The inhabitants of Seacrest County must be the most petrified motorists in the world.
As they dawdle aimlessly along immaculate multi-lane highways, they're treated to the familiar sight of millions of dollars worth of highly-strung machinery overtaking, undertaking and occasionally flying over the top of them. If you think your insurance company adopts an incredulous attitude when you describe accidentally running over your letterbox, you probably don't want to try explaining how one of five Pagani Zonda Convertibles in the world has written off your car four times this week.
Hot Pursuit's premise, then, is pure video game fantasy; Take the fastest cars available, race them against each other on the best roads ever made whilst avoiding being busted by the best funded police force in existence.
The basic racing mechanics on offer available aren't particularly innovative. You'll take on individual challenges located on the county map, each requiring you to beat the AI by either winning the race, or setting a race record. These challenges are further divided by the introduction of SCPD incidents, where you'll don a blue uniform and attempt to bust racers as part of the Seacrest County Police Department.
The parallel progress between racing and policing facilitates your career, allowing you to achieve increasingly higher ranks, and introducing you to a variety of new cars, equipment and race events.
As a racer, your only real concern is to finish first to earn the most amount of bounty. The staple form of currency in Seacrest, bounty can be earned from pretty much anything you do, provided it's some kind of an achievement. Finding a new shortcut, drifting for extended periods of time, smashing cops off the road, it's all eventually totalled up and added to your score at the end of the race.
Key to mastering Hot Pursuit is a solid understanding of when to use your regenerating nitrous appropriately. It's most effective on the straights and uphill segments, and should ideally be used for swift acceleration from lower speeds. Attempting to use small quantities in tightly-packed groups of rivals won't really help, you're far more likely to benefit by saving it all up and using it after you wipe out, or perhaps in the last half-mile of track to overtake unsuspecting competition before the finish.
To assist in your illegal activities, four items can be unlocked and deployed using the appropriate arrow on the d-pad during racing. The Jammer blocks all SCPD communications, which is particularly useful when you wish to avoid being spiked. You can also release your own spike strip, the successful deployment of which will queue a satisfying cut-scene showing the utter devastation inflicted on whoever was unlucky enough to be behind you at the time. You've also got an EMP device which fires a static charge at vehicles, and the ability to call up a turbo option which greatly increases your speed for a short period.
It's not all weighted towards the speed junkie - the SCPD have a few additional methods of killing your fun too. Along with spike strips and their own EMP devices, you'll come across roadblocks, which must be smashed through either by yourself or by following the lead of another racer. Even if you manage to successfully clear a road block, the SCPD's helicopter can catch up to you and lay spike strips directly from the air, which can really liven up your 200mph drifting practise.
At the heart of all this is the new Autolog function. Wisely avoiding the current trend to link facebook and twitter accounts to the game and therefore provide the world with more spam, Criterion have gone for their own in-house leaderboard system, which allows you to share your results amongst friends who actually care. Before starting a challenge you'll be given times to beat based on your friends achievements, even including details such as which vehicle they used to set the circuit record.
It's clear that this Autolog facility is designed to provide a core social experience within Hot Pursuit, as it even offers track suggestions based on what kind of racing your friends have participated in recently. You can also take in-game screenshots and post them for others to view, as well as keeping up to date with the latest updates from Criterion. As a concept it's sound, and as it's fully contained within the game itself, chances are it'll actually be used fairly regularly by those willing to invest the time.
Tied to the Autolog is the rather excellent online multiplayer mode. Up to eight people can race against each other to increase their ranks and earn new unlocks. In the matches we played against Criterion developers prior to the official launch of the game, we experienced no lag or connection problems whatsoever, although unfortunately our Autolog is now populated by extremely fast times set by people who made the game.
The vehicle control on offer is unlikely to appeal to everyone, however. Most of the cars have fairly indistinguishable handling characteristics, and each new unlock really feels like a slightly faster version of the previous one. It seems to matter little whether you're driving a Lamborghini or a Mazda, you're still prone to excessive understeer followed by the requirement to drift oversteer to correct and maintain the line through the apex. If an overly arcade approach to racing suits you, you'll have a blast, particularly with the flotsam and jetsam adorning the highway and peripheral environments, but those looking for a touch of Forza or Gran Turismo accuracy will be sorely disappointed. Criterion have certainly made no effort to reproduce any of the realism added to the franchise by Need for Speed: Shift last year.
In any case, it hardly matters. Hot Pursuit has overdosed on the adrenaline, providing gamers with some of the fastest action this year. Whether it's running from the cops whilst trying to ram other players off the road, or reversing the roles and dispensing some justice through the medium of high-speed impacts, Hot Pursuit excels in producing a genuinely madcap racing experience and shouldn't be overlooked by arcade racing fans.