With the Burnout series on a bit of a hiatus after ‘08’s incredible Burnout Paradise, long-time fans of the series have been left with a void in their racing lineup. Now, Criterion is back with a game that manages to feel enough like a Burnout to scratch that itch, while also doing justice to the Hot Pursuit name, and also using a modified version of PGR’s kudos system (called bounty here) to reward skillful play. It’s an interesting combination, and thanks to Criterion seemingly being incapable of crafting a bad racing game, it winds up being one of the generation’s best and most enjoyable arcade racers, and the most exciting racing game period.
The latter stamp of approval comes from the stellar Hot Pursuit mode. In it, you’ll play as a street racer trying to not only with the race, but avoid or completely disable cops and their arsenal of weapons. You’ll be given only a spike strip or frequency jammer to block car-disabling EMPs, but later, will gain access to EMPs to use against rival racers and cops as well as a turbo boost to escape their targeting, and can level up their abilities as you progress. The pace of this mode is frenetic, and it builds wonderfully. It starts off as just a street race, then after about a half-mile, you’ll have a cop intervene. Then multiple cops will join in with their sirens blaring, barking out orders to one another. Each will come equipped with spike strips, EMPs, the ability to call in roadblocks, and even bring in helicopters to aid them. Later on, you’ll deal with multiple kinds of cop cars trying to stop you in a single race - from the regular Crown Victorias, to newer, faster cop cars - including Lamborghinis.
The action never stops - you’ve pretty much always got at least one cop car on your tail, and between tracking them, paying attention to their back and forth chatter to figure out what’s coming up, looking at rival drivers and being mindful of weapons in your path, there’s a lot going on at any one time. However, there’s more strategy here than in a usual race because of it - you have to use your brain a lot more here than in a normal race. You absolutely need to be mindful of the track and its shortcuts, because not doing so means you’ll be more susceptible to the cops. It might seem like a lot to take in with so much happening, but you also don’t need to worry as much about your position here as much as in a normal race since the cops aren’t just after you, they’re after everyone - so rather than worry about being in 5th, focus on racing well by slipstreaming the 4th place driver, drifting and boosting properly, and let them either get into a ramming contest with the police, or slam into a road block.
Disabling cops yourself is risky, and works pretty much like Chase HQ (also the same principle when you’re playing as a cop trying to disable a racer in Interceptor mode) - you ram their car enough time to completely disable it, and have to decide whether it’s worth possibly getting rammed into a tough spot by a cop by doing this or destroying the vehicle and giving you one less cop to worry about for the time being, and netting some bounty in the process. You can also use the weapons to disable them, but they come in very limited quantities, so you need to be skilled at ramming them to make sure you can get a car off the road when you need to. Ramming regular racers off the road counts as a takedown - furthering the Burnout vibe from the game.
Bounty doubles as currency and a kudos-esque system for rewarding skilled play as well. It’s the key to unlocking new levels in each career, and new cars to help advancing in them. It’s awarded for things like escaping crashes, finding new shortcuts, achieving in-game milestones like wrecking X number of cop cars, and even for playing the demo and owning other EA racing games. The best way to earn it is to place in the top 3 at the end of every race, as you’ll get 3,000 points for a 3rd place finish, 6 for 2nd, and a monstrous 10,000 points for 1st. Beyond just having bounty as an incentive to replay stages for a 1st place finish, you’ve also got the new Autolog system to entice you to keep playing.
This feature basically gives the game its own little social network - each player has their own wall that either they or their friends can post on, and you can challenge one another via the Autolog menu to either beat your score in a given race, or take on a challenge you have posed to them. So if you’ve got a friend who finishes a given race in two minutes, and you beat it in two minutes, five seconds, you’ll come in right behind them and get a message about your position in relation to other friends for that race, and then if you beat it, you’ll not only top that leaderboard, but more than likely net the 1st place reward as well. Beyond that, you’ll also have a blast online in regular races, hot pursuit, and interceptor modes with up to eight players in each race. While the races are pretty much lag-free, I did experience a few instances of rivals disappearing then reappearing out of nowhere. It’s rare, but worth noting.
Seacrest county as a whole is fantastic. DICE and Criterion worked together to craft a city four times larger than Paradise City, and while that might seem incredibly daunting for players - it isn’t. They wisely left the free-roaming portion of the game completely optional. So if you’re someone who liked Paradise, but felt the world was simply too open making races a little confusing, this is perfect - you’re still locked into set tracks, but shortcuts have been thrown throughout them all. The free-roaming Freeride mode gives you a chance to explore Seacrest county and best learn the map. In doing so, you’ll realize that some of the shortcuts are not meant for actually cutting down your lap time, but are instead placed there so you can escape from police. You’ll need to figure out which is which pretty quickly, and it’s better to learn the tracks than rely on the on-screen map, as you can find yourself easily looking at the map and then wind up slamming into a car - losing whatever possible time you were going to gain from the shortcut.
Hot Pursuit is a gorgeous racing game. The car models are excellent, and the world of Seacrest County comes alive with a highly-populated environment full of everyday drivers as well as incredibly-realistic weather (especially lightning and rainfall) and some gorgeous backdrops. Daytime races can reveal things like stunning mountains in the distance, while a night time race may show a fully-lit amusement park far away. It all combines to make the fictional world seem pretty real. The only real downside is the lack of a cockpit view, but the on-hood cam provides a pretty dazzling way to look at the environment.
The audio is also excellent. The licensed soundtrack has a pretty diverse mix of artists from numerous genres, including Bad Religion and Travie McCoy, whose songs wound up being my favorite in-game tracks to race to. You can also use your own soundtrack and have it work seamlessly in the game if none of the licensed music is to your liking. The original score for the Hot Pursuit mode is fantastic - it’s got a fast, action movie-style pace to it that adds to the excitement, especially when you combine it with the sights and sounds of police sirens going off around you - the effect is further enhanced in tunnels. Regular race sound effect work is still great though, as the metal-on-metal crash sounds are loud and intense. A massive crash will sound like one should, with a loud, booming crunching sound for the cars while their paint goes flying.
Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit is one of the generation’s best racing games. Demo players who felt underwhelmed should give it a shot as the demo didn’t do anywhere near enough justice to what the final game has in store for you. The full game is one of the rare few out there that is worth its full asking price. Its replay value is incredible, and between the career mode, online races, and Autolog peer-to-peer leader boards, you’re going to get dozens of hours of enjoyment out of the game.