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Need for Speed Hot Pursuit pulled a coup getting Criterion to bring Burnout's juice to the cops and robbers party. But for all the beauty and online integration this is still only a small step forward for the Need for Speed franchise.
Need For Speed has been promising to reinvent itself for a number of years now. So many clean slates have made the series somewhat schizophrenic. Some years it wants to return to the brash seediness of its early days whilst others it wants to embrace a wider audience and grow up. Last year saw Need for Speed split three ways, 360/PS3 had Shift for hardcore racers, Wii and DS had Nitro for casual gamers and there was a Browser game designed to snare passersby.
This year we have another reboot, but this time it sounds genuinely fresh and exciting. They have handed to series over the Criterion to make their own - the team behind the prestigious Burnout games.
Beyond big business decisions and focus groups this partnership makes a lot of sense. My favourite part of the Burnout games has always been the pursuit modes - although sadly these diminished as the series matured - that were also stock in trade for the older Need For Speed titles. In fact the Hot Pursuit tag line is something that dates back to the late 90's and Need for Speed 3.
It's immediately obvious that Need for Speed Hot Pursuit has inherited from both sides of this fence. The styling is undoubtedly Need for Speed with a focus on illegal racers pursued by hot police cars, while the rendering, collisions and boost mechanics are straight from the Burnout playbook.
But as well as adding elements from each game, there are also plenty of characteristics that have been tempered or removed. Burnout's high octane speed-fest feels dialled down here, the boost effect for instance is less visual and easier to handle. There is also less focus on crashing your opponents and more on actual racing. My instinct to immediately barrel into the nearest opponent had much less effect here that it did in Paradise City.
Need for Speed's car tinkering and customisation has also gone by the wayside. Instead, you are offered a range of real world cars to choose from. Having real car manufacturers on board - and allowing their cars to be damaged - gives the experience a lot more weight.
Criterion's focus on high performance visuals have pushed out any remaining will to offer local multiplayer features.
Criterion's focus on high performance visuals has also pushed out any remaining will in the Need for Speed series to offer local multiplayer features. You now have to go online - and use an in-box coupon - to race against other people.
Although I would have preferred something I could play when friends come round (like the excellent four player in Motor Storm Pacific Rift) once you get online the experience is very engaging. The lead seems to be more from EA here as the Autolog mode essentially recreates a Facebook environment for sharing high scores and competing with friends records - there is even a Wall to write on.
It means that if you have friends on your 360 or PS3 who play Hot Pursuit you can keep a track of who is fasted on different tracks. Alongside this you can drop into multiplayer races proper, which offer some great cat and mouse fights between racers and police. The team side of these online games works really well and adds a new dimension to the experience.
There is also a free drive mode where you can explore the hundred miles of roadway snaking through "Seacrest county" - four times bigger than the Burnout Paradise map. But unlike Burnout it bereft of competitor drivers, both online and offline. This makes it feel cut off from the rest of the game - save for some arbitrary learning of routes - and reminded me just how magical the seamless integration between online and offline worlds was in Burnout.
This is the best Need for Speed game I've played for a few years.
For all the magic on display here, Hot Pursuit feels rather restrained. On these terms it smacks more of Need for Speed's super franchise than the fresh new upstart of Burnout. The exuberance that powered Criterion's series through four iterations in as many years feels trammelled here.
This is the best Need for Speed game I've played for a few years, but it's also the first Burnout game that felt like a step backwards. On these terms Criterion were wise not to let their Burnout brand be used on the box - although there are plenty of 360 Achievements that more than wink at the crossover.
Cops and Robbers is as strong a theme as ever, and it's exciting to see this re-injected into a Burnout world. But I can't shake the feeling that if this hadn't been a Need for Speed game it would have been more unfettered.
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