The Need for Speed franchise has had its share of criticism over the years, largely because of its lack of consistency from one title to the next. From the uber-arcade racer NFS: Nitro to the realistic driving simulator NFS: ProStreet, the franchise has been all over the racing spectrum and won't sit still long enough to form a dedicated fan base. However, those fans that have followed the progression of the series through thick and thin can all agree on one thing: the ability to play on either side of the law needs to come back.
Back in 1998, the third title introduced a relatively novel concept in the racing genre called the "hot pursuit". That concept and gameplay was greatly expanded in the sequel NFS: High Stakes a year later, and ended with Hot Pursuit 2 in 2002. For 8 years, fans have been left wanting. The wait is almost over.
Electronic Arts has partnered with Criterion Games (of Burnout fame) to finally bring back the brilliant competitive elements of those original titles. Need for Speed Hot Pursuit essentially picks up exactly where the sub-series left off, and makes a few improvements along the way. The game plays and feels very much like the original, only with HD graphics and much more excitement (or maybe that's the lasting giddiness that comes from chasing the booth babe playing the speeder on the opposite console). Still, there's something to be said about the satisfaction one gets from winning not by posting the best time or crossing the finish line first, but by ramming your opponent into a ditch, or by leaving the coppers confused in a cloud of nitrous smoke.
Players can once again choose to play on either side of the law in (presumably) a handful of game modes. Only the basic 1-on-1 pursuit mode was shown at this year's E3, but the multiplayer mode was announced to handle 8 concurrent players in any mixture of cops and racers. Cops are once again able to call for support in the form of roadblocks and aerial support (no spike strips?), but can also now fire an EMP charge to slow down those sneaky speeders. Racers can now fight back this time with jammers, which mess with the cops' HUD and mini-map and opens a perfect opportunity to sneak down an alleyway. Racers can also use a decoy that fools cop radars into thinking they went in a different direction, or temporarily knock their engines into overdrive to outrun the chasers. Both sides still have the nitrous boost that appears to recharge at high speeds.
One of the key differences this time is that all racing will occur in a vast open world containing over 100 miles of open track. This avoids a key shortcoming in the original titles: finding key choke points along the way is no longer a guaranteed arrest, since the opposition isn't forced to drive around in defined circles.
Much to the dismay of single player enthusiasts, it sounds like this iteration won't feature the campaign mode of the earlier years (it was never mentioned or even alluded to), instead trying to incite competitiveness on every menu screen. The goal for this iteration was to get "connected" with the real source of challenge in the world: other human beings. There's a new suite of connectivity features, including the ability to upload your feats, comments and snapshots to the "NFS Feed", an in-game twitter lookalike. In addition, the home screen shows updates of your friends' and others' feats in a very Burnout Paradise-esque fashion, and virtually every other menu screen shows statistics from the online world, relevant to what you're currently viewing; the track selection screen may show you best lap times, while the 1v1 multiplayer view with 'cop' selected may show you a list of the world's best coppers.
Players are encouraged to have a look at the Autolog, which compares your performance against players you've friended and uses that information to suggest challenges you might want to attempt to one-up them. This feature is expected to close the gameplay loop, inciting competition between players that may never actually race one-another. It also merges single- and multiplayer gameplay into one, as the results are calculated the same way whether you're playing humans or AI. Beating challenges generates bounty (experience points), split between racer bounty and cop bounty. Not only does this allow the game to spit out even more statistics, like which side of the law is doing better worldwide, but it also leads to unlockables in the game.
It's somewhat odd that the reins have been handed over to Criterion when the various incarnations of EA Canada / Black Box have been responsible for 12 of the 14 current titles in the franchise (SHIFT and Nitro were developed by Slightly Mad Studios and EA Montreal, respectively). However, in an 18 month old article at GameSpot, EA is quoted as saying that Black Box was given "an extended development window so that their next Need for Speed action game could really blow the doors off the category." Perhaps this explains, to some degree, why Criterion largely just revived the classic gameplay that players were looking for, while something bigger is brewing behind the scenes.