Now, personally I'm not a one for a lot of driving. In fact, my real-world experiences behind the wheel have ranged from hilariously incompetent to heart-palpitatingly terrifying. I'm pretty sure, though, that if cars were driven using joypads I'd be a lot happier, and significantly less dangerous to my fellow man.
That said, most of the time any of us get a driving game, the emphasis seems to be on driving like an absolute idiot - occasionally with the emphasis on crashing spectacularly. That's right, I'm looking at YOU, Burnout Paradise. As well as the demented masterminds behind it, Criterion Games. Who, in what has proven to be one of the most convoluted introductions I've ever written, are also the demented masterminds behind Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit.
Not to be confused with the 1998 game of the same name, this ‘spiritual successor' introduces the player to gorgeous Seacrest County, with over 100 miles of road through all kinds of beautiful terrain that bears more than a passing resemblance to the Californian coast. More than just a straightforward racer, NfS: HP is more like a ‘Cops ‘n' Robbers' type affair with some tracks casting you as a street racer against a bunch of other Vin Diesels in Porsches, and other levels giving you the badge and the gun of the Seacrest PD. Oh, and the ridiculously overpowered road monster you're expected to use to chase down and batter sundry criminals.
The car is most definitely the star in Hot Pursuit. As is usual in modern racing games there's a whole ton of snazzy roadsters to drive, unlocking as you progress through the game. Some of these cars are startlingly up-to-date, representing the cutting-edge of sports car design, so I'm told. They're certainly all lovely colours. Each comes with a sort of advertainment voice-over when you're examining it in the garage screen, giving you the scoop on the design and capabilities while the camera glides lovingly over the contours of your latest ride. This really is a car-lover's dream from the Grand Turismo school.
As for the drive itself, it's a ‘Goldilocks' design. Not too arcade, not too simulatory. Just right. You get nitros as standard on all cars, rozzer and crim alike. These can be charged by driving recklessly (criminals recharge their nitro by cruising down the wrong side of the road and buzzing dangerously past unsuspecting Sunday drivers, whereas the police nitro recharges while you're engaging in the much more socially responsible activity of driving at unfeasibly high speeds). Use of the nitros is a big part of the skill in Hot Pursuit, get it wrong and they'll be comparing your dental records to what they pick out of the steering wheel.
So it's a great racing game with a cop/criminal flavour. Not like we've never seen something like this before. Where Hot Pursuit really differs from previous games is in its pioneering use of your friends list. The Autolog feature lets you compete directly against the track times set by your friends, which expands online play from just chasing your mates round in real time, making it more like Farmville. Sort of.
My review copy of the game was for the Xbox 360, but the Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit PC system requirements are actually quite reasonable if it plays anything like the Xbox version.
The tracks themselves have varied routes to allow wily crims to give po-po the slip, but by and large you're looking at road races through some of the best and most varied scenery I've seen in ages in a driving game. Despite this diversity there is a coherence that gives Seacrest County a sense of place, and you can cruise around in free drive mode for hours and never see the same thing twice. The soundtrack was a bit... well, a bit ‘youthful' for my tastes but the facility exists for you to include your own tunes. I might just record myself making ‘fast car' noises and play it at really high volume.
The cars generally shy away from damage models as far as I can tell, which is understandable seeing as how gorgeous the cars in question are. The exception is in copper mode, where you can ram the offender's car in just the right place and send the poor blighter twirling through the air like a tiddlywink. Boom! After chasing down a particularly annoying delinquent it's particularly satisfying to see his fancy car spinning through the air like a motorised ragdoll with wheels. Personally, I like to imagine it's the guy who came up with the Ubisoft DRM.
There's blessed little storyline, just the odd 911 dispatcher muttering about lawbreakers and stuff when you're the police, and frankly this is as it should be. At its heart, Hot Pursuit is a pick up and put down arcade-style racing game. Top fun for a couple of hours with your mates over.