Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit is a love letter. It may have been penned by an adulterous lover – as its rather intense affections are levelled not only at the first ever Need For Speed title, but also Burnout 3: Takedown – but it is immeasurably more eloquent that your average fawning cap doff. Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit sees its development team Criterion Games – an outfit who have never, ever made a bad game – playing rather beautifully to their strengths, and the results might just represent the team’s most admirable achievement thus far.

It isn’t often that a publisher is brutally honest about the diminishing returns inherent in one of their ongoing flagship franchises, but when EA’s Patrick Soderlund publicly did just that last month, it wasn’t too difficult to argue with him. It’s fantastic to hear that the rather courageous (and surprisingly hardcore) 2009 offshoot Shift is getting a follow-up next year, but that aside, this really was one series that was in dire need of not just a bit of tweaking and refining, but an extensive overhaul in every conceivable department. And this is where Hot Pursuit comes in.

Once you jump into the single player game, things feel like a direct sequel to the seminal Burnout 3: Takedown, which isn’t problematic in the slightest when you consider that some of Criterion’s fans still regard it – quite rightly – to be their best work. The female voiceover actress who explains things to you over the fizzy cutscenes may have changed her gender and dropped the nauseating dude-speak, but she’s clearly related to Burnout 3’s DJ Stryker. The old-school map structure of the single-player campaign will probably ring some pleasing bells too.

As the title implies, the majority of the game is made up of police chases, with a few races and one-on-one events thrown in for good measure. You spend a fairly equal amount of time in the single-player game progressing through as both police officer and racer, although you can stick to a chosen path until completion if you wish to. Everything you do (both online and off, which is a bit of a masterstroke) rewards you with XP points that unlock new vehicles and role-specific weapon upgrades.

The much-touted new Autolog feature isn’t just flawlessly designed and damn-near comprehensive, it also cleverly prolongs the life of the game by quite some measure, and exploits every racing game fan’s compulsion to do battle with their friends via online scoreboards. You’re always kept aware of your friend’s best performances and records as you scan over each level, vehicle or course, and if one of your scores is beaten by a pal, it’ll pop up on the main menu screen as “Breaking News”. When that happens, you can jump straight back to that event at the touch of a single button.

All of these little friend skirmishes are logged onto a Facebook-style wall, so if you aren’t the kind of person who heads straight for a challenge as soon as it appears, you can also dip in and out of it at your own leisure. Seacrest County is every bit as well designed and good-looking as Paradise City was, although these streets are made with (Burnout-style) high speeds in mind, with a few sly shortcuts and hidden nooks for those who like to tackle their pursuits craftily. Some tracks are cleverly structured to enable tactical play when it comes to weapon use, and dropping a spike strip on the far dip of a small hill never loses its appeal.

The cars handle beautifully too – in that gloriously accessible and arcadey way that initially makes you suspect (wrongly) that the mechanics lacks depth. Although there isn’t a great deal to tell most of the fastest super cars apart when it comes to handling, this works wonders for the online component in particular, where you mostly feel like you’re always on a completely level playing field, even when you’ve still got what seems like hundreds of new cars yet to unlock. You don’t have to worry yourself with customisation options either, which is only refreshing because Criterion have managed to balance everything perfectly themselves.

After Burnout Paradise – a game that was deservedly referred to as a masterpiece by many, many racing fans – some people may have been expecting Criterion to be neck-deep in a creative cool-off period. But Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit is never anything less than an absurdly entertaining videogame, and if you’re looking for faults or oversights, you’re only going to repeatedly come up empty. It’s a word that is used way too often when it comes to Criterion’s sumptuous wares, but this is genuinely a masterpiece of both design and gameplay craft, and it commands the immediate attention of absolutely everybody.

Watch the Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit trailer here:


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