The words “hot pursuit” as they pertain to the Need for Speed franchise are something like holy ground to those who played HP1 (PS1) and even more so HP2 (PS2). They turned the genre on its ear with their level of polish and commitment to what they were trying to do—create exciting and brutal police chases with excellent vehicle handling and an awesome soundtrack. They were a sizable step forward in a genre that had gotten all too comfortable with rote driving in circles or otherwise non-interactive environments and track elements. Criterion had a tall task before them to live up to the legacy, but with several strong entries in their Burnout franchise under their belt, and an apparent sense that turning a new HP into something too akin to Burnout wouldn’t be doing the series justice, I was confident they could handle the responsibility.
But something went wrong.
I remember after logging dozens of hours into Burnout Paradise and admiring the level of polish evident in every aspect of that title — though it wasn’t quite perfect, mind you — I remembered another NFS game had come out: Undercover. I was none-too-thrilled with the over-emphasis on story in Most Wanted and Carbon, but if there’s well executed, engaging gameplay and striking visuals, I’m inclined to give it the benefit of the doubt. While Most Wanted was decent enough, I got tired of Carbon‘s irritating challenges and linearity well before the finish. And I think we’d all like to forget about ProStreet.
So I rented Undercover and put up with the tedious acting long enough to get my hands on the steering wheel. That’s where it all came apart. The game felt like a late PS2 budget title rather than a proper PS3 game. Jaggies, boring textures, uninspired visuals, tame city design, narcoleptic street layout, dull missions…the whole thing was an insufferable bore. And what with the minimal load times and embracing of the open-world design in Burnout Paradise, Undercover felt like a soulless, half-cooked turd. I played it for about an hour, realized there was nothing there I couldn’t find better of someplace else, and shut it down.
I mention all this because I got a terribly strong sense of deja vu when I fired up the new Hot Pursuit.
The interface tries to be slick, tries to mimic the map layout from Burnout Revenge, which I guess shouldn’t be unexpected given who the developer was. The title song rocked through the speakers and got me in the mood to give the game a fair shake after an underwhelming demo. I dove into the gameplay and it was nothing but disappointment from there. I honestly don’t understand how the game’s Metascore is 90 right now; it pales hard in comparison to so many other titles like it.
The soundtrack takes a quick nosedive from the title screen into techno territory, something I’ve never enjoyed racing to. But to be fair, HP2 had some techno mixed with rock in the soundtrack. The difference? HP2 let you turn off the techno and just play rock only, and from there let you turn off specific tracks you might not want to hear over and over. Plus, the soundtrack for that game kicked ass from the get-go. New HP has no such options that I’ve been able to find. Just sliders for music, engine, effects and little more, which is an about-face for both EA and Criterion, who have each been pretty flexible in terms of filtering options for in-game music. Rushed to market to meet the holiday demand? You tell me.
The control options are a bit more flexible, allowing you to assign any existing function to any button or stick it would seem (except Sixaxis steering), though there are some features that are wholly worthless from a gameplay perspective, like the ability to toggle headlights and sirens. When you go into tunnels or are driving in the dark, your headlights come on automatically and it doesn’t serve you in any way to switch them opposite of what the game does for you. You never sneak up on a suspect under the cover of night and bust him using stealth. Similarly, the ability to turn off sirens on police cars has no effect other than cosmetic. It doesn’t make speeders less aware of your presence, and having the siren on does nothing to encourage traffic to get the hell out of your way. So really, the siren is a throwaway element that is not relevant to gameplay in the least. But you have a button to toggle it on and off, for reasons unknown.
However, the one big surprising thing missing in action is the ability to turn off the vibration function. I checked high and low in the options menu and couldn’t find this anywhere. I hate rumble. Always have. It exists only to remind me on a regular basis that I’m not part of the experience, but governing it from a great distance using a piece of plastic with some buttons sewn on. So thankfully, EA/Criterion saw fit to include no option to disable my least favorite thing about gaming. Awesome.
