This has been another good year for racing fans. ModNation Racers brought the idea of true customization to kart racing fans while Sonic and Sega All-Stars Racing proved to be a worthy challenger to the Mario Kart franchise. Those who wanted kart action with real cars came away pleased with Blur, and Split/Second brought about some Burnout-style carnage with solid racing action. Even off-road fans got a new game in the form of Nail'd, though the jury is still out on that one. More importantly, Gran Turismo 5, the oft-delayed simulation giant, was finally released to the masses. Fans had a good amount to enjoy throughout 2010.
There's still one more racing game not accounted for, and it comes from EA Games, a publisher that has had at least one racing title per year for the past two generations without fail. After suffering through some lethargic moments with the Need for Speed franchise, the series got a sudden boost again thanks to the efforts of the surprisingly sim-like Need for Speed: Shift. This year, the publisher handed over the series' reins to Criterion Games, and its mission was to continue the quality of last year's entry and re-invent one of the more popular versions of the game from the early PC and PSone era. After spending a good amount of time with Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit, it's clear that the mission has been accomplished.
The fictional area of Seacrest County is the setting for Hot Pursuit. The area is rich with different locales, from seaside roadways to heavy forests and open deserts. It's also home to a vibrant community of racing fanatics hell-bent on turning the county in to its own personal speeding playground. Thus begins the constant war between the racers and the SCPD, who are now outfitted with some of the best cars specifically designed to handle the threat. As a racer, your job is to come in first and outrun the cops. As part of the SCPD, your task is to stop the illegal races in any way you can.
The game consists of two major modes: single-player and multiplayer. In the single-player mode, you can play as the racers or the SCPD. For the most part, each faction has access to a few race types that are unique to its side. Racers can access four event types. Race is your standard organized race, where you pick a car from the qualifying class and try to outrun the competition to make first place. Time Trials has you trying to complete a given track in the fastest possible time. Duel is a one-on-one race where winning is the only option, and Gauntlet has you trying to survive capture from a gang of cops for as long as possible. The cops, on the other hand, can only partake in two event types. Rapid Response is a race for cop cars to see who can make it to the designated spot as quickly as possible, while Interceptor is much like Duel, except you have to bust the suspect car as quickly as possible.
Both factions have access to two modes. Freedrive allows you to pick any track and drive without having to worry about any penalties. Hot Pursuit differs depending on your chosen faction, but the scenario remains the same: one cop takes down a whole gang of racers. As the cop, your mission is to bust all four racers before anyone reaches the finish line. Aside from bashing each racer until his car's energy level gets depleted, you have four weapons to aid you. Spike strips launch in front of or behind the cop and blow out a racer's tires for big damage. The EMP disables the other weapons for the target racer and produces significant damage. The helicopter keeps the target in your sights while the roadblock puts up a wall of cars that the racer must pass through or incur large amounts of damage. As a racer, your job is to outrun the cops and your competition to finish first before being busted. Like the cops, you also have a few tools to help you out. Aside from the EMP and spike strip, you have the radar jammer, which blinds cops to your position for a short while. You also have a turbo boost that is much more powerful than your standard nitro but can only be used once per event.
Each faction has 20 different levels, and those levels are governed by the amount of points earned during each event. Points are earned for winning races while bonus points are given for things such as fastest time, least amount of crashes and most racer busts. Points help increase rank and work in tandem to open up more cars in each of the five classes as well as open up more environments and events in each environment. While earned points are specific to each faction, you can switch between each side at any time, doubling the length of the campaign since a player can completely finish one side's events and still have to contend with finishing the events for the other side.
Fans of the Burnout series will see that Criterion has carried over plenty of traits from that series. Car wrecks and damage haven't really been an issue, but this entry has amplified the damage without going overboard. You won't see cars exploding, but expect the deformation to be bigger than torn bumpers and scratches. You can even expect cars to flip over and to see some vehicles wrap around posts. Speed is another big thing, as the game properly produces the feeling of you going at hundreds of miles an hour down a long stretch of road without the use of nitro. With nitro activated, you'll feel like you're going fast enough to possibly lose control.
That feeling of big speed is helped out by the fact that there aren't any clunkers. Whether you're a racer or a cop, every car from the Mitsubishi Lancer to the Nissan 350Z feels fast, and even the standard police cruiser feels like it can match horsepower with the best of them. The biggest tell in terms of how much Burnout has had an influence on the game is the way nitro is earned. Driving at dangerous speeds, driving on the wrong side of the road, and creating near misses boosts the nitro gauge and creates a sense of exciting and dangerous driving, and while it's much harder to take down the opposition, doing so earns you the maximum amount of nitro boost available.
