I probably write this disclaimer every time I write a review of a racing game, and nonetheless will do so again this time: I’m not a “racing” guy. I don’t own a pedal and wheel controller, and I rarely play a racing game for more than twenty or thirty minutes at a stretch. Racing games to me are palate cleansers, lite diversions in between more serious gaming experiences. I distinguish driving games (Mafia, GTA) from racing games (NFS, Rollcage), in that in driving games you do stuff other than driving all the time. It’s not that I dislike driving, it’s just that I have the most realistic driving simulator ever created at my fingertips, and I spend about an hour in it every day – it’s called my commute. Admittedly, I’m at 60mph and not 160, and I’m in an F150, not a Ferrari, but (and car enthusiasts should cover their eyes here) I see the difference as largely insignificant. I clearly don’t have octane in my blood, and don’t revel in car talk of glass-packed, dual overhead cam, foot pounds of aluminized torque. Primarily the kinds of things I’m going to look at when reviewing a racing game are the graphics and the game modes available. I’m unlikely to write “the sway of the Jaguar suspension was too loose,” and more likely to write “the physics of the game were unrealistic.” So, if you’re a “racing” guy looking for a review of Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit 2 from a “racing” perspective, I can’t help you. If you want to know what it’s like to play NFS:HP2, what it looks like and how it sounds, then stay tuned – that’s just what you’re going to get.
For starters, part of what attracted me to NFS:HP2 was the promise that I could get off the track, blaze the road less traveled with the police hot on my trail. A promise that, I regret to say, goes largely unfulfilled. You can’t leave the track just anywhere, no matter how traversable the road shoulder may appear. The “approved” shortcuts are dirt roads or narrow alleys, that kind of thing. Attempts to trailblaze elsewhere, like once when I tried to climb a modest incline to take a shortcut across a field, lead to a shower of sparks off of some invisible barrier that edged the roadway. Bummer. And while I’ve mentioned the sparks, I’ll go on to say that anything you sideswipe sends up a shower of sparks: other cars, guardrails, tunnel walls – good; trees, picket fences, invisible barriers – bad.
The base of the game consists of races, obviously, either against other cars or against the clock. The hot pursuit portion of the game, which I recall as being sort of gimicky in the first NFS:HP, remains sort of gimicky in this incarnation, with some small improvements. When you blow by a cop parked by the side of the road, he will sometimes come after you. I say sometimes because sometimes he’ll just sit there, even though you were 100mph over the speed limit. And if you blow by with a slew of other cars, which one he’ll pick to try and arrest seems kind of random. Once he has picked his quarry, he’ll stay with that one until the arrest is made, ignoring other vehicles that crash into him or go speeding by. I don’t make this shit up, I just report it. Anyway, if he’s not on a virtual donut break and decides to come after you, a time bar starts counting down at the top of the screen. That bar tells you how long this pursuit will last – when the bar runs out, the cops give up (“This pursuit is too dangerous. I’m breaking off for the public good.”), at least until you blow another speed trap. If that sounds a little goofy, that’s because it is. The bar will turn red and pause if the arrest is perhaps imminent (if he’s actually banging his car into yours), but if you can stay just a little ahead, it’s only a matter of time before he gives up and goes away.
The police have three tools in their utility belts to help bring you in. They can call for backup, but two cars chasing you are not much more effective than one. They can call for a roadblock and spike strip, but if you look there’s always a way around, a piece of the road left open. Some roadblock! Finally, they can call for a helicopter, which graphically looks a little wrong (though I can’t exactly put my finger on why), and drops flaming barrels of explosive on the roadway. I’m not a lawyer, but I suspect that’s a violation of reasonable force, not to mention that the barrel often catches the police car instead of you. If you happen to run into one of the barrels, your car flips dramatically in the air, but if you land on your wheels, you’re OK. I guess now is as good a time as any to break the news that there is once again an almost complete lack of any sort of damage model for the cars. You can scratch up the paint a little, but slam dead on into a tree at 140mph, and you can just back up and drive away. It makes the job of the police harder because, with the exception of spike strips that tear a wheel off, they have to completely bracket your car, or you can just back up and make your getaway.
Which brings me to the second mode of gameplay in NFS:HP2 that allows you to play the cop. You get to call in the roadblock, the backup, and the chopper (a limited number of each) to stop the speeder. In this case, the car you are trying to stop does have a health bar, and if you ram the car or otherwise run out its damage allotment (although the car does not actually take discernable damage as its health bar decreases) you make the arrest. It’s different, but not exactly thrilling.
Beyond the issue of car damage, and the fact that absolutely EVERYTHING you hit throws off sparks, the cars look very good. The scenery you drive through looks even better – lava, waterfalls, towns, country settings in the fall, deep foggy forest. It’s almost a pity that you drive through them so quickly so all this wonderful landscape is reduced to a kaleidoscope blur. It’s plain to see that a lot of work has been done on the music, as the game can randomly sample through dozens of pieces during a race – rap, pop, rock, grunge, metal. Admittedly, while I’m driving I’m not really paying much attention to the music, but it’s there and it’s not offensive, which is more than you can say for most games. Other noises – engines, sirens, wind, water, squealing tires – I’m good with all that.
Overall I’m disappointed by the physics of this game. I’ll give them credit that the different cars handle differently and much as I would expect them to, as long as you don’t hit anything (not actually haven driven any of the cars in the game), but once you’ve hit something, watch out! I’ve had my car do pirouettes on its nose like a prima ballerina, and a head-on collision with a bus causes the bus to bounce back! The boundaries of the tracks maybe seem a little grabby, as hitting a guardrail or wall at anything other than the most glancing of angles will often cause the nose of the car to slew around. The cars can lift off the road, sometimes accompanied by a slow-motion exterior camera angle (which is a little distracting). I once came down on top of a police car, and the graphics engine hated that, the nose of the police car visible through my windshield, flickering in and out as if the game couldn’t quite decide if it belonged or not.
NFS:HP2 delivers an adequate racing experience. The thirty-something single player tiered mission structure provide plenty of play. Points you gain in the tiered play can be used to unlock dozens and dozens of tracks and cars for more single player action. In addition, there is a multiplayer (which I don’t see as all that different as I can’t tell if it is other people or the computer driving the other cars) over LAN or Internet, but I found the controls over the internet suffered a significant lag, even through my cable modem. As a whole, NFS:HP2 is just not enough of a game to drag me away from Mafia or GTA3, but in my opinion I’ve never seen a racing game that is. That’s my slant, and as the reader you’re going to have to take that into account.