[Editor's Note: It's late, but we finally got to it]
Throw Criterion at a racing game with licensed cars and you’re bound to happen on a winner, right? After all, one of my favourite arcade racers ever is Burnout Paradise. I clocked literally hundreds of hours in that game. It solidified my opinion of Criterion as a developer who knew what they were doing with a racing game.
When I read that Criterion were being given a go under the Need for Speed banner – and recreating the classic ‘Hot Pursuit’, naturally, I was highly anticipating its release.
How could they possibly fail?
You’re dropped straight into Seacrest County, a district with about 160 kilometres of roads to tear through at breakneck speed. From the get-go, you have the option or pursuing a career as a Racer, or a career as a Cop.
Both paths are completely interchangeable however, you can drive an event as a Racer, avoiding the cops – and as soon as you’re finished, you can jump into a cop car and go out and chase a racer pack you could have just been a part of.
The ‘Racer’ side is your more conventional get from A to B as fast as possible (at least faster than your competition) scenario. This gets further divided up into Time Trials where you race the clock and standard-fare competitive races against up to 7 other opponents.
The excitement though, comes from the racer events where you’re being chased by the cops. Sometimes it’s just you versus a handful of specialist cop units, sometimes it’s a bunch of you against the entire Seacrest County police force. The latter especially, get incredibly action-packed and furiously competitive.
Throughout your career as a Racer, you get access to some defences too. Your car can be fitted with Spike Strips, EMP (a useful forward-firing electrical burst that slows down other racers and cops alike), Jammers (blocks EMP targeting, cop communication and offensive deployments, like spike strips for example) and for a quick escape, or a recovery boost, Turbo.
On the flipside, the ‘Cop’ career has you shutting down the races and competitors in the fastest way possible. Like the racers, you have Spike Strips and EMP at your disposal, but in place of Jammers and Turbo, you can call in Helicopter support (useful if you’re falling behind, or managing a spread pack of racers – the Helicopter will fly ahead and track other suspects, even dropping Spike Strips to slow them down) and the ability to deploy Roadblocks.
Cop events have you tracking large packs of racers, or sometimes a solo shutdown against a very tricky and evasive racer. They’ll dart in and out of traffic, drive into oncoming traffic, even pull the handbrake and drive in the opposite direction.
Car choice is paramount throughout the game. For the evasive racers, you need to combat them with light, nimble cop cars for example. Similarly the big, heavy cop cars (like a Bentley for example) are better suited for using brute force to tackle suspects on roads where they’ve got nowhere to hide.
There are loads of cars available, with both Racers and Cops getting access to some of the most gorgeous supercars on offer. Jump into a Porsche 918 Spyder and get chased by a Koenigsegg cop car. It’s all ridiculously cool in true arcade racing style.
Cars are unlocked as you progress through the career, with each event unlocking bounty that accelerates you through 20 levels (for both Racer and Cop). Level progression opens up new tiers of events with access to faster cars and faster opponents.
After a while however, events do tend to become a big stagnant. The careers will take about 10-15 hours combined depending on your ability (and luck), but you can only do so many chase events, or time trials before it starts to feel like you’ve been there and done it before. Criterion have tried to spruce it up a bit by adding certain restrictions making events harder (Racer pursuits with no Spike Strips for example, or Cop events with no Helicopter support or Roadblocks) but generally all this does is drag the event out a little longer than usual.
“Autolog” attempts to save the day here, whereby the result of every event you participate in is uploaded to a ‘wall’ preceding the event entry, so you can compare your times and completion to your Friends. This additional competition is especially time consuming if you have a bunch of Friends of varying skill levels on your Friends list (like I did). It promotes replayability, going back to chase down the extra second or two that’ll leap you to the top of your Wall. All your Friends then receive a notification of you beating their times on the leaderboards the next time they play, thereby encouraging them to go back and have another go.
As a brief reprieve from all of this, Criterion have included ‘Freedrive’, where you can take any car and just drive around Seacrest County at your own leisure. Unfortunately though, there’s little to do beyond gawk at the beautiful scenery, so it becomes boring quickly. You can however, use this mode to freely take screenshots of your new car acquirements.
