Career mode is where the meat of the game lies. Racers will compete in four different events: straight races against seven opponents; a duel versus one other opponent; a time trial against the clock; or a hot pursuit where the objective is to not only escape being busted by the police, but win the race on top. Likewise cops have three different events: rapid response which is like time trial but you are penalised for hitting anything; interceptor which involves taking down one opponent in the fastest time possible; and hot pursuit that sees you as a lone cop against multiple racers.
You start at level one for both racer and cop, with the highest tier reached at level twenty. Similar to RPGs and many modern FPS games, you earn experience (called bounty in the game) for completing each event and doing well, and when you exceed a certain threshold, you rank up and in the process usually unlock one or more new vehicles. Performing certain actions during an event such as discovering a new shortcut, overtaking opponents, reaching top speed, avoiding road blocks and the like accrue bonus experience along the way. If you wish to simply chill out a little, there is a free drive mode where you can take any car you've unlocked for an aimless spin around Seacrest County.
Your performance in each event is registered and tracked on your own personal Speedwall, along with the times of any of your friends who have also completed that event. This is where one of Hot Pursuit's most cunning and competitive features comes into play. Autolog, which at the risk of being a branding exercise, is essentially a gaming version of Facebook and will compare and alert you when friends have beaten any of your times, and allows you to instantly start that event in an attempt to retake your glory.
Autolog also allows you to post comments on the notice walls of friends and share any snapshots taken during a race, with an informative female voice announcing if anyone has beaten any of your times since you last played. It can be maddingly frustrating and addictive to be taunted in such a manner, and as Oscar Wilde was known to quote, the only thing you can't resist is temptation. Even if you can't fathom sometimes just how one of your friends has managed a certain time.
Although, the desire to retread existing ground would be lessened if Hot Pursuit was the racing equivalent of a flying brick. Thankfully for its sake and ours it is not, and justifies EA's faith in Criterion to deliver a quality product. However it would be as surprising as a Protestant Pope to state that there isn't a massive air of Burnout about the game. Similarities include and are not limited to the methods for earning boost, crash cutscenes, damage models, car handling physics, and track design. These guys know racing games like Nintendo knows how to make platformers, and in both cases it would be hard to name a better developer for each respective genre.
The main difference is obviously the addition of weapons, and each is introduced gradually through the career mode to ease you into their potential, and potential for abuse. By the time you are ready to face the hordes online, you will recognise the best times to drop a spike strip and when an opponent may drop one on you. The old mantra of "practice makes perfect" truly does apply here, with repeated racing through sections revealing better lines, improved shortcuts, new tactics, and discovering how each car handles and which is best suited for your own driving style. Even after almost 100 hours of play, there is still room for improvement which says a lot about how deep the game can be and how it can still pull you back for more. Being a better driver reaps benefits, rather than trying to wallride around a course. The car handling is very good, but it is part linked to what make and model you pick. Porsches generally have good control and fast acceleration for example whereas driving the Bentley, while it is very powerful, is like steering the Titanic as it's two ton of metal on wheels!
Going online presents three different game options, namely Hot Pursuit, Interceptor and Race, with all five car groups available for each and follow most of the basic rules used in career mode. However progression in the career mode does reap benefit here, as only the cars you have unlocked in a particular group are available to select. It's a fair balance between reward and unlocking content, in that while you are allowed from the off to race the Hyper cars online, you'll be limited to only one model until you earn the rest of them. The mode that is arguably the most fun, involving and deserving of attention is Hot Pursuit, where Racer and Cop teams of up to four players each essentially compete in a giant Interceptor showdown.
To say that this mode is akin to a racing version of Gears of War would be a pretty accurate comparison. The racers could work together but often do not, for it is supposed to be a race, and greater reward is heralded to the overall winner. The cops have to work together to bust the racers, and it is not often that a lone officer can subdue a racer by themselves. In the midst of this comes a mixture of cunning deceit, misguided weapons, deliberate and atrocious driving, much swearing, nitro up the wazoo, and knowing shortcuts is a boon. No two matches are the same which prevents matters from getting boring quickly, and more often than not the best player will actually win. Once you have reached level twenty, beating career times and the online mode is what is left, and both are comprehensibly riviting and enjoyable to roadblock a new game being stuffed in the tray.
A moment should be taken to mention the online pass used for Need for Speed. Included with each new copy of the game is a code required to access the online components; without it you are limited to the single player career. Anyone buying the game second-hand and wishing to go online will need to purchase their own pass for the equivalent of 800 Microsoft points. While not condoning this course of events, it might persuade EA to keep its servers running longer than normal, and anyone not going online is missing out on an entertaining and highly enjoyable part of the game as a whole. That and the fact that all experience earned online counts towards your career level.
Graphically the only flaw that could possibly be levelled at the game is that it is framelocked to 30fps as opposed to running at 60fps. Each car model is simply beautiful, and the landscapes covered during races, from sandy desert to concrete freeway to snow laden mountains, are exquisite. You'll be so busy racing it's hard to admire them, but that's what free mode is for, where the locales are quite possibly the most gorgeous non-existing landscapes seen in quite a while. Dice's contribution apparently was to digitally realise the environments chosen, and the collaboration has certainly paid dividends. Even the frequently lamented soundtrack choices of other EA games is conspicuously absent for the most part here, with some fairly inspired and excellent tracks available. There is something outstandingly pounding and ironic about rushing to a police rapid response to the strains of Resist Stance, and that is only one of many.
Hot Pursuit is a much welcomed, desired and hugely triumphant return to form for the Need for Speed series, where arguably the last entry to be so praiseworthy was, amusingly, the old Hot Pursuit 2 game. It lacks the open world nature of Most Wanted, although this is far more a strength as it allows the gameplay to become tighter, more defined and focused on what a racer should be. Racing cars, rather than pimping them up. Something other iterations in the series appeared to concentrate on more. Compared to the staid, sanitised world of Gran Turismo, this is like a tornado of fresh air. If all racing games were made with the same love, care, attention and intrinsic addictiveness, the gaming world would be a much better place.