Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit Review
17th Nov 2010
Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit reviewed on Xbox 360 by Harry Neary. Game supplied for review by Electronic Arts
Many years ago EA released a game called Need for Speed: Porsche Unleashed. For many racing game fans this was the high water mark for the franchise as it distilled everything that was good about the series into one game. It featured long point to point routes through beautiful scenery, an appreciation of the automobile as a work of beauty as well as engineering and had a driving model that was nuanced yet allowed you to keep in control of some high powered beasts. Since then we’ve had a few NFS games that have added to the genre - Hot Pursuit on the last gen machines brought car chase excitement and Most Wanted was a strong release, despite running like a broken dog.
Then things went very wrong for the series. We suffered game after game of road racing games based on the Fast & Furious movies, then there was the awful NFS Carbon and the even worse Undercover. EA knew that if the franchise was going survive it had to be turned around - with a top team in charge of resurrecting it. The team EA turned to was Burnout developer Criterion and the result is both a return to classic Need for Speed territory and also something more than a little wrong.
Now I don’t want to get carried away with negativity here, this is a very good game, as my final score will show. But there are some pretty muddle-headed decisions that are clearly the result of letting Criterion handle development of the game - or perhaps Criterion’s hubris. We’ll come to those in time. But first let’s talk about all the good stuff.
There’s an impressively large world on offer full of the kind of locations and terrain that NFS has become known for. The moment you pass a lighthouse and then drive down towards a beach funfair you know you’re in Need for Speed land. There are highways, deserts, snowy mountains, beach roads and the like. The visuals are very good indeed - both the cars and the locations. The puddles on roads during storms are particularly impressive nad the day/night cycle works well. It’s no wonder Criterion included a photo mode and the ability to share pictures with friends. A shame then there’s no replay mode - a baffling and annoying omission.
The single player has two career modes - one for a racer, one for cops. All the events appear on the same map and you can freely switch between them from event to event. Racers will get to try regular races, hot pursuits (races with police trying to stop you), time trials and one on one duals. The cops have similar events, trying to stop racers, time trials and so on.
Driving as a cop gives the play the ability to drop spike strips, call in helicopter support, blast racer engines with EMP and request roadblocks. Racers do get similar weaponry in some races too - jammers, spike strips, turbos and EMP. You don’t see these in all events and they are limited in number so they don’t spoil things. Thanks to good balancing these never seem to overpower events and make it seem more like Wipeout and than a regular racing release.
The single-player events are fun and mostly pitched at the right difficulty level. Some things grate though - getting gold on a time trial is all about boosting constantly and taking every shortcut, you can’t get gold by just driving well, not exactly the NFS ethos. The career map is pretty dry too - just lists of events. You can freeride - but exploring isn’t as much fun as it should be thanks to (a) the nature of the roads, and (b) the car handling. Both of these we’ll deal with in a moment.
First the map and roads. What scenery we’ve been given is gorgeous, beautifully designed and there’s lots of it. You can drive for tens of miles without rolling over the same roads twice. But the ribbons themselves are pretty dull. Even the narrow roads aren’t that narrow and much of the game feels like you’re riding a dual carriageway. Even if the handling model was more detailed you’d still not need to touch the brakes save for very few locations. At first glance you’d think we’ve got the coastal roads from Need for Speed of old, but they are too straight and too wide for the kind of coastal cruising you remember from the franchise’s classic releases. Play is constantly over 100mph and it feels rather one note. There’s so much unused space on the map that could have been used for more twisting, winding and fun roads.
But then, with a handling model that feels not much more than moving a camera on a stick, perhaps such roads really wouldn’t have worked. Something has gone a little wrong in the development of this game, some modesty and thought has been lacking. In recent times there have been well designed Need for Speed games, what let them down has been terrible performance. Criterion is a team that knows how to get good performance out of a console - however it seems to have come to the conclusion it was hired for the project due to its skill with driving games. Burnout may be a lot of fun, but there’s no pedigree of good car handling there and no reason for that handling model to be transfered to this game.
Don’t get your knickers in a twist. I wasn’t expecting NFS: Hot Pursuit to be a sim, I didn’t even want it to be. But the hallmark of the franchise has been an interest in the cars, what makes them special, what makes them different to each other. A Ridge Racer/Burnout style handling model wasn’t what was called for in this franchise reboot, we should have got something more like Project Gotham Racing. What we have a model designed to allow you to drive 200mph on mostly straight roads - there’s not even an option for manual gears, which tells you everything you need to know about the game’s attitude to cars.
Online such issues don’t seem to matter as much and this is where the game really shines. Hot Pursuits are the most fun - where teams of cops and racers battle it out on those long roads. There’s a real sense of achievement in battling to the finish, or as a cop stopping some of your friends even reaching the end of the race. Regular racing without cops is an option too - but without a good handling model you’re better off sticking to Hot Pursui, which is fabulous. Then there’s the Autolog, which really is just bringing the traditional online leaderboard front and centre. It’s really not that innovative - but does have you keeping an eye on your friends when trying to beat scores.
If the idea was to let Criterion create the perfect Need for Speed game then EA has failed. Because what we’ve got is another iteration of Burnout. A pretty good iteration, but one that makes you feel like Criterion might be a one trick pony that doesn’t understand the NFS name at all. Most Wanted actually got closer to the goal - and the story may have been very different if they could have mustered a usable framerate in that game.
What we’re left with is a very good arcade game that owes a lot to Burnout, a game that features a diverting single-player game which is partnered by very good online play. The graphics and sound are top notch and there’s a chance that some good DLC - perhaps expanding the road network - can solve some of the problems I discussed above. Need for Speed Hot Pursuit is pretty good fare, but it’s not really NFS and it’s not as good as Burnout Paradise. That said, played online it’s brilliant and there’s still quite a lot of enjoyment in the single player game, especially playing as the cops. But we know Criterion can, and has, done better.
Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit is set for release in Europe November 19th from Amazon and is available on PC, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.