If you're aware of the Need for Speed games up to this point, forget them now - this is Need for Speed in name, Criterion in nature. Having played both NFS: Undercover (which was, in my view, appalling) and NFS: Shift (which wasn't as bad but certainly not fantastic), I would have forgiven myself for not bothering with this, even if I do remember playing and enjoying old NFS games on the PC that featured racers and cops chasing each other. However, knowing Criterion were taking the reigns on this NFS my interest was revived and the game they have created is everything you'd want from an arcade racer.
The first point to note is this is not Gran Turismo - this is an out and out arcade racer designed to thrill and excite you, with high speed chases, crashes and thumping music (which you can change for your own songs, too). You can take part in two career modes, one for a racer and one for a cop (a nice feature is the fact events for both careers are on the same map so you can race a cop event and straight away afterwards have a go at a racer event without having to load up another career). The setup is pretty standard - take part in an event, do well, unlock cars and other events. NFS Hot Pursuit is pretty relentless in giving you new cars to play with and some events even let you test drive a car that you'll get later in the game (I had a great time in the McLaren F1!). Both careers involve you earning 'bounty' - essentially a levelling-up system (with a max level of 20) which earns you the cars. For example, as a cop, if you bust races before anyone finishes and drive skilfully, you get extra bounty. As a racer, drive to the limits, get lots of near misses and evade the cops to win races, then you get extra bounty. Both careers enable you to use gadgets to help you win races or stop the opposition. Cops can call in helicopters and roadblocks, racers can turbo boost out of trouble and both cops and racers can use spike strips and EMP - an electro magnetic pulse you can fire to stop your foes. While racing, the pace is incredible, especially the more powerful your car, and crashes are superbly done - for example, if racing as a cop and you bust a racer, the game will show a slow motion close-up cut scene of the takedown, before returning the game straight into the racing with your car positioned nicely on the track (so after the cut scene there won't be any frustrating crashes caused by you not being in control). The events in the career are suitably varied - not all racer events will be a pure race and not feature the police and some cop events are almost 'training' events, where you have to get from A to B as quickly as possible to see how fast your response time would be.
So far, so good, all the boxes get ticked - it's exhilarating, fast-paced, the graphics are super smooth, you have a plethora of cars to choose from and, crucially, as an arcade racer it's easy to pick up - if you're after the ability to tweak your motor so it's perfect for you, wait for GT5. This is a true pick-up-and-play racer. However, NFS Hot Pursuit has a few aces up it's sleeve, the best of which is Autolog. Autolog is a system devised to stir up the competitive nature in people - essentially, it logs all of your performances as well as those of your friends, and will offer you recommendations on what races your friends have a better time than you on. It also lets you know how many times a friend of yours has tried a particular race to beat your time. At the end of races it shows you where you place on that events 'speedwall' - a list of yours and your friends times. Other games have done this before, but the way it's presented in NFS Hot Pursuit is seamless - as soon as you sign in Autolog will let you know if your place on a speedwall has been affected, and if you do beat someone's time you can post on their wall letting them know you've taken their top spot - it's almost like social networking specific for NFS and, even if you don't think you'd be particularly competitive, it's all too easy to get the bug and start trying over and over to reclaim a fastest time taken away from you.
Another major plus point for the game is the creation of 'Seacrest County', the fictional area of the US where the game takes place. There's a little bit of everything in Seacrest - the roads are varied, with plenty of off-road shortcuts, narrow tunnels and glorious wide-open freeway routes and the scenery is every bit as good - you'll race past snowy mountains, through narrow forests and along the coast. Races take place at all times of the day and with all sorts of weather - races in the rain look especially impressive (especially when the track itself is freshly rained on), but my personal favourite is the night racing, where the blue and red lights of the cop cars fill the night sky, it's worth it just to see the lighting effects as you race through a tunnel!
As for negatives, it's hard to find any. Occasionally the game does get confused with where you are placed (in one race, the game told me I'd just taken first place and was around 11 seconds ahead of the other drivers, whereas in reality I was 6th. When I dropped to 7th, it did then show I was in 7th place). Also, as much as I enjoy having my own soundtrack to listen to while racing, the music continues after you've finished and while you're in the game menus - it would be nice to have the option of race AND menu music, or to just have my songs playing while I race. Also the lack of split-screen multiplayer isn't a gamebreaker for me but I can image for some it will be frustrating to just have solo play and online. Speaking of online, this is also exemplary, my favourite being a one-on-one chase against another player (one a cop, the other a racer), the thrill of the chase is incredible and nerve-wracking!
So, NFS Hot Pursuit - the bottom line is simple: if you enjoy a pick-up-and-play, plenty of speed and thrills arcade racer with over-the-top crashes, blistering graphics and a load of re-playability, then NFS is for you - especially with the Autolog system, Criterion have nailed that wonderful gaming sense of 'just one more go'. There's no modding, no tweaking, just pure adrenaline-fuelled racing. While I'm looking forward to GT5 finally coming out, there's no doubt that NFS will be a game I return to again and again.
***Quick edit to the review, I've read some other reviews with various criticisms that I wanted to address. Firstly, there is free roam, it's not proper free roam as there's no challenges, I believe the idea is more to give you a chance (if you wish) to learn certain sections of Seacrest if there's a race you're struggling on. Also, I have mentioned this in my review, but people seem to be confused - this is most definitely an arcade game. There's no manual shift and plays with the PS3 controller best of all. If it's steering wheels and gear changes, this isn't the game for you. Finally, while this is technically a NFS game, please don't expect it to be exactly like old NFS games - I've seen a lot of people responding to reviews saying that this isn't NFS. What's in a name? There's plenty of other NFS games still available, this is arcade all the way - Shift 2: Unleashed will be out soon, so if Hot Pursuit isn't your thing then hold on for that. As for me, I'm still loving this, online and offline merge seamlessly and autolog (which will be in Shift 2) works a treat. New DLC is pretty regular too, if a little pricey. Even though I've got platinum on this game, myself and my NFS buddies are still trying to outdo each other, getting precious seconds off of our best times (if anyone beats my time of 1.12.63 on Vanishing Point, well played to you!)