Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit

2009′s release of Need For Speed: Shift was a kind of reinvention of the series. Shift focused on legal, closed course racing and had a physics system that leaned towards a more simulation type experience as opposed to an arcade racer feel. It was met with a fair amount of good press and critical acclaim, receiving higher scores than any of the previous three NFS releases. So in hopes of upping the ante, EA handed the keys to the Need For Speed franchise over to Criterion Games, best known for developing the Burnout series. It would seem the move has paid off nicely.

What always impressed me the most in the Burnout games- other than the spectacular crashes- is Criterion's ability to create such a sense of speed. The developer's experience is evident here as it's almost a wonder that some of these cars don't take flight. The breakneck pacing helps feed the sense of urgency you get when trying to outpace that patrol car that's right there in your rear view mirror. The controls are tight and drifting and braking are both relatively forgiving. Although each car handles a little differently, they all handle well enough to keep on the road even at double or triple the speed limit.

Unlike many games depicting illegal street racing, Hot Pursuit is not set in an urban cityscape. Seacrest County is more of a rural community, with over 100 square miles of gorgeous scenery covered by a network of two lane highways and byways. It's a perfect setting to showcase all that glorious, nitrous burning speed. Apparently it's also the place to be if you're willing to drive 150 mph in an Italian sports car or a highly tuned performance vehicle. To keep their roads safe, Seacrest County has answered back with what has got to be the most ridiculously well-funded police department in history. I don't know where you live, but the cops around here don't roll in Maseratis and BMWs.

The single player challenges are fairly engaging. Placing in events earns experience points that will raise your rank as a racer or cop depending on the races you choose. Cars unlock relatively frequently, and some events will let you deploy equipment like roadblocks or spike strips that help mix things up a bit. Raising both your ranks to 20 will take you quite a while, but there's little replayability in the campaign once you have.

Online competition and community is where Hot Pursuit really shines though. Cops and robbers is always more fun when you have someone to play with. The new Autolog feature is a nice touch as well. It's kind of like Need For Speed's own social network: recent activity in the game by you or your friends will be posted on your wall. Record times, photos of that dream car, and recent achievements show up, and you can create messages or custom challenges and post them directly to your wall as well. The whole package makes for a pretty solid multiplayer affair.

Some of you youngsters may not know this, but Hot Pursuit is the sixteenth game in the Need For Speed canon. It gets its name directly from 1998′s Need For Speed III: Hot Pursuit, a game which introduced a "Hot Pursuit" mode in which police chases would occur while racing. This dynamic, while present in other games of the series such as Most Wanted, is really put on center stage here and the end result is a racing game that isn't really about racing so much as it is about The Chase. Maybe I watched too much Tom & Jerry as a child, but in my opinion this is one of the best racing games of the year.

2010 has already seen a couple of arcade style racers that were met with critical acclaim, but couldn't quite find a retail audience in Blur and Split/Second. Now EA decides to release a game that is, in many ways, the polar opposite of the last successful game in the Need For Speed series. Oh, and they're going to line it up against Gran Turismo 5 and its stable of over 1000 cars. Even though it may seem the cards are stacked against them, I think EA and Criterion have hit a home run here. Those of you who are disappointed to see the franchise change gears will have to wait for Shift 2 Unleashed in spring 2011. In the meantime, pick up Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit. It is another of Criterion's well-executed love letters to speed, and the need for aforementioned speed.

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