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Wot I Think: Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit

Criterion's approach to the Need For Speed franchise, an all new Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit, is out in the UK today. I've spent an awful lot of this week racing about its many challenges, and have clocked up enough miles to feel ready to tell you Wot I Think.

One of the toughest things about assessing Hot Pursuit is trying to avoid comparing it to Burnout: Paradise. It’s not a Burnout game. It’s not a Burnout game. It’s not a Burnout game. I’ve been repeating this to myself as I’ve played, trying to remind me that this is an excellent entry in the Need For Speed series, and not a slightly disappointing sequel to Criterion’s previous epic racer.

There’s a reason the comparison is unavoidable. Criterion’s take on the long-running, boy-pleasing, cruiser-encouraging, chart-topping-despite-no-one-respecting-them series is to take its best elements – incredibly fast penis-extending cars – and drop it into much of the the Paradise framework, and indeed, engine. So here you have a vast, exceptionally detailed mass of land, covered with hundreds of racing events, dotted with alternate-route short-cuts, and then embellished with a cops and robbers theme.

So when the game doesn’t do so much of what makes Paradise one of the most incessantly fun games ever to have existed, it’s not a failure of Hot Pursuit. It’s a failure of irrelevant expectation. The problem is, as solid as the racing here absolutely is, and as exceptionally packed with content as the game is, there’s still a feeling that it could have been slightly more.

Despite this, the sheer volume of content is overwhelming. This is really two games in one, both playable simultaneously. You’ve got the criminal game, where you play a boy-racer, outrunning the cops, racing against others, or trying to get best times on courses. Here you work your way up the ranks in your Wanted level, gathering an extraordinary number of cars in a ludicrous number of categories, and gaining an ever-increasing number of skills to use in particular races. On the cop side you’re either attempting to deliver incredibly expensive cars undamaged in a limited time, or more interestingly, preventing racers from completing their course by running them off the road. Again, you gain an increasing number of tools with which to do this, and yet more incredibly powerful cars with which to do it.

And then you can do all of the same online, chasing down other players, or attempting to escape their clutches. The AI cars are of a very high standard, so impressively the online game isn’t necessary to properly enjoy the experience. But of course nothing compares to real-life people for realism.

Realism isn’t a big factor in the racing, thank goodness. This is about having fun. And there’s a great deal to be had. Cars grip to the road as if they’re magnetised, letting you take corners at 200mph. Utilising the game’s awesome drift you tap the brakes then spin out your back wheels to absolute perfection. It even aids you with this when just steering, but this takes nothing away from a sense of being in control. Instead it just gives you a sense of being amazing. Racing along a rain-slicked mountain road at sunset at 217mph is really quite a splendid way to spend your time.

Let’s have a look at those racing modes. The balance is interesting. The cops have fewer ways to play – really it’s only the boring, frustrating requirement to drive your car undamaged to a finishing line, or the absolutely brilliant ramming cars off the road. For the crims there’s more modes, but a lot less variety. Either you’re racing cars to get to the finish line first, or trying to beat a set time. Sometimes, in either mode, you’re being pursued by the cops, which of course dramatically changes how you play.

All of this, with the exception of the tiresome protect-the-car cop missions (which seems to defeat every enjoyable purpose of the game – going at extraordinary speeds, bouncing off the walls), is enormously dramatic. The rubber-banding, while occasionally a tad egregious, ensures every race is a nail-biter. However, it does go a little bit too far, occasionally. When you’re in a race where criminals and cops are equipped with spike strips, EMP devices (that seem to do almost nothing), turbo-boosts, road blocks, helicopter attacks, and electronic blocking devices, it really does go a bit Mario Kart. A lead can become meaningless, and winning and losing more often depends upon the opponents screwing up rather than your driving skills. But these are the exceptions.

It rarely feels repetitive. The variety in race types, and even more-so, the two separate halves to the game, means when you’re fed up on one style you can quickly leap onto another.

Well, no. Quickly is a lie. A big lie. You can painfully slowly leap onto another. As if there’s some sort of cosmic exchange that must be taken in order to have the cars pelt at the crazy speeds on offer (often far over 200mph, and feeling like it), the rest of the game moves agonisingly slowly. For no understandable reason every single screen that appears fades in and out like an elderly man on a walker with his legs tied to a dead crocodile. Finish a race and you’re punished with watching an absolutely pointless screen tell you almost no information, before the more helpful information of how much Bounty (the game’s XP) you picked up in the race, and what extras you’ve unlocked with it. However, unlock something (and you usually do) and you’re forced to watch more painstakingly slowly presented screens of the name and logo of a new car, followed by a montage of shots of it, followed by information about it, and then finally, finally, the option to tell it to bloody well go away and let you pick a new race.