So what about the cars? They have to be a thrill to zip around in, right? Not really. Every one I drove — from Porsches to Lamborghinis to Nissans to Fords — handled basically the same, with only slight differences to acceleration. Handling is clunky, floaty, and makes cars respond like a barge idling down the Mississippi. The sluggish handling makes nimble maneuvers during pursuits almost impossible, and dodging traffic or catching shortcuts at the last second are wishes that never come true. The fact that rear-wheel drive and all-wheel drive cars handle the same in this game baffles me. There are no options to adjust realism of handling or turn off assistance as you could in NFS:Shift, either. I don’t understand this.
Ok, but bashing racers as the cops has to be fun, right? Again, not really. There are so many inconsistencies in place to devour, digest, and crap out any fun you might have had with this mode. For one, if you’re rubbing fenders with a law-breaker, the only way to damage his car is to ram it from behind. Seriously. I T-boned a car into a guard rail and he took no damage. I shoved a driver head-on into a concrete median wall, bringing him to a clattering dead stop, debris flying everywhere, yet he took no damage. Unbelievable.
So you have to fall back on your equipment, which is a crap shoot at best. Helicopters drop spike strips in front of other racers, but the timing on it is wildly unpredictable, and if a racer enters a tunnel at the right time, the chopper will peel off entirely, doing you no good. Roadblocks pose no threat as anyone can wiggle through or around them on the shoulder. Hell, there’s even a trophy for getting around a roadblock without touching it, one I acquired on my first try doing it. EMP is fairly reliable, if you can maintain a lock on the target car for what seems like forever to deploy the pulse that ultimately causes him a little damage, but doesn’t actually slow him down or affect his handling like you might expect. Or like how it shut down another driver’s car entirely, disabled his steering, and so on in Midnight Club: Los Angeles, a far superior game in every conceivable way (except that they never let you actually play as cops). You do have the power to drop spike strips yourself, right behind your car, and the game’s “tips” suggest you wait until the target driver is really close to ensure he doesn’t have time to swerve. I tried this with someone riding my bumper, then again a few feet ahead of him, and again a couple car lengths ahead….he had to be a bit further back than that to actually hit the damn thing. Every other time, it deployed behind him somehow, wasting my reserves of that item and making the game’s “tips” look incompetent.
The cars handle like ass, playing as the cops us clumsy, uncoordinated, and unreliable, so what about the open-world aspects? They simply don’t exist other than the fact that you can drive around in an elaborate rural circle, one that lacks any luster, environmental flair, or really anything to make it memorable. It’s about as “open world” as a rail shooter like Time Crisis. There are day, night, and weather effects, but those are determined for you automatically. HP2 let you pick between two different types of conditions, and HP1 let you pick any combination of day, night, rain, fog, and even snow on some tracks, in conjunction with mirrored and reversed (or both) tracks. The lesson here is that we’re losing features as we move forward, not gaining them. Anyway, so you pick a spot to start free roaming based on some race location, and start roaming. There is no North indicator on the mini-map, you cannot access the main map without exiting free roam entirely and dumping back to the main Autolog screen (preceded by one of many loading screens you’ll see more of than you’d like), and there’s nothing else to indicate where the hell you are on the map.
On top of that, traffic is sparse, there are no impromptu events to join (like there are in NFS World on PC and Burnout Paradise and Midnight Club: LA), there is no online free roam cruise (a la BP, MC: LA, Test Drive Unlimited, and others), and as cops there are no chases to initiate at any point while roaming. What the hell were they thinking? This should have been the very crux of the game, not some throwaway tacked-on useless diversion. There is nothing, NOTHING to do in free roam as I’ve seen so far in 25 hours of gameplay other than extremely limited exploration of painfully bland and uninspired environments. And if they didn’t introduce something worthwhile in the first 20 hours of play, then they blew it. I’m not coming back for more disappointment.
