I’m speeding down a Californian highway at 200 miles an hour in a Bugatti Veyron. Despite the scenery whizzing past, I can’t help but admire my ride – it is a beautiful machine.
Distracted, I fail to notice a police car dropping spike strips in front of me. The car hits them, the tyres burst and the Bugatti slams into the side of a cliff in a shower of sparks and shrapnel.
My ride’s not beautiful anymore.
I’m brought crashing back to reality by the laughter of an Electronic Arts PR rep. We’re at the company’s UK headquarters in Guildford, playing Need For Speed Hot Pursuit, the latest entry in the long-running series of racing games. This one is being developed by Criterion Games, the developer behind the critically acclaimed Burnout series, and is primarily focused on delivering confrontations between racers and police so intense that World’s Scariest Police Chases’ John Bunnell would have to go for a cold shower.
For Criterion’s Creative Director, Craig Sullivan, the project is a dream come true. “Need For Speed was the game that really got me interested in the games industry,” he says. “I was at college. I had a SNES, and was playing games like Street Fighter II. But a friend had a 3DO, and when he put Need For Speed on, I was like: ‘Holy shit! This is what games can look like!’” He notices my cynical expression and laughs. “It sounds like a PR line, but it’s true.”
The greatest inspiration that Sullivan took from that earlier game is its reverence for real cars. The vehicles in Hot Pursuit are all high-end – the kind of cars whose speed is matched only by their desirability. Each is richly detailed and the game is packed with facts and stats about them. But this isn’t a realistic racer like Gran Turismo – a fact that Sullivan is keen to point out.
“We didn’t want to simulate these cars – we wanted to recreate that special feeling you get when driving these cars.”
It’s no surprise then, that the actual driving seems largely inspired by Criterion’s previous Burnout games. As with that series, a boost meter is filled by taking risks – driving on the wrong side of the road, and smashing into competitors for example. The handling does feel noticeably different in Hot Pursuit, however – the cars have a much greater sense of weight, which makes drifting a little trickier than Burnout veterans might expect.
EA demonstrated a number of different event types, including races and one-on-one police chases. Single player events seem split between playing as racers and playing as police. The side you choose to play on makes a big difference to the gameplay – racers are fighting against both police and rivals to cross the finish line first, while the police have to stop racers by wrecking their cars. Whichever side I chose, the game was satisfying to play, and generous with its rewards, doling out virtual money for every slick manoeuvre I pulled on track.
This near-constant positive reinforcement does a lot to bridge the gap between hardcore players, and those with less experience. “I want to attract people who have never played a game before, as well as the hardcore,” explains Sullivan. “We spend a lot of time on balance, making sure that even if you’re not a skilled player you can still progress. The key is that it always feels like success is achievable. Maybe you’ll get a bronze medal first time around, but the game always shows you what else is available.”
This all-inclusive ethos extends to the multiplayer. There’s the expected range of competitive online modes, but more interesting is the focus on what Sullivan calls “asynchronous multiplayer”. At the core of the game is the social-media inspired Autolog system. The completion times for all offline events are automatically recorded so that your friends can try to beat them at a later date.
The system automatically recommends events that friends have completed, so it’s easy to find a bit of competition. In addition, players can post results on a wall and comment on friends’ – all very Facebook.
Interestingly, this competitive edge extends across platforms too. “One feature we haven’t talked about much is that you can compare times cross-platform via a website,” says Sullivan.
Essentially, this means if a player has the Xbox 360 version, and a friend has the PS3 version, they’ll still be able to compete to beat each others’ times. It should give them a nice change of pace from bickering over whose console is best.
A lot of questions still hang over Need for Speed Hot Pursuit. I didn’t get a great deal of insight into how progression in the single player mode works, and a lot of its lasting value will depend on how gamers take to the Autolog system. But what I played was very impressive, and bodes well for its release on 19th November (16th in the US).