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.