On paper, it's a match made in automotive heaven: the creators of Burnout Paradise, Criterion, take on the franchise known for making them look beautiful, Need for Speed. The result is chaotic, gorgeous and faster than greased lightning.
The twist is that equal billing has been given to both cop and racer. If the average bobby car isn't appealing to you, fear not: Hot Pursuit's boys in blue are in the same Lamborghinis and Ford GTs (to name a few of the licensed behemoths) as their criminal opponents. It's a different experience in each role, the two opposing sides of the law demanding a different approach to the open world of Seacrest County. The in-game currency – 'Bounty' – is the key to unlocking the many weapons Criterion have made available. Drive dangerously as a racer to earn yourself a radar-jammer or some boosting power, or drive well as a cop to earn yourself tyre spikes and helicopter support. Along with this extensive inventory – the full contents of which have yet to be revealed – Criterion are promising a massive garage of around 65 cars, all high-end fuel guzzlers, most of which will be available from the off.
At Criterion's EA headquarters in Guildford, I take the wheel as a racer. My rolling start is undercut by the fact that, two chevrons behind, there's an angry, whining squaddie on my tail. It's fight or flight time: if I'm damaged enough, the round ends – so I floor it. It's seconds before we hit a Burnout velocity and all the qualities that have made Criterion's series such a gear-headed rush are here, turned up to 11. The screen goes in to tunnel vision when I slam on the NOS (nitrous oxide boost-y juice, to the more pedestrian among you) and my bright orange Lamborghini is launched into hyperspace, to the cheer of fashion police everywhere.
The segment of Seacrest County I tear through is idyllic and picturesque, drawn beautifully by Criterion's proprietary engine and reminiscent of a more luscious rendering of Paradise City's upper reaches. Pine trees and cliff edges blur by as the chase rockets through this sleepy old town. It's the sterility of Seacrest that enhances the thrill and sense of outlandish danger as much as the grunting engines and crunching metal, and the environment itself becomes a weapon. That sharp bend? Let's slam on the brakes and send the boys in blue careening into it bonnet-first. Those railings? Time to sandwich our escapee before the tyre spikes finish them off.
It's as the cop, ironically, that the real renegade instincts fire up. Constantly a step behind, you've got to think two ahead, trapping your prey with all the guerilla tactics you can muster. Timing a controls-reversing EMP with a racer's arrogant boosting gives the race a tactical angle rarely seen in big-brand racing titles. You'll find yourself trying every trick in the book, from fishtailing to sideswiping, in your battle for honour and credibility.
Unlike the fast and loose handling of the cars in Burnout, there's a sense of weight to the handling in Hot Pursuit that feels closer to Need for Speed: Shift than any other EA title. It means that corners and distances have to be judged, that Hot Pursuit is as strategic as a simulation but still very easy to pick up and play.
With your eyes scorched and your hands shaking, the extraordinary sound design rattles your eardrums as it bombards you with the overhead roar of a chopper or the sound of your gorgeous paintwork being stripped away by raining gravel. Whether custom soundtracks make an appearance remains to be seen (Criterion plus Motorhead equals ecstasy, no?) but the current backing tracks are suitably pulse-pounding.
Connectivity is one of the buzz-words of the Criterion team, and the hope is that players will flock to Hot Pursuit for the social thrill of a good old-fashioned chase. Though details have been scarce thus far, Criterion's proposed “Autolog”, which will dynamically track and share the experience and performance of friends, sounds like a tantalising prospect for anyone who wants to keep up with the Joneses without having to actually go head-to-head with them.
Rather than dirty their hands with anything as elaborate – and needless – as a hokey Need for Speed career story, the team have clearly focused their energies on doing what they do best: blistering speed. It's as much a blessing to the player as the franchise that any frivolous stab at bolting on a story about mini-skirts and all- American youths has been canned, and it allows the personalities of the players to really do the talking.
On the basis of this test-drive, with months of polish to go and with lots of content still hidden under the hood, all signs point to Hot Pursuit being a revival as much as a reinterpretation of Need for Speed's race and chase origins. With a few friends – and many enemies – this could be a blast.