As an escapism form or media, videogames allow us the opportunity to play out some activities that would otherwise prove hazardous to anyone. Truly overt, gratuitous and fantastic virtual realities are at our fingertips, accessible with a simple press of a button. Some of these digital playgrounds do better than others in 'immersing' gamers, and it's these ones which are afforded the opportunity to re-evaluate and re-imagine themselves in even more entertaining and fulfilling ways.
To solidify this concept in concrete example, take a look at the Need for Speed franchise. Built on a foundation where your purpose is to expressly break real-world laws, the series focuses on driving exotic cars at dangerous speeds and outrunning police pursuit as it rewards you for transgression against them. In reality, this is all grossly illegal of course, but for over 16 years, it's been a successively fun product published by Electronic Arts, regardless of the studio handling the digital world development.
Now split into different titles, each looking to offer a specific experience, the franchise finds one of its strains in the hands of Burnout powerhouse, Criterion Games. Making a return to the series' classical formula, Need for Speed Hot Pursuit continues to show off how breaking the law (virtually) is still entertaining in fictional Seacrest County. It's a return to form, but that doesn't mean there aren't a few bumps in the road.
Let's make something clear, though—perhaps the most refreshing quality of Hot Pursuit is its dedication to simplicity. A pre-rendered cutscene sets up hours of pure arcade racing for arcade racing's sake. Without a fluffed-up story or contrived purpose, dozens of races unlock around the aptly named Seacrest County, which often starts you in one environ and brings you to a completely opposite one. In one outting, a blurring race along a brightly lit coastline eventually speeds upward in elevation to a foggy, snow-laden mountain pass. All the while you're not doing so to prove yourself to racing gangs in a laughable “Fast and Furious” ripoff. Simply, Seacrest County is a notorious destination for street racing and you're just gunning to be Number One.
To fit in with the Need for Speed model, however, races aren't simple point A-to-B sprints. Here, to deal with speedy felons who start out with meager muscle cars and later earn even faster exotics, the Man has access to a similar stable of automobiles. Whether playing as a racer trying to dodge, duck, dip, dive, and dodge your well-equipped pursuers, or as an enforcer enacting a PIT maneuver in pedal-to-the-medal cat-and-mouse games, the SCPD is anything but a dull presence. Just as racers inhabit Seacrest County simply to race, the SCPD inherently patrol it to take them down.
Along the way a few cutscenes here and there animate offensive and defensive equipment both sides can employ against one another (spike strips, EMP blasts, turbo, etc.), but you wont find any hammy story devices here. Instead, it's all about navigating an overworld map, picking your event, and racing around to beat others, the cops, both other racers and cops, or the clock. On the other end of your bumper are AI-controlled adversaries that play as a crapshoot for competent opposition—either they'll be too effective and inescapable, or idiotic and suicidal—but playing through the Career mode familiarizes you with core mechanics.
Though at times the single-player effort can be frustrating or too easy, it really acts as a tutorial for the competition-focused multiplayer. Backed by an interactive leaderboard system, dubbed Autolog, online play is addictive with recorded event times posted to you and your friends' menus in a social network format where berating messages can be passed back and forth. Beating times in any mode of play nets you experience points (“Bounty”), which progresses you through each faction's ranks and unlocks better equipment and cars, but its the Autolog which entices you to return to a race for the umpteenth time in order to best your buddies. Ultimately its a small tweak to a leaderboard interface, but its implementation is undeniably well-conceived.
The racing gameplay structure itself shines when other humans are playing as well. Pure racer events play out as turbo-filled escapades without reprisal, since dangerous driving rewards you with nitrous and police take a break; but once others take control of the SCPD, races turn into coy games cooperation. If a racer finishes the route, all are rewarded with Bounty, but it's First Place who claims the most. Conversely, it's up to the cops to run the racers off the road, with the person scoring the most netting the biggest Bounty for themselves while their team gets a base reward. That is to say, Multiplayer essentially plays like you and your friends (or strangers) were being chased by a bear—you only have to run faster than the other person to win.
A few nitpicks abound in the game's otherwise tight execution. Rendered introduction sequences to each event annoyingly drop framerate regularly, and, for good or bad, the soundtrack will remind anyone who's seen “Super Troopers” of the house techno escaping the car as Rabbit blasts down the highway. Also, just as the AI is manically programmed, some equipment deployment is hit-or-miss—as a cop, do I really want to target my partner with an EMP? Finally, something to do while freely roaming about Seacrest County, besides taking relatively uninteresting DreamShots, would have been appreciated.
Acclaimed for their Burnout work, under the Need for Speed banner, Criterion Games shows they can double-dip in a category and succeed with telltale execution. Fast and at times unforgiving, Hot Pursuit delivers that escapist feeling by breaking real-world laws with gaming that might show a few rough edges during solo play, but that otherwise excels by leveraging tight mechanics for a socially minded multiplayer affair.
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