So far so good.
My major disappointments in this title however, rest with the handling and the extreme use of rubber-band AI. Allow me to elaborate.
The handling itself is incredibly unnatural. I can’t really put a finger on what it is exactly that makes it so unlikeable, but every time I jumped into Hot Pursuit for some races, it would take me a good 5 tries just to get a feel back for it. Every car, from a light, nimble Pagani Zonda Cinque to a big heavy Bentley or Bugatti all seem to handle in the same tail out, drift everywhere fashion. Sure, it’s probably the aim with an arcade racer such as this, but even the drifting feels unnatural, forced. I play a lot of racers with many different handling mechanics, but I never really felt comfortable in NFS: Hot Pursuit, even towards the end of the game.
Coupled with rubber-band AI – and this is rubber-band AI to rival the best (on par with the most evil Motorstorm can offer) and you’re thinking along the right lines. This is further highlighted by Criterion’s very own innovation, the Autolog. I’d regularly finish events, especially Time Trials and Interceptor events, a solid 5 seconds to (on one occasion) 30 seconds quicker than the next closest Friend on my list – yet I was unable to beat the AI. I’d finish 2nd or 3rd with a time that was 30 seconds quicker than my Friends – who all, I might add, had gold with their time for winning the same race.
Similarly, the Cop events are equally as frustrating. Save your boost for a corner takedown or a hard impact, execute your move – only for the AI to match your boost exactly, forcing you to miss them by millimetres and crash out. It got to the point where I could follow a car on a straight, hit boost, let it off, hit boost, let it off again – and I’d watch the AI car do exactly the same thing. Rubber-band AI mirrors you to a ridiculous level in Hot Pursuit.
My dismay for some arcade racers and the rabid use of rubber-band AI’s to make games ‘accessible’ to all was truly highlighted here. It may make games accessible to a wider audience, but all I see is a rigged and forced penalty for being fast. It’s simply not fun.
To escape the rubber-band AI, Hot Pursuit features multiplayer game modes for up to eight players. Most reflect the same formats available in the single-player careers, but are more enjoyable thanks to Human opponents and realistic outcomes.
Graphics & Sound
Seacrest County is beautiful. While it’s not an ‘open world’ sandbox in the same sense as racers like Burnout Paradise, or TDU2 for example, it uses the open world to deliver your point-to-point races and events. Freedrive allows you to explore the spectacular environment (even if there’s nothing else to do), watch the weather roll in, view sunsets and sunrises. Criterion have delivered a gorgeous world to drive about.
Cars are very well modelled and intricately detailed. The entire car list has been given plenty of attention, all cars featuring cosmetic damage, and most cars have a Racer and Cop version (though there are a handful of exclusive exceptions). Seeing your favourite supercar dressed up as a Cop vehicle is quite brilliant – and there’s loads of variation in the Cop liveries across the range too.
Menu systems are slick, modern and easily accessible.
The Soundtrack is standard NFS/Criterion fare with Alternative/rock, Dance /Electro House and some Hip-Hop thrown in, but you also have the option of custom soundtracks if none of the above is to your liking.
Car/engine sounds are also well done, authentic and pump the volume on your surround sound, very rewarding too.
This one was a recipe for success, but it just doesn’t make the cut. All the key elements are there to make a fantastic racing game – and a superb Hot Pursuit remake. Only it all falls apart around the most critical of all ingredients – they failed at the racing itself.
The handling is so unnatural it breaks the experience. The AI is so in-your-face rubber-bandy that it does nothing but bring out the rage in you. There’s little replayability – hell, I even lacked the interest and perseverance to completely finish it. I persevered with the Racer career, but lost interest towards the end of the Cop career. This from a massive racing fan. That says it all.
Sadly this one will gather dust when it should have been a regular revisit like its classic counterpart. Criterion have disappointed. In the very genre I thought it would never be possible for them to do so.