Multiplayer feels a bit light on the modes but, for once, that isn't much of a complaint. You have your standard races against up to eight other racers in any of the designated tracks, and you also have Interceptor mode, which pits one racer against one cop in a duel to determine who comes out on top. By far the most exciting mode is Hot Pursuit; like the single-player version, it pits a team of four racers against a team of four cops in races that are both cooperative and competitive. Racers still have to struggle with getting to first place, but they also try to work together to take down the cops. Meanwhile, the cops work together to bust all of the racers, but extra points are given to the cops who initiate the killing blow against a racer. The mode is more exciting than the offline version simply because of the human element and the immediate availability of the weapons. The combination goes a long way to making you want to play consecutive matches against the same group of people over and over again. Like the offline single-player mode, all online activity feeds points into your overall profile, so those who mostly play multiplayer will still receive the same benefits and level increases as those who mostly partake in the single-player experience.
As for performance, it's smooth with no hint of lag, and while you'll find a little bit of activity in standard races and in Interceptor, expect the bulk of the competition to congregate around Hot Pursuit mode. Keep in mind that this is another game that requires its own online pass, so while you'll be getting it free with a new copy, expect to fork over $10 if you buy it used.
Tying all of this together is something that has been dubbed Autolog, and it is one of the series' better innovations. Autolog is an overall shell for the game that keeps players constantly connected to their friends' activities and records. You can post game photos of your races or view other people's photos, or you can put up direct challenges for your friends on specific tracks. The more exciting feature, though, is the automatic challenges put forth by the game once you complete milestones. At the start of each race, you're given a standings list that consists of your friends' times on each track. Completing the track will not only get your name on the list, but it will also send a notification to friends who are playing the game. From there, those friends can look at the post and immediately try to challenge it. In case they beat you, you'll get the notification and the opportunity to try to beat the new challenge. It turns the game into a constant battle of besting one another, and it carries with it an addictive element that can keep players glued to a single track for hours.
It also doesn't help that these messages constantly appear anytime you're in a menu, so you're forced to pay attention to every little message that comes up on-screen. In case the people on your friends list don't play the game, the system probes deeper by looking into their own lists and seeking out friends of friends until they find people who have played the game. It keeps things personal without resorting to using complete strangers as your competition, again making the whole experience much more addictive since you'll actually care about your competition. One big drawback is that it becomes useless if the connection to the server goes down — something that occurred a few times during the review session. The game is still good without Autolog activated, but the experience is diminished if you aren't connected all of the time.
Even the hardest of critics never found fault with previous entries' graphics, and Hot Pursuit is no exception. The environments are nice and varied and contain some excellent scenery. Whether you're racing in the desert at night or along the coastline and into the beginning of the forest, there's no shortage of interesting things to look at, and the pristine look is maintained whether you're driving at 200 miles an hour or driving at a more casual speed as you take pictures of your ride. The cars look great, especially the SCPD versions of some of these vehicles, though there is still the nagging issue of jaggies on some of the finer lines when you see the cars up close. Car damage isn't as extensive and spectacular as you'll see in Burnout, but there are still some wrecks to be had. Torn bumpers, scratches, deformed body parts, partial wrapping around poles, and shattered glass are accompanied by showers of sparks and flying debris, making it a gruesome sight. The level of damage isn't limited to player cars, as pedestrian cars get the same treatment. Overall, it's another good-looking racer in the series.
Sound has been another strong point for the series, and this entry carries on the tradition well. The chatter of the cops on the police radio is nice, and the effects are also good. The crunching of metal and the roar of the engines never sounded so good, especially if you're using a nice sound system. The music is the typical rock and techno assortment that you've become accustomed to hearing from the Need For Speed: Underground days, and while it is still a good selection, the songs only play during normal races and free ride modes. The best music featured in the game comes from Hot Pursuit matches. The orchestral music of the chase is high-tempo material and provides a good pulse-pounding beat for both cops and racers. Though there's only one tune to race with, it's exciting enough that it never feels old.
The controls, like everything else, remain well done for this game. Due to the arcade-style roots, the steering isn't too touchy, so the chances are slim of you spinning out of control on turns without having anyone bump you. It still requires some deft handling with the gas and brakes to get through some turns, but trying to get through police barricades without a scratch is entirely possible thanks to the steering sensitivity. All of the cars feel different when it comes to handling, but the learning curve isn't so high that you'd have to spend countless hours learning how to drive one car properly. One concern is with the weapons system, which is mapped to the d-pad. It feels a little out of the way no matter what controller you use, and unless you're using a steering wheel or have fingers long enough to reach across to the d-pad, you'll often have to let go of the left analog stick to initiate the given weapon. This may be perfectly fine to deal with on straightaways, but it also kills any type of weapon use on big and sharp turns unless you don't mind losing some control for a brief second.
Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit remains a fun, innovative game. The basic cop/speeder mechanic remains fun after all these years, and while the single-player element provides plenty for the player to do, the online multiplayer gives the game legs thanks to the vibrant community. The Autolog feature gives the title the same addictive elements as Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved 2 and ensures that you'll always have a challenge to conquer (even if you don't go for online races). These elements, packed with some good technical aspects, not only make the game the best of the series thus far but also make it a strong contender for the year's best racer. This should be in everyone's gaming library.
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