It could never accurately be described as a crisis as such, but Need For Speed has displayed some pretty bizarre personality issues of late. From the old school throwback of Undercover in 2008, to the lawful, petrol-head seriousness of Shift in 2009, to the bold PC MMO of this year’s Need For Speed World, the franchise’s suddenly scattergun approach certainly bore some tasty fruit, but to those lifelong fans who may not have been blessed with the broadest of palettes, the confusion about where exactly their beloved was heading could’ve become a bone of genuine contention.

The fact that Criterion have taken the reigns of the latest Need For Speed release – an outfit who, it is well worth pointing out, have never made a bad game – seems like a very sharp move on EA’s part, until it is revealed (by Hot Pursuit’s Marketing Manager Doug McConkey) that Criterion actually pursued the opportunity themselves. The team all apparently had a deep-seated love of the very first Need For Speed game, released back in 1994 on the 3DO before being ported to great success to the original Playstation and Sega Saturn.

The bulk of that original was made up of police pursuit chases, and though this has been a consistent theme throughout the series, it’s back in primary focus here. But as everyone has come to expect from Criterion, this is precisely one million miles away from being a meek and simplistic regression. The integration of the new Need For Speed ‘Autolog’ facilitates social interaction and keeps you connected with your friends even when they aren’t online at the same time as you. Nothing is linear, and you can shape your entire experience with the game around a steady flux of challenges for you and your friends to tackle as you progress.

The Autolog will constantly recommend events to you, whether it’s to draw your attention to a relatively straightforward Hot Pursuit event that you perhaps haven’t tried yet, events that have proven popular with the rest of the community, or to alert you to challenges that have been set on particular courses by your friends. Each player will have an interactive wall similar to a Facebook page, on which they can post in-game photographs, impressive lap times or simple recommendations of courses that they’ve enjoyed. If a friend sees a lap-time or recommendation on your page, they can simply click on it and they’ll be directed straight to the event in question.

For the benefit of anyone who isn’t up to speed with the NFS series, Hot Pursuit’s Interceptor mode – which we managed to get a substantial amount of hands-on time with – feels on a superficial level like the Road Rage modes that first appeared in Burnout 3: Takedown, but our prolonged exposure revealed a much deeper and more refined beast than that. Rather than following a set route to your escape (and having your only real weapon be a tactical usage of your brakes) Interceptor mode is a game of genuinely tense cat and mouse, with both hunter and prey having to use the sprawling environments and a set of team-specific weapons to lead them to victory.

The police are given things like chopper support, EMP explosives and the ability to create roadblocks; whilst the primary weapon in each racer’s arsenal is a radar jammer, which upsets all police communications for a short period. Regardless of which side you’re on, the bottom left of the screen is taken up by a damage meter, and unlike in Burnout’s Road Rage mode the police cars are made of much stronger stuff than those of their opponents, and racers are dissuaded from fighting back. The police cars can be taken out – road blocks and smashes do damage to them too – but it’ll take a long time and a lot of skill to do so.

The mode is further balanced by a juxtaposition in the boost mechanic. The racer’s boost meter replenishes briskly, but it can only be used when it’s completely full; whilst the police cars can boost permanently. Currency for both racers and lawmen comes in the form of Pursuit Bounty, which perpetually rises with every major and minor achievement that you make in the game, but also climbs steadily when you’re driving dangerously. For racers the damage meter also depletes if you remain untouched for long periods, and in serious cases the best tactic will probably involve getting a bit of distance, scrambling the police comms and sitting in a shrouded lay-by in order to recuperate.

Brilliantly, over the course of our six or so rounds, there didn’t appear to be any one specific technique that worked best to assist in either evasion or capture, with high speed only helping if it was coupled with superior driving nous, and the utilisation of shrewd hiding places only working in your favour if your pursuer wasn’t using all of the tools at his disposal. Each game represented a very careful battle of wits, and even though during each game our opponent was in the same room as us (and we played in full view of eachother’s screens) the speed with which you are able to juggle your tactics meant that it never hindered the gameplay.

Inteceptor allows for eight players online simultaneously, and within that framework almost anything goes. If bragging rights are your bag, you can set up a game of Interceptor that involves seven police cars pursuing one racer, or vice versa. Obviously the ability to use voice chat online opens up a whole wealth of new possibilities, but more so than perhaps any other, the prospect of a tactical 4v4 match remains entirely mouthwatering.

The world of Paradise City that Criterion created in Burnout Paradise was a broad and breathtaking work of all-encompassing majesty that may yet prove to be seminal, but the land of Seacrest County is looking no less impressive. Apparently over four times the size of Paradise City, Seacrest County is a rural desert town which happens to feature what McConkey describes as the “best ever roads for racing at high speed.” It’s hard to argue with that statement, but the environments that we saw were also packed with sly nooks and crevices, primarily to enrich modes like Interceptor.

Hopes are high every time that a Need For Speed game is on the horizon, and Criterion’s involvement has probably meant that this is the most feverishly anticipated series outing yet. Numerous changes (both large and small) are inevitably going to be made before release, but it already looks and feels as absurdly slick as you’d expect, and promises to be as bold and progressive a videogame as we’ve seen this year.

Watch the Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit trailer here…

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