Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit

26th June 2011 – 3.14 pm

I like racing games, arcade racing games specifically, Burnout 2 on the Gamecube being my current pinnacle of racing entertainment. I had high hopes for Burnout Paradise on the Xbox 360, and whilst the handling of the cars and sense of speed were great the game has serious flaws that have rendered it unplayable for me. Having to continually repair and change your car only at designated and sparse stations on the map makes free-driving tedious, in that you are either getting in to a race-stopping wreck every ten seconds or crawling around in the hunt for a repair station, which is antithetical to a racing game. Having to search for new races and challenges at certain junctions becomes tedious quickly, particularly when you need specific cars for some of them, and the interminable slow-motion crashes drag you out of the race for so long each time that they become boring and unwanted, made worse for being unskippable. Even so, Criterion Games show that they can create playable and exciting racing content, if you can actually get to it, and as they are the developer of Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit I am hoping to find the racing game I crave.

Installing the game gets off to a bad start, thanks to more unskippable content. Various splash screens, a damned advertisement for another game, more splash screens, and someone explaining the different modes of play—even after all the initial loading time has given me more than time to read the flimsy manual thrice over—has me wondering what benefits a console is supposed to be able to offer. The developers also don't seem to consider that, for one reason or another, you may not be installing and playing the game for the first time, and going through the same tedious screens may be far less informative than even the initial waste of time. I am less than impressed to start with. I also dislike generic rock music, and although I can turn the music volume down in the options I am presented with the same music on the loading screen that I can't get past by jamming the start buttong without the first couple of lines being pretentiously whispered. It may sound petty, but imagine your least-favourite genre of music being shoved down your throat every time you load a game.

There is more unskippable content during the game, presented thick and fast to start with as you gain ranks, both in police and racer modes. Again, it may be vaguely interesting the first time you see it but after the tenth new car you just want to get back to the racing. And equipment upgrades can be important to know about, but as two of the four upgrades on each side are identical it would be nice to be able to skip at least the second presentation of what is essentially the same item. Even getting in to races has a short introduction scene, and although there is at last an option to skip the material it often feels like you are not skipping much, still taking many seconds to drop you in to the car to race. And with the early races being quite short and the 'awards' coming quickly there is a fair amount of sitting passively compared to time on the roads. Having said all that, the time spent on the roads is awesome.

The bits between races are a little tedious, but the races themselves are mostly excellent. There are several types of race, where you are taking a car for a test drive to get to the end of the course as quickly as possible, there is a race between several drivers that the police want to break up, and duels between two racers. You can play as both a racer or a police officer, with different sets of challenges as each type. Both sides of play are independent of each other, with separate career progressions, and car and equipment upgrade paths, and you can play as one exclusively or mix-and-match as you desire. The two styles of play aren't really 'different', though, as you race along the course trying to crash the other cars off the road. You succeed as the racer if you reach the goal without being wrecked, getting more 'bounty' the higher you place amongst any other racers, and you succeed as the officer by wrecking the racers, getting a better grade of pass the more racers you wreck. It can be fun to play from both sides, and not restricting the player to be one or the other removes any feeling of imbalance or animosity between the two sides.

Racing the cars feels good. The style is much more that of an arcade game than simulation, so although there are tight corners to get around you don't need to brake hard and change in to first gear to crawl around safely, you can simply tap the brakes and set your car in to a huge drift at stupid speeds and light up your tyres, not even caring too much about hitting a tree on the exit. There are plenty of cars, but perhaps they are awarded to the player a little too early and often, as you don't really get to try them in sequence and get a feel for each, particularly as many challenges artificially restrict your choice. It is important to have a feel for the car too, as it can affect how you take the corners. Some cars definitely need to drift to make many corners, whereas some of the exotic cars hold the corners much better and can go flat out through them. Not knowing how the current car handles can make the first race in it awkward, and you often need to repeat the challenge just because your first impression of the car is inadequate to drive it properly. This can become frustrating in the rapid response police challenges, where you drive a new car on what is essentially an uninterrupted race to the finish line, but one where any crashes, scrapes, or bumps adds penalty seconds to your time. Not knowing the car only adds to the frustration of fishtailing to rack up the penalties, and these are my least favourite challenges. Thankfully, the racer equivalent challenges don't add penalties for scrapes and so are just another fun race.

