It's been a good year to be a fan of arcade-style racing games, with Blur and Split/Second neck-and-neck in the race to be the year's best. Unfortunately for them, Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit from Burnout Paradise creator Criterion Games just took first place.

For the reboot of this Need for Speed sub-series, which saw two installments across PS1 and PS2, Criterion has created a racer that not only lives up to expectations of thrilling speed and pristine visuals but blows past them with a cops-and-robbers career mode.
Right out of the gate, Hot Pursuit delivers excellent control and handling, which isn't all that surprising given this is the Burnout studio. But the game structure here is one of point-to-point races along long stretches of road and often calls for extremely precise, split-second maneuvers in order to avoid traffic, bust roadblocks or take a shortcut on what are some comparatively narrow roads. Criterion has upped the precision to suit its design, and the result just feels ... great.

The game does an excellent job of digging its hooks in and not letting you go.

The marquee element is allowing players to blaze through an entire career as a cop or a racer. Whichever you choose -- and you can, at any time, take part in a racer event, even if you're dozens of missions into the cop "path," for example -- expect a different, but equally thrilling experience. In one instance, you need to focus on avoiding traffic, threading a needle through gaps in roadblocks and generally driving as fast as possible; in the other, you're trying to ram racers until they crash and just generally being more aggressive.

But it's about more than spot-on controls. Hot Pursuit is great because the core concept of escaping from the police, and trying to catch speedes as the police, is delivered on so well. There's a uniqueness to each that is enough to make racing the same exact stretch of road in both roles feel entirely different. Plus, these locations, which are all sections of one big game world that spans the coastline to snowy mountains to an arid desert, are expertly designed. They succeed at being challenging from a pure racing standpoint, but also play to the pursuit element of the game, offering up myriad shortcuts and side roads that can be used to ditch the fuzz or, conversely, cut off racers and drop a spike strip.

The system of collecting bounty points for driving well and winning races works really well, increasing your rank as either a cop or a racer, which, in turn, makes new cars (and car classes) available, along with new gadgets (helicopters that drop spike trips for the cops, jamming gear for the racers, etc.) and upgraded versions of them, too. By the end of the game, you're driving incredibly fast, exotic cars on both sides of the law and using advanced tactics to win -- and the path to getting there is perfectly balanced in terms of difficulty, rewards and new locales.


There's also an excellent online component. The "Autolog" system is the key to it all, really, keeping constant track of how your friends are doing in any given event, which makes retrying races in an attempt to one-up them irresistible. Of course, then, they beat yours, and it just keeps going. Autolog provides these updates in real time, so you can be at the map pondering which event you'll tackle next and get a prompt that a friend has just bested your score somewhere. With the press of a shoulder button, you can load directly into that event and attempt to reclaim your dominance of it.

In addition to these automated prompts, you're able to post specific challenges for your friends to take on -- say you just beat a race in under a certain time and you want to see if your friends can top it -- and they'll appear in your list of event "suggestions." There's also a message board where messages and screenshots can be shared among friends, and an interesting system through which the game will recommend friends of friends to you, in order to expand the online experience.

And that's where Hot Pursuit really shines for me -- the online competition. The Hot Pursuit mode itself is just fantastic when played online against (and with) real people. There's a surprisingly deep level of strategy involved, but mostly a whole lot of fun. It really is something that feels infinitely replayable; digging its hooks in and not letting you go.

Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit may have been a late entrant into the race, but it both grabs the checkered flag for this year and may set a land speed record for this entire class of racer.



This review is based on early review code of Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit for Xbox 360 and PS3 provided by EA.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.