Just to restart a race takes almost 30 seconds, mostly because of the game’s most infuriating feature: the running starts. It’s a nice idea – unless you’re in a multi-car race you don’t start an event from standing. But in order to justify your moving it presents you a little video of the camera swooping down the road, showing the pursuit or action, and then depositing you just behind the car you’re controlling. There’s a button to skip this, but unbelievably it doesn’t. It may be a bit shorter, but you’re still forced to watch the same boring rubbish each time you begin the event, when all you want to do is bloody well start driving. Oh heavens, it’s agony. Everything, every damned bit from the opening splash screens to the unbelievably pointless videos explaining the rank III EMP device, cannot be skipped over. I JUST WANT TO RACE!

It’s strange that so very many of the mistakes made by Paradise are repeated here. The most frequent complaint about that game was not being able to skip the slo-mo depictions of your crashing, which are rarely any fun to watch. The same happens here, and once again you can’t skip them. And the menus are, while not as stupendously bad as Paradise’s, still a confusing muddle. While there’s nothing as obnoxious as DJ Atomica, the voiceovers explaining things to you are slow and frustrating, and like so much else, unskippable.

Another frustration of its constant cutaways are the disruption to your racing. It’s one thing if you crash, but it’s quite another when you’ve driven past a police car, and the camera is yanked away to show it to you for absolutely no discernable reason, then dropping you back in control farther down the road. It mostly drives very well for you in these times, but on a few occasions I found myself overtaken by other cars, or worse, facing a wall and crashing. Just don’t ever, ever do that! Let ME drive, for crying out loud.

But I think where I find Hot Pursuit most disappointing is in my own misaligned expectations. Loving Paradise as much as I do, I was so hoping for the vast lands you drive around to be interesting to explore. And smash. But while this expanse is utterly incredible, huge and so very varied, and absolutely gorgeous, there’s really no reason at all to use the freedrive. Surely, surely it would have made sense to let players drive around in a populated multiplayer map, as with NFS: World or Test Drive Unlimited, and let there be cops vs. robbers chases on the fly? It just seems so obviously the primary way anyone would want to use this, and it’s absent.

A far more fair comparison would be the very recent Need For Speed: World. A mediocre game - its distinguishing feature being that it’s free - it follows essentially the same model. Except World was bereft of much to do. After the disappointment it offered, Hot Pursuit is a breath of fresh air, improving on World’s already superb handling, and remembering to put in a game to use it with. But I still can’t help but wish it could have picked up on World’s freedriving world.

But but but John, if wishes were horses then there’d be far too many horses getting in everyone’s way. It’s a valid lament in a very decent game. The variety of cars, and their wank-fest expense and speed, is remarkable, the courses designed with Criterion’s exceptional skill. It constantly opens up and offers more to do, incessantly upping its ante. It’s slick and lets you feel very brilliant when you finally manage to scrape through to a Gold standard time.

Online is a little more complicated for us PC types. The Xbox version populates your friend lists with your XBL buddies, and then lets you compare scores. Not using Steam or anything similar, here you have to find friends for yourself. You can choose to use random match-ups, but the bias is firmly for racing against those you already know, without a slick way of finding them. Find them, however, and you can then start to compete against their best times for the courses too, and post your results on your game Wall. It’s a good idea for increasing the motivation to replay.

Also, it’s hard to put any trust in Criterion that PC players will enjoy post-release support, after the hideous treatment from Burnout: Paradise. Load that game and it still lies “Coming Soon” about updates the PC version will never see, although the in-game adverts are all up to date. So who knows whether they’ll bother to include the PC this time.

However, as it is there’s already a stunning amount to do, in a racing game that makes Paradise seem slow. Sure, I’m gutted about not having a new island of yellow gates to drive through, but that’s the job of Paradise 2, not Need For Speed 11. It’s imperfect, but for PC arcade racing it offers a great deal of pleasure. There's a fair bit that's disappointing, but an awful lot more that makes it worth the waits.

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