The Need For Speed franchise is now little more than a name to move units, it doesn’t inherently have any meaning behind it. When you buy a Final Fantasy or a Gran Turismo or a Call Of Duty you – for better or worse – know what you’re investing in, you instantly understand what to expect when the disc spins and the title screen looms into view. Most major franchises have something about them that is inherent in their nature, Mario Kart has weapons, Fallout has sprawling environments, FIFA is licensed to within an inch of its life.
But what is a quintessential Need For Speed game? In the early instalments the series had a feeling of the bourgeois: exotic cars, open roads and impressive graphics. The PlayStation 2 era was a grimy one, comparatively accessible vehicles aching to be modded, tinted and filled with Nitrous. More recent, less successful attempts have gone for a more realistic, more enthusiast-centric approach, the boy racer is now a man and men drive finely tuned super cars. The series has seen all this and more, adapting with demands so radically that NFS has a severe case of identity crisis, the average consumer unclear as to what their money will bring them.
If the future for Need For Speed is anything like Criterion’s vision, it’s a bright one, this is a fantastic game. The team’s last great effort was Burnout Paradise, lauded for its online options and steady stream of high content DLC, though for me the open city of Paradise City that was your playground was too daunting, races often becoming a case of who could navigate better than who could drive faster. Reverting back to the closed tracks but consistent city setting that was first perfected by the team in Burnout 3, Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit is a game of cat and mouse in the geographically diverse Seacrest County, tearing through courses in sun, rain and snow, on and off tarmac, day and night. The vehicular weapons at both the cops and the robbers disposal are a world away from the lowered hatchbacks of Underground, a return to the Lamborghinis, Maseratis and Porsches of the very first entries and all the better for it. Vehicles look, sound and feel powerful at the hands of the player, these are wild cars that need strong drivers to tame them, getting the very best from the arcade influenced racing model is a challenge, but a rewarding one.
A variety of modes are on hand to keep the action fuel injected, though there isn’t quite the variety that Paradise had in terms of stunt challenges. That said, it really doesn’t need them as the core mechanics are superb! Those doing the running have a line to cross in order to escape, racking up boosts by driving in the path of oncoming traffic, barely missing pedestrian drivers, drafting behind other racers and other manoeuvres Burnout fans have come to expect. These drivers also have access (depending on game mode) to power-ups of sorts, including spike strips and EMPs and will require all of them to fend off the never-too-far-behind chasers. The game retains a lot of this deliciously moreish risk / reward system that made Burnout 3 such a leap forward for the series; driving dangerously can help edge further past your rivals, until of course you collide with an approaching truck, at which point your enemies zoom past, your great efforts gone to waste, the demand to take risks even higher. No crashes feel particularly cheap, you’ll always know that you took things one step too far, that you overstretched the limits of NFS:HP‘s tolerance, that you got cocky. Opponent AI is just as brutal, a stark contrast to the bland path following of stuffier racers. Rivals will do anything it takes to take you out when they need to, but they won’t take unnecessary risks like they tended to with Burnout. One particular instance of car bastardry saw myself and the computer facing off against a horde of cop cars. Speeding ahead and with a sense of ‘honour among thieves’ we raced neck and neck down a long stretch of barrierless motorway, my face smug that we had outfoxed the fuzz. I had forgotten that we had a race to win, but my opponent hadn’t and after I’d let my guard up for just a moment, the Chevrolet to my right gently nudged me into the heavy oncoming traffic as he rolled past the finish. The phrase that came out of my mouth can’t be repeated here, but needless to say it was followed with a resolute “I’ll get you next time”. And I did.
The competition gets fiercer online, the addition of an infinitely more cunning human at the helm of the automotive beasts you’re up against making for a game of wits, as well as driving skills. And here’s where Criterion’s expertise really shines, the weaving of online into the title. Matches are available for up to eight players, experience is here to be earned and added to your offline total – unlocking more content, there are leader boards that constantly update with information from friends and getting into supercar scraps is supremely quick and easy, but it’s how it’s packaged that most impresses. NFS:HP‘s front end – called Autolog – works much like a Facebook specifically designed for racing fans might; you have access to a wall of content, including broken lap times, shots taken in the game’s photo mode, suggestions for new challenges and much more, all pulled from the cloud. The online world feels alive and busy, an exciting place to be, but best of all everything just works so flawlessly here that it’s an inviting space to spend (a lot) of your time and not the hassle online play in racing games so often can be.
It looks great (but what triple-A game doesn’t these days?), sounds amazing (a rocking as all hell soundtrack, meaty engine noises) and has hours of entertainment jammed into it. In returning to their own roots, Criterion have founded new ones for Need For Speed, bringing with them a genuinely excellent, always-on, super competitive environment that will appeal to a staggeringly broad audience, petrol-head or not. What is the quintessential Need For Speed game? It’s this one.
MLG Rating: 8/10
Platform: PlayStation 3 (Xbox 360) Release Date: 19/11/2010
Disclosure: Midlife Gamer were provided a physical copy of Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit for review purposes by the promoter. The title was reviewed over the course of five days on a PlayStation 3. For more information on what our scores mean, plus details of our reviews policy, click here.