Full Review: Badges?! We don't need no stinking badges....
EA's latest addition to the acclaimed Need for Speed series is here and it's easily one of the best yet ? Hot Pursuit 2 mixes exotic super cars, high speed police chases and some hardcore arcade-style racing for a heart-pumping, extremely fun-filled game. The game boasts an impressive track and car roster and has a rather well employed rewards system in place, and is certainly one of the better racers out on Xbox at the moment.
While comparing NFS: HP2 with games like Project Gotham or Apex is somewhat like comparing apples and oranges, since EA's entry is an arcade-style racer rather than a more realistic take on racing, but it's certainly worthy of sitting on the same shelf as the other two aforementioned games. The track settings are all lush and exotic locals (ranging from tropical to Mediterranean settings) rather than inner-city, and the cars all handle somewhat similarly (all fairly loose and very arcade like). On the other hand, the acceleration and max speed differences of the cars are generally all very evident, even if a certain speed handicap is in place on the easier settings, allowing you to easily catch up and pass your opponents of the same car class.
The arcade-feel doesn't end here, however ? the cars are all loose and if you're driving from an external view will lag a fair bit while you're controlling them, making the first person view a favorite ? while this view does give you a better sense of speed, you won't get to enjoy your sexy looking cars (which unfortunately aren't as impressive as in Gotham or Apex, but do certainly get the job done, and well) or have as much awareness of what's going on around you. This can be somewhat frustrating at times, since as per the name, in Hot Pursuit mode you will quite often have cops trying to pull you over to arrest you.
Hot Pursuit mode is actually a really ingenious idea introduced in the first game of this sub series ? you street race with up to 7 other cars, but traffic (though disappointingly light) and cops will be in your way. The officers will attempt to bust you through any means possible ? ramming you into walls, making you spin out, calling for backup, laying out spike strips and road blocks, and even calling helicopters to drop bombs on you. While the last idea is rather lame and does nothing but take away from the level of realism in the game, the other ensnarement mechanisms can be rather entertaining (if not slightly frustrating at times). In fact you can even be a cop in ?Be the Cop? mode, picking from a variety of cruisers (including Chevy Corvette Z06's, Mustang Cobra and Lamborghini Murcielago versions) and chasing down street racers in their high performance cars.
The game's other main mode is the Championship route, where you'll compete in a series of similar races on similar tracks, but without the diversions of cops or traffic ? this is just the pure, good ol' racing side of things. You'll still have plenty of racing modes to enjoy though ? you'll have to endure championships (go figure), time trials, one lap races, knockout rounds and even rival races, where two opposing car makers (Dodge and Chevy for instance) will be your only two car brand choices. The mix is well balanced and you never have to do too many of one type, keeping the gameplay similar yet spaced out enough that you don't tire of it.
Hot Pursuit 2's point system employed is simple ? you'll need to get a medal (3rd place or better) to advance to the next race, and you get points according to your position and number of police chases escapes, which add up in your point bank. These points can be used to purchase tracks and cars in the Single Race mode, and so while you don't have access to much at the beginning of the game, you can rather quickly build up your arsenal of cars (which includes the Aston Martin Vanquish, McLaren F1 LM, Mercedes CLK-GTR, the Lamborghini Diablo VT 6.0, a couple of Porsche's, the Dodge Viper GTS, etc) and tracks, each of which can be mirrored, purchased in reverse or both combined, making for 4 incarnations of each track. The cool thing about the Single Race mode is that it will actually let you accumulate points also, so you can buy your favorite car and your favorite track, race with them, win, and get points for doing it, which you can put towards more cars or tracks. Cool.
The multiplayer is also accessed through the Single Race mode, and while you won't get points for it, it certainly is fun. You can throw in a full spread of opponents, cops and traffic to mix it up a bit, though the AI tends to pick cars of the highest player chosen class ? so lets say you pick a McLaren F1 LM (which hits around 90 MPH in first gear) and your friend picks a Porsche 911 Turbo. The game will automatically throw another McLaren or two in the mix and maybe an F50 or CLK-GTR, making a win for the Porsche (despite being an awesome car) somewhat improbable.
You can also play ?Be the Cop? mode in multiplayer, letting you and your friend attempt to arrest the most felons the fastest. This can be somewhat entertaining, though not as much perhaps as all out racing, but then again you have resources (spike strips, backup and helicopters) at your disposal that you wouldn't otherwise, giving you a nice feeling of power over those needlessly endangering civilian lives. It really is too bad that you're limited to two players ? at least some system link options would have been nice (Live! was not yet officially operating when HP2 was released in October, though it would have made for a nice hidden feature).
Graphically, NFS: HP2 isn't quite up to par with Gotham or Apex, but that's not to say it isn't very pretty ? the tracks are all very well designed, with each lap ranging from 3 minutes all the way up to 8, with most races lasting between six and ten minutes, a rather impressive feat considering the number of tracks available. There's nothing terribly exciting to see here, and as was already stated, the car models aren't the best in the world, and while frankly somewhat disappointing, they work well enough for their purpose.
The replays are the biggest overall complaint of the game, however ? these are limited to one camera view, which won't change, and suddenly makes the few replay options found in stock racing games look that much better. This really is too bad, since you'll engage in some cool car chases, and it might be nice to see some of the wacky physics from different angles (your car tends to be a bit on the light side when crashing, and the arcade-like feel of the game is most noticeable here).
The sound is also a bit of an issue ? the cars don't have enough roar to them. Considering the power houses you end up driving, you'd expect some real bassy and throaty growls from these beasts, yet these are nowhere to be found. Even if recorded from the real thing, the engines are just generally too high pitched, and easily one of the biggest disappointments considering how well the rest of the 5.1 surround features were implemented. The stock music is also not the most impressive, with only a couple decent tracks but mostly bland songs. Luckily you can use your own custom driving soundtracks in this game (as in most racing games), and while you can't control your track switching in-game (the menu options are somewhat sparse while racing) you can at least put on some decent adrenaline-pumping driving music to accompany those 175 MPH speeds. It seems the developers had some taste and a slight sense of humor, however, in picking the game's them song ? ?Speed Kills? by Bush.
NFS: HP2 might not be the fanciest racing game ever made, nor the most serious, but it certainly deserves recognition as one of the champion arcade racers on the Xbox right now. Racing fanatics should buy this one and proudly stick it up there with Gotham, Apex, McRae and make sure to keep the box from getting to dusty, which won't be a problem since the fun-factor is very much there to go along with the gameplay.