Autolog does integrate friends’ best times in events to compete directly against and post smack talk on a “wall” a la Facebook (but not). But again, we’ve seen similar features in other games like Split/Second, so while useful, it’s not quite innovation.
A few more notes on the single player experience:
- Rubber band AI is in full effect here. They’ll never get too far ahead, but if you blow away the pack in a Lamborghini, some guy in a Ford Fiesta will be right on your bumper the rest of the race. Furthermore, I raced many a race where I was getting dusted until the last mile of the race, then the AI just seemed to give up, throwing the race and letting me cruise by into pole position unmolested.
- Using nitrous lacks any sense of power and speed that other competing games possess.
- The events unfold in a painfully linear format. You cannot choose which events to do or when. In Burnout Paradise, if you didn’t like straight up races but liked Road Rage or Stunt Run or Marked Man events, you could just do those and skip the rest. Not so here.
- Rapid Response (a.k.a. Time Trial) events penalize you for touching anything, from fences to other traffic, adding at least two seconds to your finishing time with each and every scrape. When the cars handle this sloppily and traffic does not yield to a car with a siren blaring on top of it, this becomes a tedious and unforgiving nightmare immediately.
- One of the first cars I had access to was a Porsche with a top speed of around 165mph. The next several cars I unlocked had lower top speeds and horsepower, forcing me to stick with the Porsche. They all handle like crap, but at least that one moved faster. Isn’t the idea to unlock better cars along the way, not worse?
- I unlocked cars that it said were available, but then weren’t in the line up for the next event. Oh right, because for some reason the game delineates Sports, Super, Exotic, and Performance cars into specific and isolated groups. Why? I can’t even guess since they all go about the same speed and one handles just as poorly as the next. I’d expect an old muscle car to slosh from one side of the road to the other, but not a Subaru Impreza or a Mitsubishi Lancer. And yet they do.
- There are load times everywhere. I don’t know if they opted not to install data (or even give you the option) for some particular reason, but I often settled for worse times than I should have in a race just because restarting triggered at least a 45-second wait while the game reloads all the nothing it puts before you. Split/Second managed to pull off instant restarts and quick loading between races despite looking 100x better. Same with Criterion’s own Burnout Paradise.
- The graphics look like a high-res PS2 game, with jaggies everywhere, nothing anywhere one could point to and call lush or refined or polished. It’s muddy and uninspired and washed out and crappy looking. One nice effect: the wet road when it rains. That’s about it.
- Shortcuts ought to be called alternate routes since they often run on for miles and miles in some labyrinthine fashion that makes pursuit nigh impossible if you miss the turn-off that some speeder caught. At that point, you can’t do much to him until he gets back on the road, and by then, it may be far too late.
- There are superfluous and annoying cinematics, bulletins, FYIs, explanatory tutorials and such before and after EVERY SINGLE EVENT that you cannot skip. For the pre-race cinemas, it says “Press X to skip” but all that does is shorten it a varying amount, sometimes a little, sometimes more, but you still have to sit through some arbitrary amount of non-interactive, uninspired fluff seemingly taken out of the latest Michael Bay tripe that’s supposed to get you fired up for the chase. I just found it incredibly annoying.
- There is no sense of exploration. It simply is not encouraged and in many ways actively discouraged. There’s nothing to find or collect or discover, and the lack of a proper map for free roam kills any remaining sense of curiosity you might have had; the game simply feels claustrophobic and constrained as a result. Burnout Paradise, Midnight Club: LA, and Test Drive Unlimited blow Hot Pursuit out of the water in this regard.
- The exterior camera still sits too low for my taste and cannot be adjusted (they introduced a fully customizable camera in the NFS: V-Rally series eons ago on the PS1, then summarily discarded it in every game since), causing several situations where you cannot see anything in front of you, making successful pursuit less likely than meeting an untimely demise at the headlights of an unwitting and unseen Sunday driver.
