Platform: Xbox 360
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit represents the merger of two major video game racing franchises. The developer, Criterion Studios, is responsible for the Burnout series which is one of the most enjoyable arcade racing franchises of the past decade. They first struck gold with the mechanics of the game back in 2002 with Burnout 2 and Criterion have gone on to tinker and iterate on that franchise ever since with only minor adjustments necessary to a winning formula. Make no mistake: although this game doesn’t bear the Burnout name on the box, its from the same team and it absolutely feels like the latest model.
As it so happens, it carries the Need For Speed branding. As a franchise, Need For Speed is the Madonna of the video game industry. Each iteration changes developer and concept. One year it might be Need For Speed: Shift, a racing simulator. Another year it might be Need For Speed: Underground, a street racer. This time, we effectively have Need For Speed: Burnout.
Given that the core mechanics of the game are the same as the Burnout series, you are assured that the game will have a rock solid frame rate, an incredible sensation of speed and a slightly dodgy soundtrack that will have you reaching for the radio off switch.
Criterion Studios have shown themselves to not only have an incredible sense for what makes a satisfying arcade racing engine but also how to heighten the thrill by designing tracks that have massively widespanning corners that let you do kilometre-long powerslides and challenging AI opponents who will jostle for space and push you to the finish line. By design, it’s seldom that a race will finish with your car far ahead of the pack or hopelessly lagging behind. It’s one of the most subtle employments of rubberbanding AI that I have ever seen that ensures almost all races are a nailbiter.
There are two major innovations that Criterion apply to the familiar Burnout model. Firstly, there is the cops and racers motif. In the single player mode, you can choose a career as either an illegal street racer or a cop in (hot) pursuit through a series of bit-sized 2-5 minute racing challenges that range from first past the post, cat and mouse, time trials and more. Then, to make it interesting, the career mode gradually introduces a series of weapons and upgrades to the cars so that both cops and racers can sabotage one another with spike strips, radar jammers, police blockades and so forth. It turns the game into a Fast and Furious meets Mario Kart concept and its absolutely brilliant.
Secondly, the game also takes a page out of social networking and online shopping interfaces and layers that over the game’s UI. Criterion have called their version Autotune. What Autotune does is compare your race times with players on your Xbox Live/Playstation Network friends list, highlighting both moments when you’ve outperformed your mates and also when they’ve bested your times. The game then allows you to post and receive alerts when your personalized leaderboard has an update. It shows a level of understanding on the developers behalf that users are more interested in a personalized and tailored experience. The majority of people don’t care about a worldwide leaderboard where they rank 675,435th out of three million players. Finishing second out of a list of ten friends is more likely to get them to hit restart to try and come first however. I don’t normally consider myself a particularly competitive person but if you’re telling me that I only need to improve on my current time by two seconds to top a leaderboard of friends then maybe I’ll give that track one more go…
Curiously, although Criterion seem to have taken a page out of Facebook’s lessons in personalizing the experience, they’ve chosen not to wholeheartedly follow the renowned developer Popcap’s lessons in positive re-enforcement of the player’s actions. I remember reading in an Edge Magazine interview, one of the Popcap developers explained this concept by telling the story of an experiment from their Q.A testing. Users responded more positively to a game that was giving them scores of 1,000+ for their actions compared to the exact same game that rewarded them with only double digit scores. The scores themselves are ultimately meaningless but the feedback to the user changes their response to how they feel they are performing and ultimately, their enjoyment of the game.
Criterion sort of show an understanding of this concept with how they treat the unlocking of new cars and modes. Almost every race, no matter what the result, will end with the game triumphantly announcing three new unlocked cars that all look more expensive than anything you could afford in real life. You feel greatly accomplished.
However, consider the time trials in Hot Pursuit and how they are designed. The cops and racer time trial modes are practically identical but they differ dramatically in their user interface. In the racer mode, the player is encouraged to race to a checkpoint in the fastest possible fashion and if they have to crash into a couple of cars or bump off the side of the road to get there then so be it. In the context of the game, that’s just part of the carefree lifestyle of being an illegal street racer.
In the cop mode, any contact with the traffic or the sides of the roads are penalized. Red text appears on the screen to tell you you’ve had 1 or 2 seconds stripped from your time. It’s rather stressfull and I found myself reluctant to choose a Cop Time Trial race if I had other options available.
Once I played the game for a few hours however, I noticed I can race the exact same way in the cop and racer time trial modes, bump into the same number of vehicles and get the same medal at the end (either pass, merit or distinction). It would seem that although the cop mode appears to encourage far more conservative and skillful driving, this isn’t actually the case. If you want a distinction in the racer mode, you would have to be equally skillful in dodging traffic and hitting the sides. Or if you’re a cop and just want to get the passing score, you can choose to drive just as recklessly as in the racer mode.
Although the two modes are functionally identical, it’s just that in the cop time trial mode, you’re feeling stressed about continually seeing the dreaded text onscreen telling you that you’ve been docked another few seconds and so you end up enjoying the experience far less. I’m convinced almost everyone would enjoy the racer time trials more than the cop time. It’s an interesting lesson in game design.
That aside, Hot Pursuit is every bit as enjoyable as the other Burnout games I’ve played. I think the Autotune UI is an interesting evolution in introducing a social element to the single player console gaming experience and I expect to see it copied in future releases across other genres. Whats important is that at its core the same fundamental racing mechanics that Criterion have been renowned for are there and that makes this an easy game to recommend.