First Look: Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit review

We don't think many would contest that, after the brilliant Need for Speed: Most Wanted, the classic racing series lost its way. Need for Speed: Carbon? Mediocre. ProStreet? A bad experiment. Undercover? Don't even ask. Sure, last year's Shift was actually a rather under-rated sim-style racer, but was it really Need for Speed? Not on your life. So, the news that the new Need for Speed is (a) under development from the Burnout team at Criterion and (b) going back to the series' roots is some of the best we've had from this year's E3.

You see, Criterion understands what makes the series tick: exotic cars and great police chases. Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit will have plenty of both. Two full career modes will allow you to race either as an illegal racer or a cop, and in either you'll find some of the hottest vehicles ever made, many in police livery for the first time. We've already seen Lamborghinis and Bucattis, and we're assured that dream cars will not be short on supply.

Most importantly, Hot Pursuit is built from the ground up for online play. While you can make progress as a solo player, facing off against strong AI, the game is designed to work with an online system that Criterion calls "Autolog". This connects up to eight players for online match-ups, with four cops vs four racers, seven cops vs a single racer, and any combination in-between. Progress will be synced between online and offline profiles, and you'll be able to check against your friends' achievements, and challenge them to an epic chase.

In action, the game looks dazzling. The section being demoed here at E3 is a sprawling network of highways, tunnels and dirt-track shortcuts running through a highland area of pine woods. The scenery is gorgeous, but the cars are even more so: beautifully rendered, gorgeously lit supercars that buckle and shatter realistically when they collide. And collide they do, because the section we're playing is a one-on-one hot pursuit.

As you'd expect from the team behind Burnout, the action is ludicrously fast, with our cars weaving through the fairly sparse traffic, screaming around bends and making sudden handbrake turns to confuse your opponent. Even at this stage the handling is excellent: gritty enough to make the game feel a challenge, but not so sim-like that you can't pull off outrageous stunts. In short, the new Need for Speed looks and feels like a premium class contender.

The demo also gives us a chance to try out another of the game's features: a simple system of power-ups you earn through daredevil driving feats. Earn enough points and the cop can call in roadblocks, and while we didn't get the chance to put any of the racer's moves into action, we're told he'll get equivalent tools, like an option to disable the cop's tracking radar for a time. 

Verdict

Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit looks fantastic and feels great to play, but what really makes you smile while you play is that it makes the series genuinely thrilling once again. Playing the demo both as cop and racer, one thing hit us: if it's this much fun with just two players, what on Earth will it be like with eight? We haven't really scratched the surface of the game, and what was shown was - apparently - an alpha build, but the fundamentals are in place for a great arcade racer, and a real return to form. The November release can't come soon enough.