Hot Pursuit channels classic Need for Speed formula

My relationship with the Need for Speed franchise has been a rocky one. In the mid-90s, I was introduced to the series by the original PC version, a game I still remember vividly to this day. Over the years since, I've sampled nearly all of the more than dozen NFS derivatives that have followed. Some of them have resonated more than others.

I'm all for game developers exploring new directions, but for me, the most successful Need for Speed sequels have been the ones that stuck to the franchise formula: hot cars, real roads peppered with traffic, and the wail of sirens from a police chase. Racing-oriented entries in the series, such as Underground, ProStreet, and Shift, experiment too much with the recipe for my tastes. I've enjoyed elements of them all, but none has produced the sort of intensely thrilling moments that a good pursuit can dole out with satisfying frequency.

Naturally, when EA revealed that the NFS franchise would revisit police chases with a new Hot Pursuit title, my interest was piqued. Then I learned that Burnout developer Criterion Games would be helming the project, and I started to worry. I've had fun with the last couple of chapters in the Burnout series, but they're a little arcadey and cartoonish. The Need for Speed family has always had at least a veneer of realism that's stretched from the environments to the general feel of the cars.

Criterion's take on Hot Pursuit very much looks the part. Although there's nothing ground-breaking in the graphics or effects, no doubt due to the game's console roots, the visuals are still very pretty. The world is made up of a network of scenic roads that twist through varied landscapes set against picturesque backdrops. Your stable of cars is just as gorgeous, covering all of the performance models and exotics one might find plastered on the wall of a pimply teenager's bedroom—or Facebook account.

As a Top Gear addict, I'm particularly fond of automotive pornography. Hot Pursuit delivers it in spades. However, the game also misses one important ingredient: personality. My time with the Forza Motorsport simulation series has given me a greater appreciation for the finer points of each sports car's  handling as shouted by Jermery Clarkson while sliding through the Hammerhead with his face stretched sideways. Like Clarkson, you'll spend a lot of time power-sliding through corners in Hot Pursuit, but it won't be because you've mastered feathering the throttle of a rear-wheel-drive car with the weight of its engine at the front. No, in-game drifting is trivial to initiate and easy to control, regardless of the car you're driving. A Porsche doesn't feel much different than a Lamborghini as long as they're in the same performance class. Although the handling isn't as arcadey as Burnout, I get the impression I'm controlling Ken Block behind the wheel rather than piloting the car myself.

Block's skills will come in handy, because you share the road with slow-moving traffic, plenty of rivals, and the 5-0. The cops aren't limited to beaten-up Crown Victorias; they have a selection of exotics and a helicopter waiting in the wings. You can play a branch of the single-player campaign from their side of the action, too. Initially, I alternated events back and forth. Before long, however, I found myself embracing the dark side to get my fill Hot Pursuit from the fox's perspective.

Wow, what a chase.

I was able to slouch on my living room couch for Hot Pursuit's first few races and time trials, but as soon as flashing lights appeared in the rear-view mirror, I found myself leaning forward and focusing intently. Weaving through traffic is hard enough at supercar speeds. Having the fuzz on your tail only ratchets up the intensity. Something about this cocktail triggers a dopamine dump deep within whatever part of my brain is associated with awesome.

Yeah, the handling is closer to Mario Kart than NFS: Porsche Unleashed, but it fits the surrounding action, which feels like Michael Bay's take on The Fast and the Furious. Unfortunately, the game tries a little too hard to be cinematic. At some moments, like when you get tailed by a new brand of black-and-white hotness or take down another vehicle, the camera pulls out to provide a dramatic angle on the event. You're then returned to the controls a little ways down the road, further reinforcing the feeling that someone else is doing the driving. The interruption is annoying. I'd much rather watch the carnage in a post-event replay, which doesn't seem to be an option.

While I'm griping, I also much prefer the bullet-time power-up used in NFS: Most Wanted to the mix of spike-strip, EMP, jammer, and secondary turbo accessories in Hot Pursuit. Slow motion gives an almost on-demand cinematic feel, maintaining a focus on driving rather than managing an array of weapons and equipment. Alas, stretching time is difficult to coordinate for multiplayer matches. With all sorts of social networking features, this latest Need for Speed game makes online play a clear priority.

I may never indulge in an online pursuit if the single-player campaign continues to satisfy, though. Dropping into a quick race or pursuit provides instant gratification, and if I'm not careful, I'll get sucked into a series of failed attempts to do "just one more" chase.

It's a strange feeling, to play a game and be so conscious of its flaws yet still not be able to put down the controller. That's kind of what Hot Pursuit is like for me. I may cringe occasionally at the Burnout handling that strips cars of their character, the unnecessary replays that interrupt my immersion, and the fact that yet another console port has squandered the power of the PC, but I thoroughly enjoy every other moment of the experience. I'm not sure if that means Hot Pursuit is good enough to rise above its flaws or if I'm simply a sucker for this well-executed gameplay mechanic. The truth, I suspect, lies somewhere in between.

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