Rating: ★★★★★

There’s something about unrealistic racing games. Not the ones that are so far removed from reality, but the ones that weigh right on the line of fantasy and reality. They charm us, lull us into a comfortable unease, give us that pleasant itch that demands scratching. Therein lies the most enjoyable racer of last year, Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit.

Hot Pursuit, a reimagining of the 1998 original and 2002 sequel, levies hardcore street racing with policing the streets and enforcing the law. Developer Criterion Games took a tremendous step away from prior NFS titles to introduce a uniquely new concept, without making a cartoon or Death Race videogame of the series. Recreating roads based on actual California highways – most of which I’ve actually driven, albeit at sub-relativistic speeds (purportedly) – only furthers the seriousness of their creation, making it even more enjoyable. For as they say, great fiction is always based on reality. The same applies games.

Thus, we are given a choice: the racing elite with money burning holes in their pockets and a desire for unsafe velocities normally reserved for cartoon roadrunners and coyotes; or the police, the Seacrest County Police Department, which attains high-performance machines through unruly high taxes and the absurd number of wealthy residents therein. Whose side players wish to race for is a come-as-you-please affair. As I’ve found, some days just feel like a speed freak, while others demand more damage dealing and hand cuffing.

And that’s a good thing, because to really enjoy Hot Pursuit is to play it for weeks and months, not days. For reviews, we game critics tend to do the latter, because our readers want to know before the game releases and time is of the essence. In this case, I took my time, and am glad I did. Hot Pursuit is a title worth playing long after its release, even if they announced the following Need For Speed immediately after.

Long-term enjoyment comes courtesy of two well-developed themes: a huge variety of race types, and a large number of races overall. Professional racers could complete the game’s campaign in 10 hours, though my playtime was about 13 hours with plenty of resets and races played repeatedly. All races are scored by medals (gold, silver and bronze) based on the points earned, time achieved or placement in the race. Points are then totaled and added to the player’s overall points, known as bounty. As more bounty is earned, more cars are unlocked and players level up, thereby opening higher-class cars for racing.

This system works surprisingly well, except when it doesn’t. As I played the single player campaign, I switched between playing as a racer and cop, but ultimately settled on completing the game as a racer first. In doing so, I finished every race at a level 14. As a cop, I finished at level 11, and for the last ten or so races had no choice on the race itself. I simply had to do this one, then that, until it was completed and the next opened up. This indicates a point system with a contingency for better drivers, though I was only better because I’d raced so much on the other half of the campaign.

In fact, the racer campaign is overall more enjoyable than playing as a cop. As the police, players must shut down races, which is tremendously fun, but cops don’t have as much pressure. They only need to worry about the racing vehicles. Compared to the same Hot Pursuit races (as they are called) for racers, the cops have it easy. Racers must avoid the cops and competing drivers, avoiding traps and attacks from up to a total of 13-15 other vehicles, helicopters included. As a cop, there is the game mode to catch an individual racer, who does whatever it takes to shake players and escape, but the AI is rarely intelligent enough to outrun or outpace any human. Finally, the police races are just not as good.

As a racer, there are some amazingly fun courses to drive and compete in. The final map is a 43.5 mile stretch that takes anywhere from 13-15 minutes, as insane as that sounds. Careening down a highway in a Bugatti Veyron at 256 MPH is, quite frankly, fun as hell. Doing so when competing with seven other vehicles, all capable of equally daring speeds, is challenging, perhaps more daunting than anything else. The scope of that individual race is boggling, especially when compared to the earlier 6-miel races.

Though the class of cars requires for the longer races were not the most enjoyable. I found that the super car section, featuring vehicles like the Ford GT, Nissan GTR, and my personal favorite, the Ford Shelby GT500 Super Snake. These cars topped out at 217MPH, amazingly fast but humble compared to the Hyper Class (which breaks the 250MPH barrier), yet they mean something to those of us who actually drive. They’re exotic, but not so much that we’ll never see one in real life. Admittingly, I’m spoiled in this regard, knowing where to find garages with a Ford GT, a brand new white Nissan GTR, a number of Ferarri’s (a notably missing company for the game), along with every Porsche one can imagine. Still, we see them on the roads…no one ever bears witness to a Zonda on the street.

The 100 miles of road in Seacrest County is spectacular. Varying weather conditions and times for races are superb and add a degree of change that can make you choose one car over another. In several races, I found it far too difficult to succeed with my car of choice, and used a different model because it had better handling, or rear-wheel drive instead of all-wheel, or it simply drifted better. As the game progresses and players become more and more accustomed to the different vehicles, your style of driving will be suited in a quiet selection of cars, but one easy to stick with, and also easy to extend with trying different models.

One aspect in which Hot Pursuit really falls short is the music. Epic race sequences cut the soundtrack’s “popular” modern hits with an orchestral rhythm, a fine tune, but everywhere else the music which today’s kids apparently like just doesn’t work. At every turn the score attached to Hot Pursuit fails to mesh with the game, fails to connect players to the race. It isn’t so far removed that I felt forced to turn it off for my own personal soundtrack or none whatsoever, but I have yet to hear a song that worked with the high intensity of fast-paced, fun driving.

And ultimately, that’s what Hot Pursuit is: a super-fast racer which is far from a simulator like the prior Need for Speed (Shift), instead promoting fun driving and reckless abandon on the speedway. It is clearly superior to any other racer released in 2010, and I have a feeling it will be better than any driving game in 2011 as well. And described in this review was only the single player…multiplayer online is even more exciting and treacherous. Because as enjoyable as racing against the AI is, it’s still dumb. The single player campaign will keep people playing for weeks. The multiplayer will keep you playing for months.



James Pikover

 
Spawned in the horrendous heat of a Los Angeles winter, James was born with an incessant need to press buttons. Whether it was the car radio, doorbells on Halloween or lights, James pushed, pressed and prodded every button. No elevator was left unscathed, no building intercom was left un-rung, and no person he’s known has been left un-annoyed.