Full Review: Any game that has a Rush song in it gets high marks from me.
Picture this scenario ? you're lined up in a vicious, intense race, one where being in last place at the end of the current lap means elimination. Mistakes ? none can happen. Throw into the mix a half-dozen angry, annoyed cops looking to fill their quota for a free dozen at Krispy Kreme, mercilessly hunting you down while you're in the middle of this race, pushing you off the roads, or at least trying to. To make matters worse, the other cars are finding the right shortcuts, while you get stuck behind, around, or smacked directly into the innocent and terrified traffic. All of a sudden, with just a bit to go in the race to pull out the win, the pigs, tired of you knocking them into walls or off the paths, turn to the heavy artillery, and throw down a spike strip to blow your tires. You know hitting it means you'll lose, since the other cars will somehow make their way around it and knock you out of the race?
If it does, then you'd be right at home with the latest in the recently dormant Need for Speed series ? Hot Pursuit 2. The last NFS game, Porsche Unleashed, was a major disappointment; nowhere near matching up to the amazing High Stakes and the Hot Pursuit original this sequel is titled after. Yet, out of nowhere, EA Games and developer Black Box Games deliver an arcade racer that's simply one of the most intense, fast, deep games of its genre. With the lack of any new Gran Turismo games this year to steal the thunder, only Burnout 2 possibly can give NFS competition for what's for now the best racing game on the PlayStation 2 this year. It's been a long time coming, but the latest in the Need for Speed series delivers and delivers huge.
Hot Pursuit 2 is split into a pair of different, yet somewhat similar modes of play ? Hot Pursuit and World Circuit. For all intensive purposes, both modes are the exact same thing in layout; but the addition of nasty police in Hot Pursuit changes the game and creates more strategy to win races. Both modes feature a basic quick race, where you're assigned a random car and thrown onto a random track with other computer opponents of equal or lesser vehicles. A Challenge mode is the place where you can set up multiplayer, or just customize a race to your liking. You can pick from a basic straight-up race against the other cars (and cops in HP mode), or set up one of the 2 different forms of Knockout ? lap knockout (the race described in the opening), or a regular Knockout series where you race multiple times with the car in last after each race is eliminated.
Exclusive to Hot Pursuit is the ?You're The Cop? mode (thank God they stuck that in there). As you might expect, your job here is to be The Law and run down the speedsters tearing up the road. At your command are the same exact things that the computer cops can use ? roadblocks, spike strips, even a helicopter dropping explosive barrels to slow the other guys down. The goal here is to get your quota, and the game sets up that quota, and gives you a time limit to bust a handful of speeders.
Finally, both modes feature a 30-event world tour-like mode, called Ultimate Racer. Both are mostly the same, featuring random events like knockouts, time trials, and straight up races (all with some particular parameters and cars). The HP version also has some ?Delivery? races where you take a car on the designated track and get it to the requested point before the time limit expires, while avoiding the cops. These events are one of the keys to unlocking tracks and cars, since beating some races will give you permanent access in all game modes. And there's a ton to unlock.
Further adding to the depth of Hot Pursuit 2 is the multitude of cars and tracks that are available. 49 different vehicles are at your dispense, from a half-dozen or so cop cars (ranging from the standard Crown Vic, the Corvette, a BMW, and the mighty Lamborghini, to other variations of Ferrari's, Porsche's, and even an odd Mercedes or two. Admittedly there's a lot of ?Need for Speed? editions of some cars, but there's still plenty to pick from.
What's new to the unlocking cars game is the ?NFS points? system implemented here. Like a lesser version of the Metropolis Street Racer/Project Gotham Racing Kudos system, HP2 has a points system that rewards you for excellence on the track. For instance, every time you move up a position the first time, you earn points, as well as for getting your car to reach it's top speed, big jumps, and leading a lap when you enter a new lap. The more points, the better, as reaching certain point goals will unlock new cars to use in all modes. It's fun and encourages a little more wild activity to earn more points, plus it unlocks cars without any different effort besides racing a lot.
