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Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit
Graphics: 8.3
Gameplay: 8.5
Sound: 8.8
Control: 8.7
Replay Value: 8.6
Rating: 8.6

Need for Speed is one of those iconic franchises that should never die. Despite a few lackluster installments over the years, there’s always a chance for a fast-paced racing franchise to redeem itself, and NFS has always managed to bounce back. This time around, Burnout pros Criterion had a chance to once again solidify EA’s long-running series as the premier arcade-style racing experience available. However, while the final result is always entertaining and benefits from that glossy veneer commonly associated with Burnout, I think we fall a tad shy of elite superstardom. There are a few annoying issues with which to contend, and if your PS3 isn’t online, the game becomes surprisingly bare. That being said, the sense of speed, solid technicals, entertaining multiplayer, various events, multiple hot cars, and awesome tools (road block, turbo, helicopter, etc.) make Hot Pursuit well worth playing.

As was the case with the demo, one notices that the lush environments come alive in the daytime, but become a little underwhelming at night. Seacrest County holds some breathtaking vistas and beautiful stretches of road, loaded with plenty of shortcuts, hairpin turns, and of course, the finest cars imaginable. Vehicle detailing is excellent, as are the effects; everything from the reflection of your taillights in the rain to the immensely satisfying crash effects adds a heaping helping of flavor. Some of the backdrops fail to impress when up close and personal and perhaps one could argue for a lack of sharpness, but this remains a consistent, professional visual presentation. The frame rate only hitched on me once but I could never get it to happen again, and although you’re limited to the coastal environment (no snow or lava, or anything), we’re generally happy with what we see.

The sound is just as good, if not a touch better, thanks to a diverse soundtrack that allows the “need for speed” to hit another level of immersion. There is some voice work – a woman that makes the initial introductions and informs you of new unlocks, plus radio communication – and that’s quite pleasant, and the effects that go along with the spectacular crashes are classic Criterion. Just awesome. I’m not the biggest fan of the different engine sounds, as I think they’re not quite pronounced enough, and the music would often take a back seat to the effects, but these are minor drawbacks. There’s just something about hurtling down a picturesque stretch of road at obscene speeds, the hard-hitting music urging you onward, the gritty scraping of metal on metal causing your teeth to clench, and the jarring impact of a crash leaving you breathless. This proves that Criterion did their homework; they instituted exactly what they do best, and combined it with what makes NFS great.

Just so you don’t think I’m complaining bitterly about an admittedly solid and super fun title, I’m going to start with all the positives. First on the list is the Autolog structure, which incorporates the performances of your friends with the standard Career experience. The mechanic will automatically provide recommendations from friends, give you certain goals – i.e., try to beat so-and-so’s best time – and allow you to leave messages on the Wall for bested buddies. This is in addition to the online racing but in reality, the Career mode with Autolog activated feels like a spin-off of the multiplayer component. The reason is because if you’ve got a lot of friends playing the game, you’ll soon find that a gold medal doesn’t mean quite as much as beating the times of your racing compatriots. You’ll soon find yourself replaying certain events for the express purpose of topping your friends. It’s fantastic, but I’ll come back to this in a minute.

Second on the goodie list is the accessible, reliable control that features a touch more realism than we ever had in any Burnout title. It’s still a far cry from Gran Turismo (and even from Need for Speed: SHIFT), but at least the vehicles have weight in Hot Pursuit, and they do perform somewhat as expected; i.e., as their real-life counterparts might perform. Obviously, not all cars power-slide in the exact same way, and not all can make silly turns at silly speeds but that’s the arcade aspect, and it’s absolutely essential for this franchise. That’s just my opinion, of course, but I still say NFS should never become a simulator; it should always be just like this. A little dash of authenticity is appreciated and doesn’t hinder us. Just keep that fun core that doesn’t require a gearhead mentality. Overall, the controls are responsive, the frame rate is 99% rock solid, and the smoothness and fluidity is niiiiice.

Thirdly, there are a combination of smaller positive elements that I particularly enjoyed: the sense of speed is really insane, especially if you have the misfortune of taking an overpowered car on a particularly narrow and bendy track. It keeps you pinned to the edge of your seat, where you should be for a game like this. Then there’s the freedom of bouncing back and forth between various events; you do have to unlock different events as you progress but within the first hour, you’ll have multiple options on your map. Lastly, there are the enhancements that make single-player and multiplayer action totally worthwhile; the spike strip and EMP are only two examples and they sorta give the game a Wipeout feeling. The multiplayer is a blast and almost never skips a beat. Oh, and I should probably mention the cars, because there are lots, and they’re all so unbelievably sweet; these are the most envious rides in the world.

It all gels into a wildly entertaining experience that can really hook you. But if I may…I must vent a bit. 1. If you’re going to include traffic, don’t put three cars out there. Put traffic, so we’re always expecting it and one random vehicle in the middle of nowhere won’t entirely derail one hell of a run. 2. So…even two spike strips aren’t enough to bust a racer? …really? Then what’s the point? I can damage him faster with my car. Good for finishing off, I suppose. 3. Opponents obviously have better visibility than I do. One of these days, I would just love to see one slam headlong into a car when cresting one of those blind hills. 4. Damage dealt can’t be quite that erratic. A racer has half his health left; I’m along beside him and force him into a head-on collision…and yet, there doesn’t seem to be any crash in my rearview mirror. Everything just stops and then he keeps going. Then, the very next round, he loses three-quarters of his health by smacking a guardrail. …okay.

And lastly, here’s the biggest issue I’m sure other critics won’t even bother to mention because they assume the entire world is connected online. But that isn’t the case. It really isn’t. And if you aren’t online with the Autolog in the Career mode, the game loses a lot of its luster; it becomes a very straightforward, go do this event, unlock a car, go do this event, unlock a new piece of equipment, rinse and repeat about a hundred times. You can’t fiddle with your cars at all, there’s no story and in short, there’s no incentive to hit up another event if you already passed it and unlocked the next event. On the surface, it may not seem like much to have your Friends’ times posted, and to have recommendations and all that, but after playing for a while, I realized it was almost crucial to the experience. Without it, the game just isn’t as engrossing. To call it a borderline MMO-Racing title is inaccurate but this emphasis on social participating is obvious, and the solitary, unplugged player does suffer.

Also, let’s not forget that EA Online Pass program; if you buy the game new, you’re fine but if you buy it used, you need to fork over the $10 before you can connect to their servers. And for a game like this, that’s sort of a big deal. This all being said, what lies at the center of Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit is worthy of praise and as a direct result, is worthy of your time and money. The good absolutely outweighs the bad and I freely admit that my complaints in this review can be deemed as very subjective; other racers may not have been quite as frustrated quite as often. Therefore, considering the extraordinarily well-done production on the whole, from the diverse events (chase or race is always an appealing contrast) to the crazy sense of speed to the Autolog to the accomplished technicals to the super cool equipment…it’s just dripping with classic NFS attitude. And that’s hardly a bad thing.

The Good: Mostly pleasing graphics and great sound. Reliable, accessible control. Diverse events. Wicked cool cars and equipment. Race or chase is a perfect contrast. Great sense of speed. High longevity. Autolog is an addictive feature.

The Bad: Some backgrounds are unimpressive. AI blessed with ESP. Erratic damage dealing. If unconnected to the Internet, experience loses some appeal.

The Ugly: “One car…just one car in the middle of effing nowhere…I had it…I had it…”

11/20/2010   Ben Dutka