All that long-term fans of arcade racers need to know is that Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit looks and plays like the next-generation love child of Need for Speed 3 (also subtitled Hot Pursuit) and Burnout Revenge. In other words, it's phenomenal, and arguably the best arcade racer available right now. Buy it now, without delay.
Presumably the rest of you need a little more convincing. Well, we all know that - with the exception of last year's more simulation-style Need for Speed: Shift - every Need for Speed since Need for Speed: Most Wanted has pretty much sucked. Finally the penny dropped with Electronic Arts, and it commissioned the Burnout team at Criterion to give the series a much needed (re)boot up the posterior. Criterion has done it in a way that makes Hot Pursuit feel like a genuine return to Need for Speed's roots, yet also the spiritual heir to the Burnout series. It's a masterpiece of arcade racer game design.
Hot Pursuit takes place in Seacrest County, a fictionalised version of a Californian county which brings together all the aspects of the great West Coast state. All the tropes of recent Need for Speeds - the open-world racing, the urban settings, the rubbish undercover cop plots, the useless video clips - have been dispensed with. In come a large selection of forest, desert, coastal and mountain courses set throughout the county, and a dual-track career mode that has you driving both as an illegal, high-speed racer, and as a cop in the special task force dedicated to bringing them down.
You start off with access to a handful of cop and racer events. The racers get your basic races, but also time trials, one-on-one duels and events where they must either outrun a single cop or escape several while winning a race - the titular “Hot Pursuit”. Cops, meanwhile, get interceptions, where they must take down a single racer, rapid response tests (basically time trials) and their own hot pursuits, as seen from the other side. In either role, earning “bounty” by winning races, taking down opponents and generally driving like a nutter levels you up, opening up new events and unlocking new cars and new equipment. It's a simple structure, but constantly rewarding. Whatever you're driving and whatever you're doing, there's always a new track, a new ride or some new toy that you won't be able to resist taking for a spin.
New toys? Well, as a confrontational cops vs criminals racer, Hot Pursuit can't be without tools to take racers off the road, or shake 5.0 off your tail. Don't worry, Criterion hasn't gone down the Mario Kart road driven by Bizarre with its last racer, Blur. Instead, both police and racers can deploy disruptive EMP missiles and drop spike traps, and the cops can call in road blocks and helicopters, while the crims can call on jamming devices and a super turbo boost. These weapons are upgraded as you level up, helping you gain a little extra edge.
And the actual driving is incredible. Hot Pursuit is ludicrously fast, in the way that Burnout fans have come to know and love. While the cars - all real production models - are beautifully rendered, and the landscapes rich in gorgeous, scenic detail; however you won't actually have time to look at them, because you'll have your focus on the horizon, constantly looking for cars you'll need to dodge, corners you'll need to take, shortcuts you might want to make use of and police traps you'll need to avoid. The handling caricatures rather than models anything you might call authentic, and the more po-faced simulation buff will complain that it's all a bit unrealistic and forgiving. The rest of us, however, will have our fingers in our ears singing "la la, la la, we don't care". Hot Pursuit just feels brilliant, and that's that.
You can see the DNA of Burnout everywhere, from the way you earn nitrous boosts by hanging in the left-hand lane, dodging oncoming traffic and avoiding disaster by a whisker, to the takedowns and crashes, all lovingly replayed in crisp, extravagant slow-motion. And, as with Burnout, it's impossibly addictive. You'll swear that the next race will be the last one, and suddenly it's 4am, your eyes are drier than the Gobi desert and your fingers are growing rigid with cramp.
What makes things worse is that Hot Pursuit works superbly as an online game, even when you're not actually playing online. The Autolog feature constantly tracks your progress, along with that of any players on your friends list, updating you when someone beats your time or record on an event, and giving you another reason to go back and shave a few vital seconds here and there. And when you do race online it's even better. It's not that the AI cops and racers are bad - in fact, they're some of the most aggressive, competitive and unpredictable gits we've ever come across - but there's something even more exciting about racing an event knowing that the cops on your tail are real people, or that you're just about to ruin some guy’s race with a nastily placed spike trap. Once you've tried it, other online racers seem, well, a little bit dull.
Finally, we wouldn't dream of leaving without mentioning two things. Firstly, the car line-up. We all know how resistant the major marques have been about having their dearest models wrecked in racing games, but Criterion and EA have somehow managed to get such big names as Ford, Porsche, BMW, Bentley, Aston Martin, Dodge, Mazda, Lamborghini and Maserati to come in and have their creations battered, crumpled and smashed up. Somehow, the feeling of wrecking something as rare and beautiful as an Aston Martin One 77 or a Lamborghini Reventon makes that terrible, last-minute crash feel all the more devastating. Secondly, the sound is every bit as good as the visuals, with a riveting mix of engine noises, screeching breaks and twisting metal when it all goes wrong, plus a fantastic soundtrack which mixes orchestral score with cutting-edge rock, dance and indie. Well done to all concerned.
We know that we're climbing into the upper reaches of hyperbole, but Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit deserves it. Even against stiff competition from the awesome Split/Second, it's easily the finest arcade racer of the year, and a surefire all-time great. The only reason to hold off a 10/10 score is the feeling that, within a day or so of playing you've seen most of the cars, events and tracks that the game has to offer. Believe us - this is a minor criticism - and as much a mark of how hard it is to stop playing the game than a sign that it is lacking in depth. Some have called Hot Pursuit a return to form, but we'd go further. It's the best Need for Speed ever made.