I hated Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit at first. I hated the handling, the fact that the cars had a sense of weight and seemed slow to respond. It seemed like bad design, why make it possible to crash into traffic then give me an unresponsive car? I hated how the specs for some cars were “classified.” I was afraid to use them, worried that I’d be tricked into using a slower car. I hated the shortcuts that weren’t actually shortcuts, and the lack of damage compared to Burnout. In short, I hated it because it wasn’t Burnout. But I kept playing.
Eventually it won me over. Once I reset my expectations and took the game on its own merits, as a Need for Speed game and not a Burnout game. Also, I unlocked faster and more responsive cars, so now the game actually does feel comparable to Burnout. It struck me as odd that Criterion would hide the best cars behind a dozen hours of lesser gameplay, hadn’t developers learned not to do this? Super Street Fighter IV had no hidden characters, and Battlefield: Bad Company 2 has a “short cut” pack that you can buy to instantly unlock all weapons and gadgets. Yet racing games still force players to start with the slowest cars and work their way up. However, despite my frustrations, the more that I think about it, the more that I agree that this system works for racing games or at the very least for Hot Pursuit.
In retrospect, that slow build up is necessary. In Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit, as in any racing game, the faster cars are harder to control. To allow players to enter the Hyper series events from the beginning would be to let them jump into the deep end before they know how to swim. The gradual ramp up is expertly paced. There’s no spike in difficulty, and no car ever feels too fast to handle.
On the other hand, when I play Burnout: Revenge online (when I can find a game) everyone uses the top cars, but I haven’t gotten that far in the game since downloading it from Xbox LIVE some months ago. As a result, the cars feel unnaturally fast. I smash into every wall, mess up every turn, and it’s obvious that these cars are just too much for me. It’s still fun of course; there’s always some inherent fun in the shock value of a super fast car, but I rarely win any races. This is never a problem in Hot Pursuit, unless I specifically choose to race in a class beyond what I’ve earned, but in that case, I have no one to blame but myself.
One could argue that fighters and shooters are naturally more focused on multiplayer, so it’s more important to have a level playing field from the beginning. Hot Pursuit does have a massive single-player experience, much bigger than the campaign in Bad Company 2 certainly, and even the Autolog is essentially a single-player multiplayer mode since it allows you to compete with friends on your own time. Eventually the game does force you to play multiplayer to rank up (since getting gold in all single player events will only get you to (around) level 15 of 20) but by that point, you’ve learned enough to stand toe-to-toe with everyone else in multiplayer. You’ve already unlocked the fast cars and have had plenty of time to play with them. If anything, Hot Pursuit is an example of how to do unlockables properly: by allowing multiplayer unlockables to be acquired in single-player modes. It’s an approach similar to the ability earn ranks in the Halo: Reach campaign, but in Hot Pursuit, your reward is more tangible than a piece of cosmetic armor.
Of course, an unbalanced multiplayer is still a problem if a player jumps online before getting to the end of single-player mode, but the multiplayer in Hot Pursuit is smartly divided into car classes. This isn’t the first racing game to divide it’s multiplayer like this, but it’s worth mentioning since it’s a good idea for any genre: Separate players into tiers according to what they’ve unlocked. You still might come up against someone much better than you, but at least you’ll both be on a level playing field.
My frustrations in the beginning were more due to my expectations than the game itself. After all, if I had really hated it, I wouldn’t have kept playing. Now that I’ve reached the Hyper class, I’m thankful that the game took its time preparing me for these monsters. Even though I didn’t want to be taught, the lessons paid off.