Just a couple of short years ago, EA’s massively successful Need For Speed series appeared to be in serious danger of becoming a bit of an also-ran. The development team behind it had stumbled upon an undoubtedly winning formula many years previously, but it seemed vigilantly opposed to the idea of toying with it too much. Although last year’s Need For Speed: Shift brought intense realism into the fray that made for the best iteration in years, 2010’s double-whammy of NFS titles look extremely likely to comfortably bump the franchise back into the ‘must buy’ stratosphere.

In addition to the extremely fresh-looking free-to-play MMO Need For Speed: World on PC (due in the third quarter of this year) EA have just announced Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit for Xbox 360, Playstation 3, PC and Wii, and there are already an ample host of reasons for fans of the series (and disillusioned ex-fans alike) to be extremely excited about it. First up is the tantalising revelation that the game is being developed by the squad at Guildford’s utterly estimable Criterion Games. Famous amongst all serious gamers not only for expertly taking the outstanding Burnout series from strength to strength over the years, but also for being a team who have never made a bad game, the emphasis this time promises to be on intensive refinement and innovation.

The most enticing prospect is the ‘Autolog’ system, which promises to offer a revolutionary experience that enables instant connection to your friend’s games and profiles; enabling you to share all of your experiences, pictures and challenges with eachother. The system “instinctively” tailors challenges to you based on what your friends have been doing, creating what EA have described as being a “dynamic, socially competitive experience.” Considering how ground-breaking (and flawlessly designed) Burnout Paradise’s social aspect was, there is no reason at all to believe that this isn’t going to be something equally spectacular.

The promised inclusion of weapons and equipment may seem like a knee-jerk reaction to the recent hits Blur and Split Second: Velocity, but it promises to accentuate the differences between playing as a cop and playing as the pursued – with only the police cars able to use weapons, and racers restricted to a set of “evasion equipment”. If Criterion can get the balance between the two skill sets just right, the online component could run for as long as the current cycle of consoles holds out.

Criterion’s formidable world-building expertise bodes exceptionally well for Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit‘s open land of Seacrest County, and for the first time in the history of the NFS franchise, a “gripping” career mode is promised. Even if you suspected that the Need For Speed series had all four of its wheels firmly planted on a fast track to mediocrity, 2010 may be the year in which it reveals itself to be the undisputed king of the road.

Watch the Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit here…

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