Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit II is the sequel to Need for Speed III: Hot Pursuit, which was released in 1998 and was the third in Electronic Arts' venerable series of arcade-style driving games. Between then and now, however, EA has released two other Need for Speed games--High Stakes and Porsche Unleashed--which makes Hot Pursuit II the sixth game in the series, if you don't count the two V-Rally games that hit the market in the mid-'90s, that is. Confused? Well, never mind all that. All you need to know is that Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit II for the PlayStation 2 is not only one of the best games in this long-running series, but also one of the fastest, most visceral, and most polished racing games currently available for Sony's console.
To be sure, Hot Pursuit II is no driving simulator. It's not the next Gran Turismo, nor does it set out to be. This game is all about arcade-style racing, where car-handling properties are wildly exaggerated, and physics are more like loose suggestions than strict laws. Nonetheless, like all of the previous games in this series, Hot Pursuit II has a number of highly coveted licensed cars from American and European manufacturers like Lotus, Lamborghini, Dodge, Chevy, BMW, Mercedes, and the two most prestigious car makers, Ferrari and Porsche. What's more, all of these cars will take damage if you're too careless, though they'll take a good deal of punishment before they show signs of wear and tear, and no matter how badly you treat them, the cars and their performance will never be affected by the damage they absorb. Realism is not this game's forte, and that's what makes it so fun.
As its name implies, Hot Pursuit II largely focuses on the illegal art of outrunning the law. Actually, Hot Pursuit II is two games in one. Unlike other racing games, this one has two equally large championship modes, only one of which involves the police. Called ultimate racer, this career mode is composed of 30 individual racing events that force you to beat a number of opponents, while contending with the police, through a handful of different race types. Ultimate racer is laid out in a branching manner, and you're required to successfully finish one race before unlocking the next. As you'd expect, your opponents will get tougher, your goals harder to achieve, and the police less forgiving as you progress through this tree. Cops will come after you if you break the speed limit, and since you're tasked with crossing the finish line before your opponents do, you'll be breaking that limit constantly. At first, the cops will just send a couple of Crown Victorias after you, but if you refuse to pull over, they'll pull out all the stops to bust you. Much like in Grand Theft Auto III, the number of cops that are thrown at you is measured by the number of stars in the upper right-hand corner of the screen. When this meter is full, the police will place barricades and spike strips on the roads, they'll chase you with faster cars, and they'll even call in a helicopter that drops, of all things, explosive barrels in front of you. If the police manage to pull you over three times in a given race, you'll have to start all over.
However, that sounds more foreboding than it really is. Hot Pursuit II starts off relatively easy: You'll be driving "low-end" cars like the Lotus Elise and Opel Speedster, as will your competition, and the cops will go easy on you for the most part. As you work your way through the 30 missions, the competition will gradually get stiffer, but never to the point of frustration. The other cars are ruthless--they'll take every opportunity to give your rear bumper a not-so-friendly tap--though they're be no means perfect. You'll often see cars ahead of you plow into oncoming traffic or miscalculate a turn and ricochet off a wall or guardrail. You'll do that too, especially with some of the faster cars. While the physics in the game are by no means realistic, the cars' performance still mimics their real-world counterparts, although in a much exaggerated manner. The Ferrari F50, for instance, has a loose back end, making it harder to control around corners than the tamer BMW M5. Still, you can pretty much go through every race without ever taking your thumb off the gas button, though judicious use of your hand brake makes cornering a lot easier. In fact, wild driving is encouraged, since every time you get some air, overtake an opponent, break through a police barricade, or reach your car's top speed, you'll earn "NFS points." Hot Pursuit II has 49 cars that can be unlocked, including 10 cop cars and a dozen or so "NFS cars," which are slightly souped-up versions of their licensed counterparts. These cars require that you collect a certain number of NFS points before they become available in the game's challenge mode. It's here that you'll be able to take any car that you've unlocked and race it on any available racetrack, which also unlock as you gain more points. Hot Pursuit II has 15 unique racetracks, though that number doubles if you count the reverse courses. What's more, you can even choose between two weather settings--clear and cloudy--when racing in the challenge mode. In a nice touch, Hot Pursuit II's challenge mode even lets you play as the cops, and you can call in roadblocks and helicopters of your own.
The second career mode in Hot Pursuit II is called world championship, and it's structured exactly like ultimate racer in that you have to compete through 30 branching racing events. The difference here is that you won't have to worry about interference from the law--it's just you and the competition. As an ultimate racer, you'll earn NFS points for accomplishing the goals set forth in each race as well as for driving with style within each event. As you accumulate points, new tracks and new cars will automatically become available to you in the challenge mode. Here, as in the ultimate racer mode, you have the option between classic and extreme control modes. With the classic mode selected, the cars all handle in the typical exaggerated form of realism that has come to mark the Need for Speed series. The extreme setting is a new addition to the Need for Speed series, and it exaggerates the cars' already wild physics even further. Even with this setting selected, though, control in Hot Pursuit II remains incredibly tight. Cars stick to pavement like glue in a straight line, but they can be made to powerslide through turns at will. Most cars in the game have a tendency to push through turns, but they'll throw their tail ends out if you hit the gas or hand brake. Everything about the game is precise, and the cars will almost always respond to your input exactly as you'd expect them to.
This game oozes style, and that's largely because of its fine graphics. Hot Pursuit II gives you three different perspectives to play from--two from the third-person and one from the first--and all of these relay an incredible sense of speed. The cars are all modeled with a generous number of polygons, and they boast lighting and reflection that's respectable in its amount but not garish. As they take damage, you'll notice cracked windshields, broken taillights, and bent fenders on your cars. Scrape a wall, and you'll see bright sparks bounce off your car. Lay into the gas pedal, and you'll leave a pair of thick rubber tracks that will remain on the track surface for the duration of the race. Likewise, the courses themselves are rendered very well. While you won't see the glare of the sun off the pavement as you would in racing games like Burnout 2 and Gran Turismo 3, the lighting is impressive nonetheless. Water on the track will reflect its surroundings as well your car's glossy paint job. Hot Pursuit II's graphics engine even allows for localized fog, and this effect is used on several tracks to model morning fog, sand storms, volcanoes, and forest fires. What's more, none of the game's flare taxes its performance. Hot Pursuit II runs at a smooth frame rate with almost no signs of slowdown--it's not quite the 60fps you'll find in Burnout 2, but it's still fast.
The sound, too, is on par with the rest of the game. Each car in the game has different engine noises and exhaust notes, and these change in volume and direction as you switch through the game's three perspectives. While not overly realistic, these sounds attempt to capture the general cacophony of their real-world counterparts. Ferraris, for example, sound markedly different from the deeper, throatier Viper. The soundtrack is also very well done. Hot Pursuit features about a dozen licensed songs that range from the likes of Bush to Uncle Kracker. As eclectic a collection as this is, the songs in the game all have a hard edge to them, and they complement Hot Pursuit II's fast pace nicely. Interestingly, in races that involve cops, the songs that are played in the background are strictly instrumental versions of the originals, so as not to interfere with the chatter of the cops, who sound like they stepped right out of Smokey & the Bandit.
Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit II is easily one of the best games in the series. Its great use of graphics and sound add to the game's tight controls, wide selection of cars and tracks, and numerous racing events. It even marks the return of "the pack," a multiplayer mode that lets you and a buddy race against six other computer-controlled cars and that's easily the favorite among fans of this series. Hot Pursuit II lives up to and exceeds the standards set by previous Need for Speed games, and anyone looking for a really fast, good-looking, and wholly satisfying arcade-style racer should buy this game.