The Criterion developers demoing Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit on EA's E3 booth say that the new game shares a subtitle with 1998's Need for Speed III for the simple reason that it sounds really cool. Also, creative director Craig Sullivan explains how considering those two words makes his job easier.
"It's going to have pursuits in it, and they're going to be pretty f***ing hot. Anything else is just a waste of time."
This isn't a game that wastes any time at all in setting out its stall when you play it. It is exactly what you would expect a game in the Need for Speed series developed by the house of Burnout, Criterion, to be. It's very fast, and set on open, sweeping roads. It has immediate, drifty handling and painfully crunchy impact physics. It's full of ultra-exotic real-life hardware like the Lamborghini Reventon, Bugatti Veyron, Pagani Zonda and Koenigsegg.
This time, however, they aren't going to be sporting the race trim of the track or the custom bodykits of street cool. They'll either be showroom-sleek or tricked out with black-and-white paint and flashing lights as the ultimate patrolman's fantasy. When the Veyron cop car raises its spoiler, it says "STOP" on it.
Need for Speed has long featured police chases, but always cast the player as the hunted. Apparently Need for Speed fans' most-requested feature for seven years has been to play as a cop, so Hot Pursuit grants their wish, offering two complete single-player campaigns, one on either side of the racer/chaser divide. It also, of course, serves Criterion with a hook for competitive, combative multiplayer.
The show-floor demo consists of a round of one-on-one Interceptor. The two players are dumped close to each other into Hot Pursuit's open world: 100 miles of highways in a natural wilderness with a Midwestern feel, dusty deserts climbing into rocky, mountainous pine forests. There's very light and occasional traffic on the roads, nothing close to Burnout Paradise levels of business. The racer is trying to get far enough away from the cop to escape, the cop to bust the racer by wrecking his or her car.
The handling is, unsurprisingly, strongly reminiscent of Burnout. It's ultra-fast and a bit understeery, but that's fine, because progressive, high-speed and very controllable drifts are triggered with a light tap of the brake. The handbrake is for pulling wild 180-degree turns which will take a little time to get properly under control, but it will be worth it, because sudden changes of direction are a very useful tactic. You also have nitro boosts limited by a cooldown.
Both players have some additional tactical tools at their disposal on the d-pad. The cop can summon a roadblock ahead of the racer if he has him on his mini-map radar, trigger an EMP burst that slows the racer down and fuzzes up his display, or call in aerial support, a helicopter that dives in and drops spikes strips on the road ahead of the racer. The Racer has Overdrive - a boost of super-speed beyond even the Nitro - a decoy that sends a false signal to the cop's mini-map, and a jammer that obscures it completely. These unlocked progressively during the round (although this might have just been a feature of the E3 demo).
With each player having a markedly different goal, it's an interestingly asymmetrical setup for multiplayer racing. Escaping seems harder than pursuit - you need to spend a while outside the cop's large detection range to disappear off his map completely - although it will presumably get easier with knowledge of the map (Criterion points out that an interesting aspect of player pursuits is that you can just hide in the scenery, something that's not really possible with AI cops). The cop's "weapons" do modest damage but you'll achieve the fastest takedowns with direct contact, which is satisfying but not that easy in these incredibly fast, twitchy machines.
Criterion's not willing to divulge details of any other single- or multiplayer events at this point, although we see these titles options on the menu interfaces: Career, Patrol, Interceptor and Pursuit Race for cop; Rap Sheet, Cruise, Race, Pursuit Race and Interceptor for racer. Cruise and Patrol sound like free-roaming modes.
Multiplayer will support up to eight players online in any proportions; it could be seven cops and one racer, or vice versa. There'll be simple, unified progression across online and offline modes, with players racking up Bounty scores - which might as well be XP - in every event which go towards them ranking up. Ranks unlock new cars and content, but the advancement paths for cop and racer are completely separate.
It's all tied together by the Autolog, a sort of social networking interface layer for Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit that's intended to tie friends together even when they're not offline. This screen presents several options: Photos, NFS Feed, NFS Friends, Career, Autolog Recommends, NFS News and NFS Store.
The Feed presents updates from friends' games and direct messages and photos (Criterion's encouraging players to use actual picture of themselves rather than avatars to make things "more real"). But the key feature here is Autolog Recommends, which will dynamically direct you to certain events based on what your friends are up to - noting that a friend has beaten your Bounty score on a particular event and linking you to the race to take it back, for example. This all happens automatically, without any need to publish a score or send a challenge.
Elsewhere in the interface, Friends List scoreboards are everywhere in the Geometry Wars style. Hot Pursuit has obvious potential as a multiplayer game, but Criterion's also showing a smart commitment to asynchronous multiplayer via this focus on score-attack rivalry. "We hope it will distract players in a good way," says Sullivan.
A Criterion-developed Need for Speed has been a no-brainer from the start, and although the E3 demo of the game is pretty limited in its scope, with much still left to learn, we've seen nothing to dissuade us of that opinion.
It's almost automatically the best Need for Speed in a decade, a simple, pristine heaven for high-speed arcade racing. But it's the potential for emergent multiplayer and community features sparked by Autolog and the cops-versus-racers angle, both already explored by Criterion in Burnout: Paradise, that really open the road out for Hot Pursuit.
Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit will be released in November for PC, PS3 and 360.