The tracks are also plentiful, with well over 20 different ones when fully unlocked. The tracks range from the typical lap-based ones, as well as the point-to-point variety as well. All are loaded with shortcuts; as well as bogus shortcuts that actually make you lose time instead of make it. All told there's seemingly 2-3 times more shortcuts in HP2 than any of the past Need for Speed games. Track designs themselves are flat out excellent, with rough, challenging curves and obstacles (nothing like racing through a dust bunny in the desert levels, not being able to see). All the tracks are extra long as well, with the lap tracks running up to 3 or 4 minutes per lap, and the point-to-point taking up to 10 minutes to complete. So get used to plenty of long, intense races at all times.
As always, if HP2 was completed by a lack of coherent gameplay, all the features in the game would mean squat. Thankfully, this is not the case. Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit 2 is a glorious mix of tight, worthwhile control, tough (but not cheap) computer/cop intelligence, and the aforementioned track designs. It's not perfect by any stretch, but a select few racing games, be it an arcade one like this or a simulation like Gran Turismo, can hold their own against HP2.
The first praise/knock lies in the artificial intelligence. The good part is the opposing cars and police are tough drivers not concerned with keeping their ride in one piece, as they'll do anything in their power to run you off the road (including constant honking of the horn?to annoy, I guess).
The police in particular are nearly psychotic in their aggression, teaming up at times to box you in and knock you around before finally arresting you if you can't get away. The cops work independently to you as well, as they'll pass you by to go after someone ahead of you, or even go backwards past you to help out another cop. They even have a nifty turbo boost that puts them ahead of you sometimes (you can use this too when playing cop mode, just press in the right stick). When they break out the road blocks, or spikes, it's always laid out in a particular treacherous spot, such as the bottom of a hill or on a tough corner, requiring some fast thinking to either swerve around it or go right into it (a good plan with roadblocks but stupid with a big spike strip on the road). When they do bust out the choppers, it's an extreme case, but the idea is sound and effective if you're careless enough to run into the explosive barrels dropped out of the sky. Naturally, as you progress into tougher modes against the police, they'll break out the hardcore stuff earlier, as they get pissed off faster (Krispy Kreme donut quotas must be higher in harder modes).
The opponent AI is not as good, but still rather well done. HP2 does use a slight form of rubber-band AI (which you can turn off for exhibition races, but not the championship modes), so the other cars don't lag far behind you by much (but doesn't cheat when you're racing perfectly), as well as making sure you're never out of a race (but you do have to race very well to catch up). It's a delicate balance here and it usually works. If you manage to race nearly perfect, it won't make a difference, but make too many mistakes and you'll be in trouble. The only thing that bugs me is how you could be leading someone by 10 seconds or more, and they manage to get within striking distance after just a few seconds. They don't catch you, but they get in your rear-view mirror again. Like previous NFS games, the drivers are all unique ? some are just really bad drivers who never compete, and others are vicious at all times, while others are balanced. The unique drivers has been a trademark of NFS for years (who can forget Nemesis in High Stakes, and no I don't mean Nemesis from Resident Evil 3), and it's put to work well here as you'd expect.
Despite that, the AI is still smart and makes you really earn your wins. They use the shortcuts aggressively, and in a lot of ways points them out to you if you can't find them. Many times they'll find the right one to go from 3rd to 1st while you're going the long way, but it doesn't take long for you to catch up when you're on even ground. On the other hand, finding a shortcut on your own that nobody else uses (such as the hidden one in Outback that shaves damn near 10 seconds off your lap times) can make or brake a race. Of course, these shortcuts usually come with some trickery or obstacle that can result in being worse off ? it's just a risk you take. Of course, as mentioned before, there are many shortcuts that wind up being a farce ? a new thing in an NFS game. Finding the wrong alternate path could lead to a big problem.
When you add all this up, it equals a very, very intense race, especially on harder difficulty levels. The AI is fierce, pressuring you to keep on the top of your game and keeping your full concentration. Mistakes, especially later on, are costly and when the rubber band unwinds a bit, it's harder to get back in a race if you make too many errors, but the better you race the better off you'll be. Learning the tracks and knowing which shortcuts to use and which to avoid is a necessity to mastering this game ? and it's been a while since I've said that, given how easy many games' tracks have been in recent years.
