I’ve been a fan of the Need for Speed series since the original in 1994.  I used to play it with my friends on my PC while we listened to rock CD’s for hours upon hours.  It was a great time, a gorgeous game, and a whole hell of a lot of fun.  It was as close as we were going to get to driving that kind of exotic car, and it quickly became a tradition that we’ve shared since that initial entry through almost every entry of the series (save for a few lame entries while the series tried different variations).

Still, no entry brought quite as much to the series as the original Hot Pursuit (Need for Speed 3 in 1998), which took on much of what worked in the first two entries and distilled it down to what has made the series work – exotic cars and cops.  Since then, the series has tried different themes, with varying degrees of success – from ultra realistic sims (ProStreet) to pure arcade (Nitro) and everything in between (Undercover, Carbon, the two Underground games).  I actually enjoyed some of those entries, despite the fact that none particularly succeeded too well with fans. 

But, working with Criterion Games (the development company behind the successful Burnout series), Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit, actually the 16th game in the franchise, distills the series back to a formula that makes it work.  Gone are drifting missions (though drifting is still a part of the game), those weird nitro-fused drag racing missions, tuning your car and decals and all of that.  Your main options are which kind of car you want to drive, and what color you want to be.  If you’ve played Need for Speed all this time, it’s definitely an adjustment, but a welcome one.  It took me off guard at first, but you’ll find yourself really happy about the simplicity of it all this time around.  You win races, you unlock more cars.  Done and done.

In their place is Autolog, which makes Need for Speed a truly online experience – I just can’t imagine not playing this game online.  Autolog connects you with the NFS world – online news, a “wall” to post accomplishments and photos of your best crashes, and, most importantly, comparative scoring where, if you have friends who also own the game, you can race against each other without actually racing against each other.  How so?  Well, you get to see their times…and try to beat them.  Of course, this becomes an endless cycle of trying to one up each other that I haven’t felt since those early days.  Sure, it keeps you from progressing too far in the game since you’re re-racing courses to beat your friends’ scores…but dammit, it’s just too fun!

The only bad thing that Autolog does is that it does away with “Quick Match” mode – you can’t just pick any race and play with any car.  Sure, you can replay races, with the cars available for that race, but there’s no option to just jump into a regular race and pick from any car at your disposal.  You probably won’t miss it ultimately, but I did notice it’s absence pretty early on.

Other than that little caveat, though, Hot Pursuit is just about as perfect a Need For Speed game as you’re going to get.  Gone are the accurate driving mechanics for each specific car, with more general physics based on weights and class and speed.  The game focuses on the arcade aspects, more than the sim ones. But the controls are easy to learn and they feel right – this game isn’t so much about tuning your cars, but about choosing the right car for each course (including making sure your police car choices are the right ones – you don’t want to pick a small car to take on muscle cars because you’ll just bounce off of them as you try to take them down)

And, of course, there are the crashes – with the crew that worked on Burnout, you know you’re going to get some awesome crashes, and this game delivers in spades.  Oh man…playing this game, you get so many fantastic crashes…you’ll be dying to see the next one, and photograph it, and post it to your wall.  The graphics are spectacular and, while you do get a little bit of framerate slowdown, it’s nothing that takes away from your enjoyment of the game.

While I was leery about the inclusion of “weapons” in this game, it doesn’t turn this into Mario Kart.  You get spike strips, EMP blasts, helicopters, roadblocks…and they don’t feel stupid.  They’re all useful, and it takes some strategy to use them right.  They’re a great addition.

Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit is definitely a great time, and just about the best damn racing game I’ve played in a long time.  It’s the strongest NFS game since Most Wanted (in 2005), and one of the finest in the franchise.  An absolute must own.

Paul's Awesomeness Score - 9