I’ve never really been a “car guy.” As far as I know, the difference between a Porsche and a Lamborghini is that one is made in Germany and the other in Italy. I don’t look at car magazines, I don’t keep up with the latest news, I don’t drive anything fancier than a ’98 station wagon.

I do, however, really like Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit.

Hot Pursuit is anywhere from the 14th to the 17th game in EA’s long-running Need For Speed franchise, depending on who you ask, though it’s the first to be made by England-based Burnout developer Criterion. As with previous titles in the series bearing the Hot Pursuit name, the game’s core focus is the battle between street racers and the supercops attempting to hunt them down in games of cat-and-mouse played at 150 MPH.

In essence, Hot Pursuit features two separate (though similar) games, since you can freely jump between the Racer and Cop career paths at any time. The game feels much more traditional on the racer side of things: You’ve got group races, one-on-one duel races against your rivals, and time trials like you’d find in any racing game, and while it’s perfectly functional and entertaining, it won’t knock your socks off. Things heat up when you run afoul of the law, and must evade pursuit while still trying to win the race, but that’s been done before, too.

Where Hot Pursuit really starts to shine is when it puts you behind the wheel of your police nemeses. As a police interceptor, your job is to hunt the speed freaks and shut down the races by any means necessary. Developer Criterion has said that the game is supposed to resemble a hound hunting a rabbit, and it shows: The police cars are tuned to be faster and quicker off the draw than those of the racers you’re running down, but the more nimble street racers can put their agility to good use.

Both cops and racers alike have tricks up their sleeves to throw an arcade-style twist into the mix. Both sides can drop spike traps behind them and shoot a futuristic EMP burst that damages their enemies’ systems if it connects. Cops can call in traffic helicopters and set up roadblocks, while speeders can jam the opponents’ radar and summon a single boost of desperate speed to ram police off the road. Given the limited nature of these abilities, they must be used tactically and sparingly, and the proper use thereof injects a sense of tactics into the cop/racer showdowns. Do you use your spike strip now to throw the cop off your tail, or do you wait until your car is about to fall apart and you might need it more?

This core “cops vs. racers” focus of Hot Pursuit is fantastic. It adds a competitive tension that a more standard street racer just doesn’t have, by giving each side different albeit similar tools with which to accomplish inherently opposing objectives. It’s actually rather disappointing when you’re given missions that don’t involve outrunning the cops or hunting down racers – standard street races or time trials – because the other part of the game works so well. It works all the better when you’re playing online in teams of 4 racers vs. 4 cops, with special abilities and spectacular crashes being thrown all over the road. I swear I keep getting hit by my fellow racers’ EMP bursts, too …

Also worth mentioning is the Autolog, which is a strikingly non-intrusive implementation of social media in a game like this. If you have friends playing the game, it will list their best times on available missions, giving you something to shoot for – and should you beat them to the finish, you have the option of sending them a taunting message to encourage them to try to take their title back. It’s wholly optional and admittedly feels kind of pointless if you don’t have friends who are playing the game, but if you do have a buddy or two in Hot Pursuit, it’s surprisingly satisfying to get an extra in-game reward of notoriety for proving your driving skills.

Like all good modern racers, Hot Pursuit is essentially car porn. Over 60 different vehicles from car makers from Chevrolet to Subaru have been faithfully rendered in the game. Every time you select a ride before a mission, you can listen to a narrator describing the vehicle in question in loving detail – its technological advancements, its overall design and the like. Between that and the fanfare whenever you unlock a new car (with maker, model and price included) it’s hard to not feel like this is just an extreme case of product placement, but car aficionados will likely get a kick out of it.

Just in case you doubted that the game was made by the same folks who did Burnout, every crash or successful ability use will be accompanied by glorious and dramatic slow-motion shots of cars spinning out and flipping as steel crumples and glass goes everywhere. You don’t drive these multi-thousand-dollar vehicles to not crash them, right?

Bottom Line: The core gameplay of Hot Pursuit is functional and entertaining, though the game fails to make its case until it pits cops and racers against each other in high-speed hunts, giving players on both sides the tools they need to see justice done – or evade its grasp. Hot Pursuit shines visually with both the cars and the varied environments found in the 100-square-mile Seacrest County. It’s great fun online and off, and features one of the best implementations of social media I’ve yet seen in a game targeted towards core gamers in Autolog. There might not be a ton of depth here, and the lack of customization may put some diehard racing fans off, but there is a ton of fun to be had.

Recommendation: Racing fans shouldn’t miss Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit, though you may be looking for a game with a bit more depth to it. Even non-racers may enjoy the game – I certainly did – and should consider giving it a rental at the very least.

[rating=4]

This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of the game.

John Funk likes to pretend he’s Vin Diesel every day of the week except Sunday.

Game: Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit
Genre: Racing
Developer: Criterion Games
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Release Date: November 16th, 2010
Platform: Xbox 360, PC, PS3
Available from: Amazon (PS3), Amazon (Xbox 360)

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