Version tested: PlayStation 3
How do you define Need for Speed? A perennial stocking filler for Electronic Arts' long-suffering investors? A neon love letter to Vin Diesel and Paul Walker's The Fast and The Furious? After last year's Shift, perhaps it's just the latest addition to a long line of challengers in a field previously dominated by Bizarre Creations?
Nonsense, says Criterion. It's about going really f***ing fast.
If Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit is remembered for one thing, it will be for putting the "speed" back in Need for Speed. Even the lowliest cars (themselves things like RX-8s and Boxters) scorch the tarmac of fictional Seacrest County with their absurd velocity, but as you advance through the rankings either as a cop or a racer and start burning your way around in Lamborghinis, Maseratis and Ford GTs, the sense of raw pace is beyond anything we've seen since the Nürburgring sprints of Project Gotham Racing 3.
The line between brilliant, beautiful speed and epic, catastrophic head-on collisions is measured in milliseconds, and every extra pixel of clarity is vital – we haven't strained this intently to decipher the vanishing point since F-Zero GX on the GameCube. Are those headlights on the horizon? Is that a spike strip? In fact, sometimes Hot Pursuit is so fast that, even though you know the game's physics-defying drifts will catch you as you dive into a hairpin at close to 200mph, you're slightly scared to put your foot back on the gas.
Hot Pursuit is unlikely to be remembered for only one thing though, because it has plenty of memorable tricks up its sleeve. The Career mode, in which you play as both racers and the cops that chase them, seems a relatively standard affair – a series of events spread around Seacrest County that gradually etch memorable routes out of interconnected highways in the desert, on the coast and through the icy mountains, over a variety of event types – but it has numerous supporting struts that give the lie to its simplicity.
It's good enough at horizontal variety, providing a range of power-ups with which to enforce or evade the law (spike strips, road blocks, EMP lock-ons, turbos, etc.) and varying the number and type available for each event. It also mixes up straightforward races, time trials, duels and pursuits, so you seldom do the same thing twice in a row. But it's good at vertical variety too, throwing in occasional "preview" events – usually time trials – that give you the taste of a new car 50 or 100mph faster than your current ride.
A bigger impact is made by the "Autolog", which uses your friends list to populate leaderboards for every event and challenges you to beat their times. You can post the results to your "Wall", and like Bizarre's underrated Blur, this social interface adds a welcome extra layer of competition to your single-player exploits – although in this case it opts for its own internal tracking system rather than spamming Facebook and Twitter.
This similarity is probably a product of the zeitgeist rather than a sideways glance, but Hot Pursuit certainly takes direct lessons from the experience-based progression systems set in motion by Metropolis Street Racer many years ago. You're rewarded with "bounty" for your finishing times and antics on the track – even negatives, with a 2500-point boost providing a minor silver lining to the cloud of a 20th Burnout-style auto-wreck.
As you advance through the ranks gathering bounty, you gain access to new event series, power-ups and vehicles, and the pace of unlocks is almost as breathless as the game. So much so, in fact, that it's sometimes frustrating not to be able to immediately repeat an event you've failed because the game wants to show you what you've unlocked with the XP you earned in failure (although a new McLaren MP4-12C in the garage is nothing to sniff at, of course).
With two simultaneous Career paths to explore, ranking up as either a cop or a racer, many of the unlocks overlap in theme and substance, but the difference between pursuing and being pursued is acute out on track. There, you're either shunting and tackling evasive felons, or doing your utmost to squeeze through roadblocks or skirt past spike strips.
Wherever combat is joined, the tools on both sides are elegant and reserved; enough to ensure you have options, but not enough to overwhelm or unbalance. Hot Pursuit's weapons are as much about splitting your focus as hurting you: EMP warnings fizzle mid-screen as you writhe across central reservations and into the brush to escape the impact, spike strips make a telltale zing noise when they deploy across the road surface, and helicopters will hover threateningly overhead before they deploy spikes.
Everything looks stunning throughout, although new cars are often more distinctive in visual terms than on the track, where more or less everything is pretty grippy and good at doing Ridge Racer powerslides, whatever the angle. This certainly isn't a game where you can feel a particular track sealant coming up through specific tyre-treads as you might in Forza Motorsport 3, but then you won't be too concerned about that when you're trying to ram someone off the road in the driving rain at 4am in the morning.
Attention to detail elsewhere is as crisp and immaculate as Burnout fans have come to expect. Cars are silhouetted in bright colours in the rear-view mirror for visibility, while everything coming at you down the highway has its headlights on, even during the day – both subtle lessons presumably well-won through usability studies. Plus there are little visual touches, like a cunning ribbon effect used for the crash barriers and road markings that stretch to the horizon, avoiding the usual jarring level-of-detail transitions at middle and far distance.
And while Hot Pursuit enjoys its Burnout-style camera cutaways for crashes, takedowns and successful power-up impacts, it never deposits you in danger when it returns you to the action. In fact, it grabs the steering wheel from you to make sure you're set, especially if you're halfway round a bend, easing you back in rather than accidentally rewarding you with failure.
Online, the game caters for up to eight players, and while it appears to lack host migration, it seems to lack little in netcode quality. Most of our games across a variety of modes presented few if any problems, apart from the very occasional car teleporting down the track during a lag spike. Thanks to the well-thought-out range of power-ups, it's possible to endanger dominant racers further down the track with roadblocks and helicopter spike-drops, but a truly skilful player won't find himself constrained artificially. There's no blue shell.
Hot Pursuit does lose some of its momentum as you advance through the Career mode, opting to peg you back with squirmy racer AI that dodges your attempts to protect. The decision not to rely on traffic density for difficulty feels like the right one - crashing in NFS is more of a hindrance than it was on the streets of Paradise City (at least once the Restart option made it onto the Pause menu) – but the alternative isn't ideal either.
Otherwise, though, Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit is an unqualified triumph. It's stuffed with content but rarely for the sake of it, and knowing Criterion it will be handsomely supported for months to come, even though it's already the best pure arcade racing game since Burnout Paradise. For Need for Speed, it's a return to critical form to match, justify and potentially expand the series' enduring popularity.
9 / 10