The various iterations of Need For Speed III: Hot Pursuit totalled well over a million units for Electronic Arts, so it's little surprise to see that a great deal of effort has gone into the highly anticipated sequel. Thanks to a supreme marketing push, (and being a frankly kick arse game) Burnout 2 is outselling Mario at the moment, and Black Box Games' Need For Speed title finds itself in Hot Pursuit. But Burnout 2 has already rewritten the benchmark for the PlayStation 2's arcade racers - can Hot Pursuit 2 overtake it?
Graphically, Burnout 2 has the lead by a mile, although EA's marketing bulk means you'll be sitting in real cars, from Jaguars and Mercs upwards. Each vehicle is nicely modelled, with real-time reflections on the body and glass, although unfortunately all this licensing has left EA unable to damage the cars. This means that a 140mph collision with a tree jolts the camera to a stop like whiplash and you can drive straight off. In Burnout 2 the same situation would likely shatter the car explosively - a feature greatly missed here.
Outside the car, there's the requisite nice use of particle effects as smoke pours out of orifices in the chassis and tyres screech menacingly as you brake, and the world is reasonably detailed. And of course, where there's smoke there's fire, and the early woodland courses give you forest fires to contend with - quite scary as you're flying down a country lane at over 100. The trackside scenery and plenty of shortcuts mean that the game doesn't play as if you're driving through a tunnel - something a number of the PS2's finest racers are guilty of. Although, hitting an invisible wall in the air does raise a few eyebrows, particularly as the game shifts into slow motion, bullet-time camera mode when you fly off a jump.
And because this is a 'Hot Pursuit', your journey will continue across various sunny American peninsulas, inland through major cities, passing palm trees in the twilight, and forest fires and ancient ruins in the sun. The various locations are re-used in different track configurations throughout, so you often have a sixth sense of what's round the next bend, even if it is in reverse, mirrored or upside down and back to front. It's an approach which worked well in games like Project Gotham Racing, and it works well here.
In the longevity stakes, this Hot Pursuit 2 wears on for a long time, favourably so even when compared to the hours to be found in its main competitor. The single player game consists of two major championships, with plenty of quick-play modes available elsewhere. Your two, thirty-challenge tasks are the main Hot Pursuit mode and a World Championship. In Hot Pursuit, you complete under the watchful eye of the local law enforcement. You race either alone or with varying levels of competition, in races which last between five and 15 minutes, and sometimes come in knockout groups or points-based mini championships. And occasionally you become the law yourself, chasing down and ticketing speeders.
Each of these Hot Pursuit races sees you speeding along at insane speeds (at which it's reassuringly tough to manoeuvre), racking up police attention via a little star meter. A token patrolman will follow you at first, gradually picking up more assistance. Before long, they start laying roadblocks to snag your car, which you can either bust through (slow-mo bullet-time) or go around. At their rowdiest though, the cops deploy a chopper, which sweeps along the road ahead dropping bombs. There's a certain James Bond-ness to the action in this mode (and unsurprisingly uses the same engine), which is why it's best to play it second.
If you ignore our advice and race through Hot Pursuit, lapping up every last drop of excitement and polishing the thing off in about five hours, then you'll only have the prospect of time trialling and racing cops arbitrarily to keep you amused, because the World Championship aspect is a bit sedate. Without the attention of cops, races come down to pure driving skill, and because of the difficult controls (and extraordinary braking distances apparently required), this task is somewhat arduous. As you snag a bit of scenery and come to a juddering halt, you can even watch the time in seconds between you and the cars behind you zip past zero on the helpful heads-up display.
What's good about World Championship mode is that, like Hot Pursuit, virtually every task unlocks a new track or a new car, of which there are more than 50. In fact, unlocking everything is going to take a very long time - we only wish we had more ourselves.
One of the things Hot Pursuit 2 has managed to top Burnout 2 for is musical choice. Burnout 2 has a nice selection of tunes, but they lack the edge EA's huge "Trax" library can bring to the party, and it's a fair selection of good old-fashioned American rock tunes which accompany the action here. Some of them are less than memorable, but many of them are quite engaging - certainly the sort of thing you want to hear when you're speeding at twice the limit.
And Hot Pursuit 2 sticks another one to its competitor with the two-player mode. Burnout 2 suffered from hideous slowdown - 30fps instead of the expected 60 - whereas Hot Pursuit 2 is steady. Sadly, it's not steady enough to be as fast throughout. A 60Hz mode is infuriatingly absent, which gives Burnout 2 a significant gain, and the draw distance doesn't really seem adequate by comparison.
Ironically, Hot Pursuit 2 suffers for its adherence to basic arcade values; simple control systems, rough handling and fast cars, with the added benefit of a cop element. However, the goalposts have moved in the last month, and Hot Pursuit 2's slower graphics engine, lack of vehicle destruction and tough steering leave it looking rather posh compared to explosive antics elsewhere. And even Burnout 2 has cops.
In the end it comes down to a matter of quality. Although Hot Pursuit 2 is an excellent racer, well worth buying and stuffed with many hours of gameplay, Burnout 2 is all that and more, without having to obey strict license agreements regarding damage. Malnourished Cube owners will be pleased to discover that their system has a new king of racers, although Xbox owners will be less impressed as they fire up Project Gotham again. Hot Pursuit 2's points system is a facile alternative. On the PS2, only those bored of Burnout 2 need apply, and in all honesty, there can't be too many of you.