Hot Pursuit is a Need for Speed game in name only. This blisteringly fast racer has more in common with developer Criterion Games' own Burnout series than it does with any previous Need for Speed offering, despite lacking a number of features that are commonly associated with Burnout games. This isn't a game in which you're rewarded for crashing spectacularly or for jumping through billboards, but it is a game that encourages you to drive dangerously and to take down your opponents by any means necessary. The option to play both as illegal racers and as the cops that are chasing them brings some much-needed variety to the action, while spike strips, road blocks, and other satisfying countermeasures ensure that Hot Pursuit doesn't feel quite like any racer that you've played before. Regardless of whether your interest in Hot Pursuit stems from a love of Need for Speed, Burnout, or neither, you won't be disappointed.
If you're familiar with the Burnout series, you'll immediately feel at home with the handling in Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit. Licensed cars from the likes of Lamborghini, Aston Martin, and Porsche can be made to slide around corners with only the briefest of touches on the brake, and you earn nitrous by driving dangerously close to other vehicles and into oncoming traffic. Furthermore, there are plenty of shortcuts available if you stray from the Seacrest County roads, and should you wreck your ride while attempting to take one, you're treated to a glorious slow-motion shot as panels buckle and debris starts to fly. A similar slow-motion treatment is used to alert you when additional cops show up to chase you down and when you successfully take out an opponent, which adds a welcome touch of Hollywood to these high-speed chases. Not that they need it.
Even in the Career mode's time trial and rapid response events where you have no cops or racers to worry about, the potential for disaster is ever present. Oncoming and slow-moving traffic, risky shortcuts, and sharp corners all conspire to keep you on the edge of your seat, and other event types add so many additional hazards for you to concern yourself with that your heart will likely still be racing long after you cross the finish line. As a racer, you find yourself being pursued by cops who can organize roadblocks, hit you with EMP blasts, drop spike strips in your path, and even call upon helicopters armed with spike strips to slow you down if you get too far ahead of them. And as a cop, you're expected to chase racers who have their own EMPs and spike strips, as well as powerful turbo systems and jammers that render all of your equipment useless for a short time. The good news is that as your opponents slowly gain access to more and better equipment in Career mode, so do you.
Equipment is mapped to the D pad and is available only in limited quantities. This keeps events of the same type from feeling too similar because, for example, taking down racers by overtaking them and then dropping spike strips is very different from hitting them with EMP shots that take a few seconds to lock on after you position yourself directly behind the target. You always have the option to just bash into other vehicles in order to take them out, but these cars are much more resilient than their Burnout counterparts, and it generally takes several hard shunts to put them out of commission. Incidentally, as a racer you're free to run your opponents off the road or even to use countermeasures against them, but when there are cops in pursuit, it's best to save your aggression for your common enemy.
Cops and racers in Hot Pursuit benefit from impressive AI that makes them both formidable and occasionally unpredictable opponents. Both are smart about using their countermeasures effectively and are appropriately aggressive. But they're also fallible, which can make for some exciting moments when racers collide into each other directly in front of you, for example. Racers won't always take shortcuts, but it's not uncommon to see them doing so; impressively, when you're tailing them as a cop, they often wait until the last second to turn off the road, which makes attempting to follow them much more challenging. Cops will take shortcuts as well, but only when they're pursuing racers down them. Interestingly, not all of the alternate routes actually save you time, and how effective they are as shortcuts is in part determined by how well your car handles off-road. If you're in a four-wheel drive Subaru Impreza or Mitsubishi Lancer Evo, loose surfaces don't slow you down much, but if you're in a low-slung exotic like the Koenigsegg Agera or Pagani Zonda, you're probably better off staying on the tarmac.
