rain and the wet roads look fantastic, and thunderstorms that light up the nighttime tracks are frequent and really, really cool. Beyond that, the car models look good and crunch up pretty well after a crash... well, pretty well for licensed cars, anyway. Considering how hard some of these hits can be at top speed, it'd be nice to see more realistic damage. The racing in Hot Pursuit also sounds great, with throaty exhausts and some pretty good cop talk over the radios to spice things up.
Though I occasionally felt like I was fighting the front-end UI to get it to tell me which events I should be trying next, the gameplay offers just enough variety to work well in short bursts and the online modes are terrific fun that could keep you coming back for a while as you strive to gain levels and get a better, longer spike strip.