Electronic Arts recently released three versions of Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit II, the sequel to the 1998 arcade-style racing game, Need for Speed III: Hot Pursuit. This fast-paced driving game is currently available for the PlayStation 2, Xbox, and GameCube, with a PC version to follow at the end of the month. You'd expect that the console versions of this game to be identical, but strangely enough, they're not. While the Xbox and GameCube iterations of Hot Pursuit II are in fact exact ports of one another, they're markedly different from their PlayStation 2 cousin, and in this case, "different" doesn't mean "better." In short, the Xbox and GameCube versions of Hot Pursuit II have slightly detuned graphics, mushier controls, and inexplicably, a variety of minute but tangible ommissions from the PlayStation 2 game. Electronic Arts opted to have EA Seattle develop Hot Pursuit II for Microsoft and Nintendo's consoles, while Black Box handled the development chores for Sony's system, and the differences are quite evident. To be sure, Hot Pursuit II for the Xbox is by no means a poor game. In fact, it's a very competent driving game in its own right. But comparisons can't help but be made to its PlayStation 2 counterpart, especially when the difference in quality is so glaring.
Need for Speed: 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, rather 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.
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 "hot pursuit," this career mode is composed of 33 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 Grand Theft Auto III, the amount of cops that are thrown at you is measured by the number of stars in the center 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 just once in a given race (you get three strikes in the PS2 version), 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 33 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 guard rail. 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 are still reflective of 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 of the gas button, though judicious use of your hand brake makes cornering a lot easier than not.
It's perhaps a little strange that you're not rewarded for driving wild in the Xbox version of Hot Pursuit II, like you are in the PS2 game. In fact, the points system in this version of Hot Pursuit II is completely different from the PlayStation 2 version. Here, you'll be awarded with a bronze, silver, or gold medal upon completing any of the hot pursuit racing events, and each of these awards has a certain point value attached to it. You do get a few points within each race for posting the fastest lap and such, but there aren't as many ways to earn points in this game--like for taking massive jumps, for instance--as there in the PS2 version. What's more, you can choose which cars and tracks you wish to unlock yourself by spending your points accordingly--nothing becomes available to you automatically. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, it just seems strange that it's done in a completely different manner from Hot Pursuit II for the PlayStation 2. There are a little over 30 cars that you can unlock in the game--about a dozen less than the PS2 game--including 10 cop cars, all of which can be driven at will in the game's challenge mode. Additionally, Hot Pursuit II has 12 unique racetracks, though that number quadruples if you count the mirrored, reverse, and mirrored-reverse courses. 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 hot pursuit in that you have to compete through 33 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 in hot pursuit, you'll earn a different amount of points for getting the gold, silver, or bronze medal, and you can use these points to unlock any car or track that you want, thus making it available to you in the challenge mode.
As is to be expected, the cars control in an exaggerated manner compared to their real-world counterparts. It's easy to make the vehicles in the game lose traction, but it's just as easy to get it back by using a little bit of countersteering. It should be noted that Hot Pursuit II lacks the extreme handling setting found in the PS2 version of the game. This exaggerates the handling characteristics of the cars even further, and makes for a very visceral racing experience. Nor does this game have the precise controls of its PlayStation 2 cousin. Indeed, you'll notice a slight delay between your control inputs and your car's reaction. Additionally, the cars feel floaty, as if they're disconnected from the road--even the light and nimble Lotus Elise will lean over wildly in turns, and heavier cars sway back and forth almost like boats.
Hot Pursuit II gives you four different perspectives to play from--three from the third-person and one from the first--and all of these relay a fair sense of speed, though nowhere near as fast as the PS2 version. The car models, too, aren't as detailed as Hot Pursuit II for the PlayStation 2--they lack the overall polygon count and their lighting isn't as well done, nor do they take any visible signs of damage. What's more, the tracks themselves look a little bit fuzzy, and the textures are somewhat washed out when compared to the PS2 game. Still and all, Hot Pursuit II for the Xbox doesn't look bad at all. 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. And while you won't see the glare of the sun off of the pavement like 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, and localized fog, like volcanoes and forest fires, is evident throughout the game. However, these effects do come at a price. Hot Pursuit II doesn't run at the same framerate as its PS2 cousin, and while there's no sign of visible slowdown, the overall framerate is certainly suboptimal.
The sound, too, is on par with the rest of the game. Each of the cars in the game have different engine noises and exhaust notes, though they all seem to be very high pitched and much whinier than you'd expect them to be. The voices for the cops, too, is more subdued than the PlayStation 2 version, and there's not as much dialogue between police officers and the dispatcher, either. The soundtrack, though, is very well done. Hot Pursuit II 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. Additionally, like all good Xbox driving games, Hot Pursuit II will let you listen to your own soundtrack off the Xbox hard drive.
It's somewhat disappointing and certainly confusing to see such a stark difference between Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit II for the Xbox and the PlayStation 2. The latter game is easily one of the best games in the series, whereas the sloppy controls, floaty cars, and average graphics of the former game make it simply OK. To be clear, this is still a good game with very competent execution of its general gameplay mechanics. In fact, with 66 different missions, a multiplayer mode that features the infamous Need for Speed "pack," and a good selection of licensed cars, Hot Pursuit II a worthwhile purchase for anyone interested in an arcade-style racing game. It's not nearly as impressive as the PlayStation 2 game, but it does mark the first time that the Need for Speed series is available for the Xbox, and even that means something.