Speaking of difficulty, I must say that the difficulty curve is slightly unbalanced at times. The game starts off fairly easy in the championship modes, but gets rough very fast, and doesn't change much beyond that. There's really no middle ground here, it just goes from ?do it blindfolded? to ?damn, my eyes are dry from not blinking.? Of course, picking the right car from the available list does help, but even when racing as the best car of the fleet, it's a rough challenge right away. I think it's good that the challenge level is pretty high ? it's just that the lack of an intermediate, growing, mode might make the game very daunting for newcomers to NFS. It jacks the learning curve up quite a bit.
Finally, the game is tied up by the solid control. The cars all do vary in maneuverability, and all require some time to learn completely, but all work well once you learn the tendencies of them. It all goes back to learning the tracks and knowing when to brake and when to drive through a turn full throttle. Some cars brake really bad, but others are smooth when making a corner. Despite that, the control is spot-on and suits the game well. There's 2 different control types ? the ?classic? and ?extreme? control. Classic is the standard arcade feel of prior NFS games, and Extreme is a more simmy feel, requiring much more skills to keep your car under control at high speeds (like the same mode in the original Hot Pursuit, that was evil). What's interesting about the control is the extra buttons to showcase new things ? pressing R2 will give you a chance to see ahead of the track to see what's around, like other cars, cops, etc. It's a bit tacky (you can always look at the HUD to see the turns on the tracks, dummies), but interesting nonetheless.
Graphically, Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit 2 is good, but definitely not a showcase title in this regard. The game maintains the gritty look and feel of the past NFS games, only with much higher detail. The tracks are placed in locales that highlight this gritty feel, with desert tracks that are loaded with roadside cactus, trees, and the dust bunnies that run rampant in desert areas (they're tornadoes of flying dirt, for the uninitiated). Levels like the forest have leaves falling on the ground and a dark landscape that shows off the game's lighting effects when you find an open area. On a particular forest level, there's an ongoing brush fire and roadside fire trucks and water splattered on the ground is a really nice touch and detail. It doesn't look as good as perhaps Gran Turismo 3, but it looks good enough and the important thing is it maintains the visual style of previous games in the series.
The cars themselves are nicely rendered, with good detail and a realistic look. Best part is, the cars take visible damage with extreme punishment. Smack too many walls and your side will get dented and the windows will break; get rear-ended enough and the car will look like a mangled mess. It doesn't affect the performance of the car at all (and since you don't earn money, there's no penalty for wrecking it), but it's a nice visual touch that creates more realism in an arcadey game. It's rather surprising that companies like Ferrari, Porsche, or Lamborghini even allow damage to their cars, however.
The sounds of Hot Pursuit 2 are definitely one of the strong points. The little details like engine noises are nice, and there's some ambient effects here and there, but this is definitely not the featured sound of the game (a polar opposite of the demo that I played).
The definite star of the show is the outstanding police chatter. Since you apparently have a scanner to listen to police channels, you can hear the cops talk to the dispatcher or other cops, setting battle plans. This comes in handy when they call for a roadblock or a spike strip, so you know what's coming and how to handle it. Other times you hear the cops to ?run him off the road!? or when they run into a wall too hard or hit another car, they tell the dispatcher to get a tow because they can't continue the pursuit. It works really well here, and it's actually quite funny sometimes to hear, though it's probably more unintentional comedy than anything.
The ?EA Trax? gimmick (a damn good gimmick at that) makes an appearance in HP2 ? featuring a good array of some good old hard rock music to pump you up. Featured in the game are some unknown bands like Course of Nature and Hot Cop Action (sounds like a lesbian porn movie or something), to more popular acts like Uncle Kracker (Kid Rock's buddy), Bush, and the Ole Mighty Gods of progressive rock, Rush. All the songs are both in their regular versions, as well as instrumental versions that play when you're in Hot Pursuit modes (so you can hear the chatter of the cops better). It's obviously a matter of taste, but since my music taste heads in this direction, I think it's great. If you don't like it, you can disable it in the options menu, anyway.
Whatever flaws exist in NFS: Hot Pursuit 2, they're pretty much ignored and let off the hook thanks to the outstanding gameplay and features. No doubt that EA and Black Box have taken the NFS series to a whole new level here ? one that should please arcade racing fans all around. If Porsche Unleashed disappointed you, don't fret about HP2, because this game takes the series back to the glory days ? and surpasses them.