It is possible to enter the free-driving mode, letting you drive anywhere in the county you want, with no restrictions. Apart from allowing you to practice with cars as you get them, this mode highlights several important points. First, there is no damage bar on your car, letting you drive and crash with impunity. You never need to repair, so never need to find a repair station, nor drive slowly and boringly in case you wreck and get another interminable slow-motion animation. Second, all challenges are selected from the map, not from having to find them from free-roaming, and car selection is made after the challenge is selected. These two points correct two of the most annoying aspects about Burnout Paradise and are a hugely welcome return to getting the player to the content (once you get past the initial screens).

Third, in free-driving mode it becomes clearer that when in a race there is only one route to take. Again, a problem with Burnout Paradise was the openness of the city, where although alternative routes were available there were also definitely wrong routes to take, although 'definitely' doesn't translate to 'obviously' when you are hurtling along and trying to read a largely unfamiliar map. Having options open but being shepherded in roughly the right direction when on a race would have been preferable, and Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit gets this right too. But, fourth, the landscape in Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit is far more limited than in Burnout Paradise. The latter has a full city of roads and intersections, whereas the former is essentially a bunch of linked racing routes, with little more to explore beyond that. Despite letting you race and crash without penalty, free-driving in Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit is ultimately unfulfilling because of the lack of depth to the countryside, particularly when compared with the complexity of Burnout Paradise. So it's good that the racing is thoroughly rewarding.

On top of driving very fast, screeching around hairpin bends, and sending cars rolling to their destruction down the road, there are also weapons to use. Oh yes, spike strips, road blocks, helicopters, EMP, jammers, and turbos are all available for use, although in limited amounts and only on designated challenges. They all add to the options and destruction throughout the race and create an extra dimension that perhaps isn't necessary, given the excitement of the race already, but definitely makes the race more interesting. You don't need to rely on the gadgets either, as you can bump other cars until they are too damaged to continue, although this doesn't work quite as fully expected. To inflict damage on a target car it seems that you need to strike the rear half of it with your front half, so trying to block or scrape it as it tries to get past doesn't have any effect, except maybe damaging your own car. I suppose this is because all race participants, racers and officers, are targets for destruction and intent needs to be determined somehow, so the rammer is deemed the one doing damage, which is fair enough and can be accounted for once realised.

One feature I would prefer to have available is courses with laps. Start-to-finish routes are fine but offer far less opportunity for becoming familiar with the circuit and being able to show continual improvement lap on lap. But laps around a circuit would negate the sense of reality behind the challenges, as the cops could simply put a roadblock down or wait for you to pass around again, so I can see why each race is along a single route rather than a circuit. But if a sense of reality is important then having pursuit officers driving vastly expensive supercars which they purposely ram in to other cars is absurd. There may be an over-budgeted force that can afford a Lamborghini to for high-speed pursuits, even if a helicopter would do just as well, but they would never want to damage it wantonly. It's only a game, though, and it's a lot of fun to imagine driving these cars, just don't think about what is actually happening.

Overall, I am having a whole lot of fun in a racing game again. There are still slow-motion crashes, and there are cut-aways to new police units after you, new use of weapons, and car crashes you cause, but they are handled well and always seem immersive rather than disruptive. Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit is perhaps not as much an arcade game as I would like but it has fast racing, doesn't care if I scratch the paintwork or lose a wheel, and has some really intense challenges. Racing four other cars whilst a dozen police are chasing along a ten mile route with spike strips, road blocks, and EMP weapons is simply fabulous. This is a modern and much improved Chase HQ.

Sorry, comments for this entry are closed.