"Hot Pursuit" races into my heart

"Hot Pursuit" races into my heart

I've never been all that into driving games. Part of it has to do with my astounding ability to ram a virtual car into a virtual wall with astonishing regularity.

And whenever I manage to do that, I feel this manic compulsion to restart the race — regardless of if it just started or I'm inches from the finish line. Crash again? Restart again, until I make it to the checkered flag in one piece. What's that you say? I came in third, not first? OK, let's try that race again until I either win or can't take it anymore.

Yeah, so keeping that in mind, it should be clear why it has taken me a while to write this review of "Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit." With few exceptions, I've probably restarted every race I've attempted in the game at least five to nine times before finally securing a victory my ego could accept.

Actually, probably the only exception was my first time behind the wheel of a police cruiser. Tasked with taking down a racing motorist, I started pulling up alongside him, then turned sharply to the right in a perfect PIT maneuver, striking his vehicle just behind its back tire. The force of the collision propelled the offender's car into a brutal sidewise roll.

If it was real life, he'd have been a smear on the pavement, and I'd probably be suspended for use of excessive force — or at least under investigation and facing countless lawsuits from the poor slob's family. But since it's just a game, I got a huge commendation for the takedown, largely because the "race" had taken me less than 30 seconds.

In case you're wondering, yes, that finish had me chortling with glee.

In many ways, "Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit" is an amazing game: a drool-worthy selection of vehicles, incredible scenery, challenging courses, and a huge variety of game types that allow players to play the game they want to play.

I should explain that last bit a little more clearly. In "Hot Pursuit," you get to play as both a cop and an illegal street racer. And while, in a general sense, a racer's goal is to win races and a cop's is to take down racers, neither role can be so defined in such simple terms.

As a cop

When I'm driving on the side of Johnny Law, my preference is to take on the "bad" guys, whether it's one car or a whole crew, in interception-style races.

Something about crunching my car into another guy's gets my blood pumping. Plus, I'm pretty good at using the other tools the game makes available — roadblocks, tire-shredding spike strips, car-disabling electro-magnetic pulses (EMPs) and hovering helicopters — to make their virtual lives miserable.

And I love that not every such mission is a linear drive forward. Sure, sometimes you are pursuing perps down a fairly no-nonsense route, but other times you'll be up against a driver who really doesn't want to get caught, and he'll be making quick U-turns, weaving in and out of oncoming traffic and doing everything he can to shake you.

But there's a completely different kind of police mission that is so not my cup of tea. In those, I'm basically a deliveryman with a badge, tasked with racing the clock to a predetermined point on the map.

I'm not really an "against the clock" kind of driver. I'd prefer to have an opponent to beat. And it really doesn't help me that here I earn time penalties for every dent, ding and scratch I put on my cruiser — and believe me, I get many such penalties.

Yet here's how "Hot Pursuit" wins me over: I don't have to do those missions. With every interception mission I complete, I unlock new missions, and I don't ever have to do those others if I don't want to.

However, I do have one minor complaint from the cop side of things: If I'm in a cop car, speeding down the road with my siren blaring and my lights flashing, at least some of the civilian vehicles on the road should pull off to the side. It's an element of realism that's sorely lacking (mostly because I keep crashing into the idiots who won't get out of my way.)

As a racer

It probably could go without saying that most of the time when I'm driving as a racer, my goal is to win a race against other drivers. At least, that's the game variant I'm best at.

It helps that dangerous driving behavior builds up my vehicle's nitrous tank, because I'm almost always driving dangerously — driving on the wrong side of the road, barely avoiding collisions, drifting through turns. That seriously helps me out when I'm a little behind as the race is wrapping up.

OK, it also helped me tremendously that the early races have a generous amount of "rubber-banding" built in. In essence, as you get close to the finish line, most of your competition slows down a bit, so you can claim first place and feel better about yourself. However, as you get further into the game, the rubber-banding is gradually reduced, so the challenge increases.

Such races are pretty much anything goes, especially after you unlock some of the tools the cops have, plus a few extras designed to thwart those other tools. Also, shortcuts abound along the race route, though it's not always wise to take an exotic ride off-road, and some paths are red herrings meant to lead drivers astray.

And while some are pure, unhindered races, other times the fuzz joins the action, trying to wreck your fun and your car. Then it becomes less about racing and more about getting away in one piece.

Of course, other missions pit you as a racer against the clock, similar to the cop variant, though sometimes the police are present. As before, not my cup of tea, well, at least not when I'm not trying to be a getaway driver.

