Arguably, the most successful and long-lasting game franchises are those that allow the player to engage in wish fulfillment. Consider Madden NFL: how many millions of us dream of being on the sidelines, calling plays for a top-tier NFL team? How many of us would love the opportunity to have a perfectly thrown pass dropped by Braylon Edwards? But even those dreams are tempered by our innate understanding that it is only a chosen few that can ever have the physical and mental attributes required to play the game at anywhere near that level.
But we all drive cars, don't we? And based on the international success of the BBC's blockbuster show Top Gear
and the massive industry that has developed around what can only be called car porn, a whole lot of us drive for reasons over and above getting to work or to the local Taco Bell. For a large percentage of the population, a car is much more than a conveyance. A car can be a statement of our personality, a car can be an object of deep affection upon which to lavish attention, and a car can be the means by which we experience a visceral love for speed.
Speed is the one thing that separates modern society from the eons of civilizations that came before, and in relative terms, speed as measured in rates faster than those achievable by a four-legged mammal is an extremely recent development. Speed in transportation, starting with steam engines, began the amazing transformation of global civilization that has occurred over the last two centuries. Speed increases in communications have had an equally startling effect. If there is one thing that our entire way of life is utterly dependent on, it is speed. In other words, it is an undeniable fact that we need speed.
Which, of course, brings us to the topic of a game franchise that is every bit as venerable as the aforementioned Madden football. Since 1994, we have pursued our love for beautiful, fast, and often exotic cars through the vicarious thrill of the Need for Speed games. Through their various iterations, the focus of any given entry in the series has shifted from wish fulfillment in the form of acquiring those cars in a way only Jay Leno can do in real life, driving them in a way that only someone with diplomatic immunity could get away with, and tuning them in ways reserved to Hollywood movie budgets. The one constant through all of this was that we got to "drive" these cars as fast as we were able to on open road races from point A to point B in a nearly consequence-free manner.
Nearly consequence free? Well, yes. Another long-standing trait of the Need for Speed games is the presence of cops. And not the normal "pull you over and write you a ticket" variety of cops, either. No, the Need for Speed cops seemingly have no boundaries of behavior, almost as if they were an eerily prescient view of things to come with the "anything goes" attitude of today's TSA agents. Pull you over for speeding? Not these guys! They would run you into guard rails, trees, barriers, or any other firm, immovable object they could find. It wasn't enough to catch up to you; no, they had to destroy you!
So, here we are in late 2010. A new Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit is ready and waiting to be gift wrapped and placed under the Christmas tree. The Hot Pursuit sub-genre has been around for awhile. These variants typically focus much more heavily on the interaction between the speeder and the police force than on tuning or customization of the cars. In this most recent Hot Pursuit, the focus is a pure 50-50 split between civilian scofflaw and hyper-dedicated officer of the law. The player can decide to have a full career in either mode, and both offer the opportunity to sample various exotic (read: incredibly expensive) and relatively attainable cars from a collection of over 60 different makes and models. The customization of the cars is limited to choosing the color, and even that choice is severely curtailed when playing on the side of the law. In that mode, you can have whatever color you want, as long as you want black and white.
Gameplay is about what you'd expect from a Need for Speed title. Much as with Chinese food, there are three major categories that differ only in a few subtle ways. There is race mode, wherein you race a pack of other cars along an open road, sometimes with cops chasing you, sometimes not. In either case, there is often traffic to deal with. There are pursuit events in which you either chase the speeder or are chased by a cop. Finally, there are what amount to time trials where you have a limited amount of time to reach a desired endpoint.
Within the three major modes there are variations that keep it interesting. For example, the pursuit events are spiced up with varying types of soft weaponry. As the pursuer, you can call ahead for road blocks to be placed on the course, you can drop spike strips to shred your opponent's tires, and in a nod to a science fiction-esque future, you can fire an EMP pulse to disrupt the essential electronics of today's complex cars. I found most of those to be unnecessary distractions, though. At my age, it was enough of a challenge simply to keep my speeding cruiser on the road; fumbling around looking for the right button to push to fire an EMP pulse inevitably ended up doing nothing more than ensuring a spectacular wreck. As they say, though, your mileage may vary. A factor that I found far more confounding as the pursuer was that there seems to be some degree of AI on the part of the pursuee. It was not at all rare for me to find myself chasing an empty road as the speeder had made a turn at an intersection that I blew right through in my single-minded determination to simply not crash.
I might as well just say it: I crash a lot in this game. Even after hours of play, I'm still struggling to get a handle on the, well... handling of these cars. I spend most of my virtual racing time on the PC with simulator-type games like rFactor or GTR Evolution. The solid control feeling that I get from a Logitech G25 racing wheel and a tight, physics-based driving model does not transfer well to the more arcade-like model common to the consoles. This is not to say that there is anything wrong with the driving model in Need For Speed; my teenage daughter has no trouble with it whatsoever. That said, in the real world I drive a tight, nimble Miata while she drives a 1998 Mercury Sable, a car whose handling was designed by the same folks that built the Queen Elizabeth ocean liner. She's used to ponderous control; I over-control mightily in the game. And, probably due to my age, I simply cannot come to terms with drifting. Quite startlingly, she seems perfectly home with it. That's enough to keep Dad awake at night when she's still out and about...
Being of the Facebook generation, she is also much more in tune with the online aspects that are de rigeur for today's games. Need for Speed's new Autolog feature, which allows you to compare scores with your online "friends," leaves me cold. The problem for me is that the definition of "friend" has shifted in the online world to mean "total stranger that currently occupies the same game space as you." Frankly, I couldn't care less if someone going by the moniker 'GeckoXfy2Ganglefoot' beat my best time. If I want to be humiliated over my dismal driving abilities, I'd prefer that it be at the hands of someone I actually know. She has no similar compunctions; she will quite readily jump into a Quck Match race and have a grand old time.
When I tried it, I ended up committing a bit of a faux pas. Ensconced in her modernistic (to me) Microsoft Live headset, I joined a pursuit race with Mr. Ganglefoot. I was only wearing the headset to keep from tripping over it; there was dead silence as the race started and I immediately plowed my Ford Interceptor into a bridge abutment. My quarry fled off into the distance, never to be seen again. I uttered a somewhat profanity-laced observation regarding my deplorable performance, only to hear Mr. Ganglefoot reply through the headset that he "had wondered why I didn't chase him." I couldn't hit the B button fast enough to get out of there! The only shining positive was that I was using my daughter's gamer tag at the time.
At the end of the day, I have to say that I have absolutley enjoyed playing this game. My measure of a good game is how much time I spend playing it after the third and ostensibly "Just a few more minutes" hollered in response to some kind of spousal demand to do something. Using that scale, Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit achieves a rarely-attained grade of somewhere between "Where the Hell Are You??" and "Put That Damn Thing Down!!" The graphics are gorgeous and the game play is quite addictive. Much as with the game of golf, it's easy to pick it up and play it, but it requires a lot of practice to get good at it. Improvement always seems achievable, though, which drives (pun intended) to keep on trying.
If only I could find a way to keep that daughter of mine from turning up the volume on that awful music....