Within the first year of the Xbox 360’s launch, Microsoft’s European division came up with “Cops and Robbers,” a live-action commercial that ranks among the greatest video game ads ever.
It begins with plainclothes police officers chasing a band of masked criminals across rooftops before the criminals hop in a getaway car. That starts a vehicle chase through busy city streets as a helicopter joins the pursuit. The whole thing ends with the robbers’ car flipping as police close in. At the ad’s close, the robbers get out of the car and trade their ski masks for the officers’ badges. It turns out the whole thing was just a game.
For me, Electronic Arts’ “Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit” (rated E10+, $60 on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, $50 on PC) is the first game to deliver on that promise, weaving police chases, street racing and social networking features into a compelling bundle that had me saying, “OK, one more race,” each night before bed.
(The Wii version of the game, which sells for $50, is a lesser version that hasn’t been reviewed favorably. I played on the PS3.)
“Hot Pursuit” takes place in Seacrest County, a fantasy land whose stunning vistas and pothole-free roads attract speed demons from around the world. Thanks to what must be an obscenely high tax rate, the area’s law enforcement is equipped with similarly high-powered, exotic vehicles and an array of gadgets.
The single-player career mode is a two-headed beast in which gamers play both as racers and as law enforcement. You can alternate between the two, accumulating experience points, known as bounty, to increase your level in each role, plus unlock fancier cars and cooler gadgets.
“Hot Pursuit” marks the “Need for Speed” debut of Criterion Games, and the influence of the crash-heavy “Burnout” series for which the studio is known is felt throughout. The cars handle like a blend between the heavy pieces of sculpture they are and the giant bumper cars you want them to be. While trading paint with your rivals won’t drastically impede your car’s performance, it’ll look like hell by the time you finish.
Assuming your console is online, your accomplishments in the single-player game will be posted for your friends to see. Whenever you attempt an event, you’ll see your friends’ top times, and you’ll rack up extra bounty if you’re able to beat them.
Once you finally beat your friends in an event, you can gloat by posting your accomplishment to your friends’ Facebook-like “walls.” If you do pick up the game, it’s almost criminal not to log in at some point to the Autolog portion of hotpursuit.needforspeed.com to spiff up your profile, interact with friends and check your stats.
While the social networking features in “Hot Pursuit” are essential, the game could do with an enhanced photo or clip-saving mode on par with what Bungie Studios included with “Halo 3” and “Halo: Reach.” I’ve been involved in some fantastic wrecks and near-misses while playing “Hot Pursuit,” but the photos I snap, while capturing the general gist of what went down, rarely do the moment justice. I’d love to have the ability to go back, play a recording of the race, pause the action just where I want and snap a picture from the perfect angle. Instead, in-race photos are taken by pressing a button during the race and hoping for the best.
While the single-player game and social networking features are a blast to monkey around with, the meat of “Hot Pursuit” rests in its online modes, of which there are three.
The Hot Pursuit mode from which the game takes its name is the highlight, and it’s what reminded me of that classic Xbox 360 ad. Four racers compete to win an event while four police officers try to chase them down and cause them to wreck. Each side is armed with copious gadgetry, and greater bounty is awarded to the winning team. Even if you’re eliminated in the early going, it’s worth sticking around in spectator mode and pulling for your teammates to win you a higher bonus.
The other two modes are a race, where up to eight players can compete with no cops or gadgets, and Interceptor. In Interceptor, one cop tries to wreck one racer. Interceptor differs greatly from Hot Pursuit in that there’s no destination point for the racer to get to. The goal is simply to ditch the cop, so you’ll be driving on backroads, taking shortcuts and hitting reverse in a bid to stay off law enforcement’s radar long enough to get the win. The mode has a “Dukes of Hazzard”-style feel that’s a lot of fun.
Granted, that doesn’t sound like a ton of race modes, but there’s something to be said for doing a couple of things really well.