- When engaged in Hot Pursuit, one logical approach would be to blow past all the speeders, take out numero uno, then work your way back through the pack. The game makes this impossible. If you pass the last place guy without wrecking him, everyone in front of him simply can’t be caught up to. I tried and tried, driving flawlessly for miles and miles, but it would not let me reach them until I wrecked the car furthest back in the pack. What gives?
- Cops blow through nitrous 10x faster than racers do. It’s unclear why this is the case, but cops do regenerate nitrous normally, whereas racers have to drive in oncoming traffic, draft, or drift to regain boost.
- Spike strips don’t take out a vehicle, only damage it. So even if you have a racer blow out all four tires on a spike strip, he’ll be back in the race in no time, with one bar less “health” on his vehicle. In HP2, if you lost so much as a single tire to a spike strip, you could limp along for a little while, throwing sparks to and fro, but you were going to be pulled over in the next mile, guaranteed.
- There is no split screen local multiplayer, despite sporting visuals that clearly aren’t making the hardware sweat any.
- The option to retry a race isn’t always given after it ends. Sometimes it is, other times it’s not. Annoying.
- There is a strong feeling that Bounty is similar to experience from RPGs. However, Bounty is not cumulative across retries in a race. Any bounty or awards you might have earned during a race all get wiped out if you restart (trophies persist, though, it seems). So there’s no way to grind in an event to get some different rides; some of which you can only get by paying cold, hard cash at the EA store online. Don’t you love it when publishers make you pay extra for something that could have and should have been (and hell, probably IS) on the disc?
- Nissan 370Z’s specs are deemed “CLASSIFIED” in the game, though every other car out there — even concept cars — have full details. This is stupid. In 10 seconds with Google I found the top speed of the car to be about 156mph. It’s not a secret.
Ok, so single player sucks, but what about multiplayer? If you can forget for five seconds that the awful core gameplay translates exactly intact to the multiplayer side of the game, the only variable is other people. Straight up races quickly devolved into who could wreck whom in the first ten seconds, then gain an insurmountable lead. I did learn, however, that if someone finishes first, but quits out of the game before the last place guy finishes — out of boredom or what-have-you — he loses his first place finish, and the second place guy gets his bounty. That’s kind of lame.
In Hot Pursuit events, teams are “autobalanced” rather than being chosen by players. This might not be bad if a second round of “revenge” were given to the same teams, playing opposite roles, but it’s not. You just move on to the next randomly chosen track with randomly chosen opponents (unless you invite friends in) with randomly assigned roles. So if you like playing a cop, it’s entirely likely that you could end up five rounds in a row as a fugitive.
You can’t make custom races or really do anything to liven things up. In Test Drive Unlimited, MC:LA, and Fuel, there was an option to simply drop Point A and one spot on the map, and Point B on another, and get a group together to race it. It was simple, elegant, and allowed for a near infinite possible races within the expansive game world. Or remember the seamless offline/online transition from Burnout Paradise? It was brilliant, but HP has nothing like that. It’s perhaps the least inspired, least ambitious racing game I’ve seen….possibly ever. I hate saying that about Criterion’s work, as I’ve enjoyed most everything they’ve put together in the past (even been playing through Black again recently on PS2), but this just reeks of design-by-committee in the repugnant bowels of EA HQ.
Of course, your mileage may vary. Some will be terribly forgiving of this game’s gobs and heaps of flaws, though I don’t understand why they should/would be in an age where we have far better games at lower prices that do everything this game wishes it could do, only a thousand times better. I wonder how much EA had to pay for that skyscraping Metascore, because HP certainly didn’t earn it on its own merits. If the User Reviews are any indication, I’m not the only one who saw this game for what it really is — a poorly executed nostalgia cash-in that may very well have been shoved out the door to bank on holiday madness. Pity, for it could have been something great. I was worried I might not have enough time before the launch of Test Drive Unlimited 2 to fully enjoy the fruits of Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit. Ha. Haha. Right.
Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit is rated E10+ (Everyone 10 and older) by the ESRB for Content Descriptors. This game can also be found on: PC and Xbox 360.