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Criterion re-inserts itself into the arcade racing genre with a modern re-imagining of an EA classic...
The Need For Speed series has had an enduring relationship with police chases over the years. Even throughout its on/off love affair with souped-up boy-racer mobiles, the series has remained a leading guardian of cop chase gaming in the long wake of Chase HQ's enduring legacy. As the title would suggest then, Criterion's Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit reunites the series' original and most dearly remembered lovers: exotic supercars and equally ludicrous police vehicles chasing them. With the focus resting on cops vs. racers and the weaponisation of both sides, Criterion has brought the game into close alignment with its 90s namesake but, from here, the similarities end.
Hot Pursuit actually has much more in common with the game that made Criterion's name: Burnout. Most of the major gameplay dynamics, from how you build up nitrous boost to performing 'Takedowns' of opposing vehicles and avoiding streams of oncoming traffic, have been lifted directly from the series, so much so that you could almost call the game Burnout: Hot Pursuit. Somewhere, somebody in EA's marketing department is having an aneurysm, but none of this brand alignment business really matters to us - essence of classic Need For Speed infused with fillet of Burnout sounds lip-smackingly appealing regardless of how you serve it up.
And, for the most part, it delivers - ironically enough it's the Hot Pursuit styling that shines and the Burnout features that seem to flounder. Hot Pursuit splits its single-player career and the online multiplayer between 'Cop' and 'Racer' components, meaning that you'll play on one side or the other depending on the event you chose. As the game progresses, you'll then rack up separate driver profiles for either side of the law. The 'Cop' side is engaging throughout thanks mostly to some solidly designed modes and race types that complement the game's central concept of busting the bad guys/evading the fuzz well. In fact, Hot Pursuit easily trumps the likes of Pursuit Force to place itself as the best game of recent times to have you chasing down bad guys while driving increasingly elaborate police cars. But, for all the solidity of Hot Pursuit's 'Cop' component, it's the 'Racer' events that really let the game down.
On either side of the law, race modes are very much the standard Criterion fare. Time-trial themed events are interspersed with various types of competitive races against other drivers, while Criterion also makes a welcome return to linear tracks as opposed to the open-world fraternizing of Burnout Paradise. Of all the various game types, it's the 'Hot Pursuit' races - where a fleet of police cars chase a gang of unruly speedsters - that undeniably steal the show. It's basically the equivalent of what would happen if the Gumball Rally's sharp end were to meet head-on with the most well funded policing force in human history, albeit with EMP weapons and spike strips thrown in for good measure. Whether playing as a cop or a racer, these 'Hot Pursuits' shine both on and offline - we could almost play a whole game of this single mode to be perfectly honest.
Criterion also dishes out 'Interceptor' or 'Gauntlet' events (depending on whether you're a cop or racer), which basically play out the same way as 'Hot Pursuits' only with a solitary cop car chasing down a single racer. One nifty touch in the 'Interceptor' events is that Criterion opens up its linear tracks a bit with crossroads that offer four separate routes - AI racers then do a good job of duping you at the crossroads or doubling back with a swift u-turn, making your chase-down that little bit harder to execute. The standard way to take out racers is by T-boning them with your cop car, like a 'Takedown' in the Burnout games, although an impressive arsenal of weaponry offers plenty of alternative options as well. On the cop side of the action, spike strips send racers spinning out of control, EMP weapons stun them a bit and disable their weapons, road blocks do precisely what you'd expect really, and police helicopters can fly out in front of the leading pack and drop a spike strip in front of them.
To counter this, racers then have their own EMP weapons, the ability to 'Jam' incoming EMP strikes, a turbo for added boost, and spike strips as well. Each weapon works on a recharge limit, so you have to wait for an allotted time after using them before they can be dispensed again. There are a few issues with the balancing of these weapons though, particularly in the online game modes. EMPs, for example, can be easily avoided by simply slamming on the brakes and dropping in behind your attacker - this is particularly grating as EMPs really need to be used at close range to be effective. Another slightly confusing piece of design comes with the police helicopters, which are the most valuable of your weapons on the cop side due to their scarcity but actually aren't that effective in practice. Even if the choppers do hit their mark, which often isn't the case, a solitary spike strip is perhaps a slightly weak pay-off when the racers have a hearty turbo boast as their alternative.
Nonetheless, each weapon levels-up through a number of tiers as you progress in the career, with bigger cop cars in the road blocks and police helicopters that can track racers through tunnels as examples of upgraded features. Throughout all of this the spike strips and road blocks are the stars of the bunch really and, for this reason among a few others, driving as a cop does hold much of the appeal during gameplay. Whatever the case, NFS: Hot Pursuit is certainly at its best when cops and weapons are involved but, surprisingly, this isn't always the case throughout the game. During much of the 'Racer' side of the career and in one of the main online modes, all the action is stripped down to racers without any weapons at all and no cops in sight whatsoever.
It's a confusing decision by Criterion because it leaves an unseasoned taste throughout a large portion of the experience. The studio relies a bit too heavily on some of its old Burnout tricks to pull you through these race types as well, with the emphasis put on drifting and driving into oncoming traffic to build-up boost. However, without some of the heart-pounding sense of speed in the Burnout games and the skillfully choreographed set-pieces, Hot Pursuit's rendition isn't quite all there. More troubling is the fact that there's little point trying to take out opponent cars during these races (in fact, the loading screens advise you against it) as persistent barging won't result in any 'Takedowns' or added boost. Some decently designed shortcuts do add to the experience and, as you'd expect, the format has been borrowed from Burnout here. Once again though, the lack of hair-raising jumps or minimal margins for error seen in Burnout's shortcuts make Hot Pursuit's feel a bit plain in comparison.
This somewhat unsatisfying feel to the 'Racer' side of the action continues into the time-trials, with the similarities to Burnout effectively not delivering on initial promises due to a lack of subtle design touches. However, the 'Cop' time-trials do add something a little fresh to the experience, mainly due to time penalties that are incurred whenever you hit a civilian vehicle or crash into barriers on the track. This puts an added impetus on precise driving techniques and ups the ante a little as a result. Throughout all of these various events though, Criterion's ability to set various scoring ranks for each event is once again unrivalled. Gold, Silver, and Bronze ranks (or Distinction, Merit, and Pass for cops) are dished out depending on your performance in each event and, as with the Burnout games, the Gold rank is always enough in reach to make you play again but always just far enough away to be infuriatingly difficult to achieve.
If it's these Gold ranks that you're after for all the events in Hot Pursuit's campaign, then you'll be beavering away for 15 hours at the very least - as always, Criterion has produced a driving game that's very well stocked. A superbly integrated 'Autolog' hub for the online portion of the game then puts added bragging rights to these high scores, with lists that allow you to compare friends' scores and a 'Wall' where you can post news about scores that you've just beaten. As with the 'Freeburn' mode in Burnout Paradise, Criterion is once again leading the way in how it seamlessly links the single and multiplayer offerings through an all-pervasive online network.