Predictably, though AI opponents do a great job of keeping things interesting, they're still no substitute for other players. Hot Pursuit doesn't support local multiplayer, but its three online modes are so much fun that it can be hard to tear yourself away once you start playing. Online races support up to eight players, and since they don't feature any weapons or cops, they are a test of your driving skill and nothing more. Hot pursuit events, on the other hand, are four-against-four races in which a team of cops with full arsenals must try to prevent equally well-equipped racers from reaching the finish line. These events never play out the same way twice, and therefore you're unlikely to tire of them anytime soon. Similarly, you never know what's going to happen next in online interceptor events, which pit just one cop against one racer. The difference here, other than numbers, is that you're free to drive anywhere on the map. As the cop, you obviously need to stick close to your target, but as the racer, it's extremely satisfying to outwit your pursuer by taking a shortcut, using countermeasures to gain an advantage, or just doing something as simple as performing a quick U-turn. The chase ends either when one of the cars gets wrecked or when the racer manages to outrun the cop, at which point you have the option to switch roles and start over.
Regardless of whether you're playing online or in Career mode, your performances earn you bounty points that increase your overall cop and racer ranks. These ranks aren't just about bragging rights; as your bounty increases you unlock additional cars and, just occasionally, upgrades for your countermeasures. Cars are sorted into five classes according to their performance, so you never gain an unreasonable advantage by having access to cars that other players don't, because everyone uses cars from the same class. Equipment upgrades do afford you a noticeable advantage, but it's not so significant that you're going to dominate as a high-level player in a room full of newcomers. Longer spike strips still need to be dropped at the right time to be effective, and even being able to drop two simultaneously doesn't change things much. EMPs that lock on more quickly are definitely easier to use, and high-level road blocks are tougher for targets to avoid, but nothing feels unbalanced or unfair. In fact, equipment upgrades are more likely to impact your results in Career mode than online, and unlocking them can be a good incentive to replay events that you've yet to achieve a gold medal time in.
Bronze, silver, and gold medals are up for grabs in all 70-plus Career mode events, and even after you've earned yourself gold in an event, there's a good chance that you're going to be replaying it at some point in the future. That's because Hot Pursuit's autolog system does a great job of constantly comparing you to your friends and compelling you to compete with them. Events in which you're losing to friends who have played recently are highlighted on the career map, and postings on your "speed wall" alert you when your best times are beaten. Furthermore, you can easily jump straight into events that autolog recommends to you via an option on the main menu, so if you hear that your time in an event has been beaten, you don't have to go looking for it on the map before attempting to reclaim your crown. It's a good system, and the option to post taunts on friends' walls after you beat their times is a nice touch. It's unfortunate that the autolog completely replaces rather than complements traditional leaderboards though, because there's no way to know how your times compare with the best in the world, and ultimately the autolog is only as good as your friends are competitive.
One of the few frustrating features of Hot Pursuit, especially when you're trying to shave seconds off a time to beat one of your friends, is that just occasionally the slow-motion shots used to show off crashes and such can mess with your driving. Most of the time, when the camera switches away from you to show an opponent hitting your spike strip or perhaps another cop entering your pursuit, control of your car is handed over to the AI, and it does a good job of keeping you moving. That's not always the case, though; you might regain control of your car just as it's about to slam into the back of another vehicle or a split-second too late for you to take a high-speed corner without straying from the tarmac. It doesn't happen often, but it's annoying when it does. On the flip side, you might also miraculously avoid spike strips or road blocks when the AI is in control, so it all evens out.
Awkward camera switches aside, Hot Pursuit does very little wrong with its presentation. All of the licensed cars look superb, and the varied environments that they race through are far more detailed than you can appreciate at over 200 miles per hour. The frame rate is silky smooth even when your driving isn't, and the heads-up display, while busy, is never distracting. The audio is also impressive; the roar of engines, the wailing of police sirens, the whoosh of nitrous, and even the chatter on the police radio sound great. It's odd that the default audio levels place more importance on the loud and lively soundtrack than on the sound effects, but that's easily rectified in the options menu.
Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit is one of the most thrilling racing games around. It doesn't matter which side of the law you prefer to play on; the unpredictable nature of these events and the sheer speed at which they're played make this a tough game to put down. If you're in the market for a ride with superb handling, great looks, an impressive top speed, and more than enough room for all of your friends, this is the one you want.