Criterion Games, the developer behind the Burnout series, is the latest studio to take on the Need for Speed franchise with Hot Pursuit. Following on from Slightly Mad Studio's racing sim Need for Speed: Shift, Hot Pursuit will return to the arcade gameplay of the original games in the series. At its core, it's cops versus racers--one player chases, the other tries to get away--which is wrapped in all the style, explosiveness, and online-centric features we've come to expect from the studio. We got a chance to hear about Criterion's vision for the project on a recent visit to the Guildford studio, as well as play the creators at the game.
Our preview event was a refreshingly creative affair, with Craig Sullivan, Criterion's enthusiastic and outspoken creative director, using toy cars and hastily scribbled diagrams to outline the core mechanics behind the game. He frequently mentioned his love of the original Need for Speed on 3DO, an experience that he described as "f***ing cool", despite having to go to a friend's house to play it. It's a feeling shared by the rest of the studio, and it led Criterion to approach EA about tackling a Need for Speed game, rather than the other way around.
Recounting the story, Sullivan still seems genuinely surprised that the megapublisher agreed. With the license secured, the studio was keen to apply Criterion's core values to the series. Sullivan claims that regardless of whether Criterion was making a game about "racing, jelly, or hang gliding," it should always be "fun [and] accessible" and "favour the player." For Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit, that means "getting to the good stuff really quickly," with Sullivan explaining that the cars in the game will start at "hot" and then just keep getting hotter.
The game focuses on two different playable classes--the cop and the racer. The relationship will be "like a dog chasing down a rabbit," according to Sullivan. He said, "We want the racer to feel like the rabbit, and the cop to feel like the dog." Like the dog, the cop is more powerful--not only will police cars be faster, they also won't take damage. Racers actually have it pretty tough in comparison--they'll have more speed and stealth-related power-ups, but they'll take damage every time a cop car hits them. Like the rabbit, the racer should feel vulnerable to attack and will have to outsmart the cop to survive.
Unlike the dog and the rabbit, though, these two classes have access to a host of power-ups to help them hunt their prey or escape intact. The cop can call in roadblocks and helicopter support, drop a spike strip, or send out an electromagnetic pulse that reverses the racer's controls. The racer, meanwhile, can use a cloak, a decoy car, and a radar jammer to throw the cops off his tail, while the nitrous boost will take you "faster than you've ever been in a Need for Speed game." Given Criterion's expertise in destructibility, it was no surprise to see a crash replay when the cop takes down the racer. Sullivan promises to take this "100 times further" in the finished game.
Given the fact that Criterion pushed the online racing genre in Burnout Paradise, it's no surprise to find that Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit will be a highly connected game. There'll be persistent progression, so whether you play online or off, you'll always be unlocking new cars. You'll also be able to play eight-player games online in any combination of cops versus robbers--you could have one racer trying to escape seven cops, or vice versa. The developer wasn't talking about the online modes in depth at this stage, but we expect to hear more in the run up to release.
Another potentially revolutionary aspect of the online package is Autolog, which allows you to connect, compare and compete with your friends. When you're logged into the network, a Facebook-esque friends stream provides you with info on what your contacts have been up to. It then advises you of what to play based on this activity, recommending players with similar tastes, for example.
Our visit allowed us to go hands-on with the game, playing against Criterion as both the cop and the robber. The only level we got to play was called Seacrest County, and was set on an autumnal mountain road. It's another North American-inspired location for Criterion, but the look was much more toned down compared to Burnout Paradise. We had a successful run as both the racer and the cop. We managed to use the racer's e-brake to do a 180-degree turn and throw the cop. Then, we simply used the radar jam to hide and win. If the racer can hold out for around 10 to 15 seconds without having the cop see him, then he wins the round. As the cop, we combined the vehicle's extra horsepower and a series of roadblocks to chase the racer and eventually rammed him to destruction.
EA has given the game a November 16, 2010 release date for North America, and on November 19, 2010 in Europe. There will also be a Wii version, although it will be developed by Exient, rather than Criterion. Be sure to keep an eye on e3.gamespot.com for more on Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit as we get it, as well as all the coverage from the show direct from Los Angeles.