Those beautiful cars

Regardless of what role you decide to play at any particular moment in the game, a fantastic vehicle will be at your command.

OK, I don't exactly consider a Subaru WRX STI a dream car, no matter how pimped out it is. Same with the Mazda RX-8. Yet some people do.

My particular piece of vehicular candy is the Ford Shelby GT500, especially the Super Snake variant. Though I admit it pales in comparison to many of the other vehicles in "Hot Pursuit."

The Bugatti Veyron 16.4 ring any bells? One of the fastest commercially available cars on the planet, it does 0 to 60 in 2.5 seconds, retails for about $1.7 million and gets a measly 14 mpg on the highway. It's in here, and you don't have to worry about keeping it fueled and supplied with $20,000 tires. (The current fastest commercial car is the Bugatti Veyron 16.4 Super Sport.)

Each handles differently in the game, though I can't say if they truly match their real world counterparts. But basically, some can turn on a dime regardless of your speed, and others handle like bricks when you put the pedal to the metal.

I don't have any complaints about that. I do, however, have a beef with the camera through which you see the world — but it's one I have with most every driving game I've ever played.

When I drive, I sit in a driver's seat. I look out at the world from a slightly left of center viewpoint, looking at a dashboard and out over the hood of my car. My whole sense of perception while driving is built around this view, including how close my vehicle is to the objects around it.

When I drive, my vantage point is not from above and behind my car, neither near nor far. Likewise, my view is not from the center of my car's hood. So why are these the only camera angles I can pick from in this game? Please, someone, anyone, give me a real driver's seat view of the world. Please.

Out for a Sunday drive

Whenever I'm actively racing in "Hot Pursuit," I'm so focused on what I'm doing that it's really hard to notice the game world in which I'm doing it.

So I'm very grateful that I can drive in the game without participating in a mission. I just hit a button, pick a car and I'm off in free driving mode, able to cruise the landscape at will, with no imperative to get anywhere quickly.

It's while doing this, behind the wheel of my Shelby GT500, of course, that I'm truly able to appreciate the technical and artistic excellence of my surroundings.

The roads transition seamlessly as I steer down winding mountain paths, through rocky foothills, among a canopy of thick trees and past open fields. Birds soar past in a V formation as raindrops begin to patter against my windshield. And here's where it dawns on me: The world is going by in a natural transition. Nothing suddenly pops into existence. No trees flicker in and out of view. It's all there in the distance, fuzzy at first, but gaining in clarity the closer I get. Magnificient.

The online world

In most games, when you talk about online features, you're talking about multiplayer, and yes, "Hot Pursuit" certainly has that feature. But it's not what really impresses me, what really draws me in.

No, the feature that does that is the Autolog, which keeps you connected with your friends in ways that go beyond mere head-to-head racing.

OK, I made that sound a little grandiose. Basically, it allows you to compete with other people within the single-player career mode.

For instance, when I took on the "Breach of the Peace" racing mission, I finished with a time of 3:51.74. A friend of mine crushed my time, clocking in 3:30.49 in the same type of vehicle. Thanks to the Autolog, I can see that fact and try to regain the top spot on our personal leaderboard. Though even if I do that, it won't negate the shame I feel that he took one attempt to get that time. I took six. Yes, Autolog reveals that detail too. In fact, it recommends races I should redo because my time has been beaten.

One other Autolog feature: If you take "photos" in-game, you can share them with your friends.

As for the more traditional multiplayer offerings, they range from normal races — some involving the extra tools (spike strips, EMPS, etc.) — to one-on-one matches of cop versus racer. I'll admit that I've sucked every time I've tried. (I always get so focused that when I try to drift on turns, I hold the emergency brake button too long and spin out, which pretty much kills my chances.) Still, they are a great deal of fun, just a little too embarrassing for me to play much.

Ultimately, "Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit" is actually one of the best games I've had my hands on this year. And while there are some minor improvements I'd like to see made (driver's seat camera, driver's seat camera, driver's seat camera), it's a solid performer.

"Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit"
Platforms: Xbox 360, PS3, PC. Variant available for Wii. Reviewed on Xbox 360 using a standard controller. It's compatible with racing wheels.
Publisher: Electronic Arts.
Price: $59.99 Xbox and PS3. $49.99 PC and Wii.
Rating: E10+ for everyone 10 and up.
Recommendation: If you like driving games even a little, it's worth purchasing, especially as it doesn't force you into race types you don't like.

Images courtesy of Electronic Arts
First image, a cop pursues with a racer, while a helicopter lends support.
Second image, my baby, a police variant of the Ford Shelby GT500.

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