Need for Speed publisher EA is frank about the position of its premier racing series, that is, in the doldrums, after some recent lacklustre offerings. "We were beating up the franchise," says Patrick Soderlund, EA senior vice president. "We wanted to come back from [Need for Speed] Undercover." The decline was attributed to an unworkable one-year development cycle--"You can't make quality that way," he says--and so development duties for this latest instalment went to Criterion, the British studio behind the Burnout series.
With its racing game pedigree and a longer development period in hand, Criterion settled down to making Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit, which Soderlund describes as the 1998 PlayStation game (Need for Speed III: Hot Pursuit) built for a new generation.
Accordingly, cops-versus-racers action is the hook, and Criterion is well suited to deliver it. The multiplayer modes centre on aggressive, top-speed, eight-driver chases, with players cast either as illegal racers or as the Seacrest County police, who are dispatched to shut them down by any means necessary--with those means ranging from barging them off the road, to spike strips, to electromagnetic pulse weapons. The career mode, on the other hand, is split between that of the racer and the police. You can independently make progress on either side, unlocking events and vehicles for each and earning the bounty you need to reach wanted level 20 (as a racer) or rank 20 (as a cop).
The racer's career is mapped out as time trials, races, duels, and hot pursuits pinpointed across West Coast USA Seacrest County--a state that conveniently spans timber forest, desert, canyon, valley, snowy mountainside, and sandy seafront. Career challenges for the police differ, adding the likes of the chase-and-takedown interceptor event. The developer has declined to go open world; locations are discrete and routes straightforward, with the occasional side route that may or may not be a shortcut.
The game is keen to remind you it is "powered by Autolog"--an overarching social network that links your experience to that of friends, tracking your accomplishments against theirs, sharing photos, and recommending events to try. And though Autolog is the chief innovation in Hot Pursuit, it will still be the core action--that is, the actual driving--that carries the day, or not. It has been up to the task so far, with great drifty arcade handling set off by handsome environments and, as you'd hope, even better-looking cars.
As a racer in career mode, your first vehicles include the sports series' Porsche Boxster Spyder, the BMW Z4 sDrive 35is, the Mazda RX-8, and the Nissan 370Z, and then, as you progress into the performance cars of the second series, you gain access to motors such as the Maserati Gran Cabrio, the Jaguar XKR, and the Alfa Romeo 8C. As a cop, you start out with the classic Ford Crown Victoria and then graduate to a highway patrol Subaru Impreza WRX ST1 and beyond.
Before you reach the rarest and fastest cars in the uppermost series, you get a taste of what's to come in preview events. These time trials temporarily loan you one of the most exotic models: a Pagani Zonda Cinque, for starters, followed by a Porsche 911 GT3 R5, and then a McLaren F1. Hooning down a highway through a snowfield at 200-plus miles per hour in the latter makes the earliest drives feel practically leisurely. Some events in the performance series are designed specifically to showcase car types, pitting American muscle cars against each other along a desert highway, plus Italian convertibles alongside a beach, and German all-wheel drives on a stormy night on wet roads.
The familiar, Burnout-like handling is accompanied by Burnout's trademark spectacular crashes and bodywork-crumpling slow-mo instant replays. These come thick and fast in the most aggressive career events, between the feisty AI and the constant incentive to drive into oncoming traffic; your nitrous boost is refilled by slipstreaming other cars and driving in the wrong lane. Play feels agreeably accessible; the crashes, if they don't wreck you, are spectacular hiccups rather than race-losing, controller-clenching disasters.
Accessibility extends into the game's steady tick of unlocks and levelling. Though finishing a race in the top three will land you bonus experience points (bounty), these can be picked up all over the place, with encouraging onscreen pop-ups for dodging police roadblocks or nearby crashes, for reaching top speed, for wrecking a cop, and so on. That accessibility, combined with Criterion's eye for quality and detail (the eclectic soundtrack mixes Pendulum, M.I.A., Plan B, and Bad Religion), should serve it well upon launch in November. EA will be praying the studio has turned out what Soderlund calls the "first real comeback for Need for Speed."