Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit might just have the best online integration ever. It takes the 'always on' idea of Project Gotham Racing 3, fuses it to Burnout Paradise's Road Rules mechanic and connects it all to a social network not dissimilar to the mighty Facebook. In many ways, this is how online gaming should have been done since the very beginning - and anything less in the future will look backward in comparison.
Criterion found that the online Road Rules of Burnout Paradise were almost universally the last thing players did in the game. But once they started, they spent a lot of time trying to become king of any given stretch of road. Perhaps it was too hidden - too much of a footnote compared to the open ended structure the game shouted about so much. NFS's new Autolog system brings this right up to the forefront and is immediately apparent when you boot it up.
Above: The cars are lit by their environments, like Lara Croft was in TR: Underworld. Looks gorgeous
Autolog keeps track of your friends' progress, with the idea being you can enjoy all the rivalry of online racing without having to all be online at the same time. We're all busy people, after all. So Autolog's 'asynchronous play' will inform you when your best time has been beaten on a certain track, or let you know that a lot of your friends have been time trialling a certain road. It prioritises these challenges to give you the most compelling experience possible and looks like it will work a treat. Other games may have had a news ticker with this sort of thing, but it's never been this pronounced or integral to the overall experience.
Above: See that car? It's sitting on YOUR road. You're not going to just sit there and let it, are you?
To make victory even more satisfying, the game has a Facebook-style 'wall' for every racer. You can post taunts and even pictures to your mates' walls. When you do get sent a message that your time has been beaten on a certain track, just hitting R2 will take you to that road where your quest to regain your title begins. Better still, walls will be visible outside of the game via a website - so you can even track your mates' progress when you're at work.
Despite Criterion's obvious Burnout hallmarks like massive crashes, plenty of drifting and the fact that it uses the same game engine as Burnout Paradise, the new game still plays like Hot Pursuit 2 on PS2. Senior Producer Matt Webster told me that he regarded that game as the pinnacle of arcade racing on the PS2, so the team has been approaching this as a Need For Speed game, not a Burnout game with a different name.
Above: Seacrest County has at least 130 miles of road, only 100 of which are tarmac
This means plenty of pedal-to-the-metal, heart-in-mouth speed. My initial fears that the courses looked too straight to be challenging have been completely dispelled. While I don't think I slowed the car down for a single corner during my entire time with the game, the brake button is in constant use, both in terms of activating power slides to drift round sharp turns, OutRun style, and to avoid enemy EMP weapons.
Then there are other road users to avoid and the advances of your rival racers. Oh, and the small matter of the cops to avoid. While any of these would be tricky enough to cope with alone, trying to deal with them all at once is often too much to handle, resulting in a huge crash.