I think it would be an accurate statement to say one would find it hard to locate an arcade racer which shares more or even the same success of the Need for Speed series from EAGames. Ever since the very first Need for Speed there has been an overwhelming response of popularity amongst the gaming community, even if every version in the series wasn't a major improvement on the previous one. However one version which I personally preferred the most in the entire series was Need for Speed 3: Hot Pursuit. This was the first installment to feature a fully focused police system, and along with graphics and tracks of top notch quality, it made for one heck of a classic game.
Back again is the Need for Speed series, and back again also is the Hot Pursuit legacy. With NFS: HP2, EA are focusing their attention back to the good old days of intense arcade racing from a selection of todays top 4 wheel beasts. Have they managed to capture the glory of the Need for Speed name?
Starting right off the bat it is nice to see that the menu system has gone through some major restructuring, as it is now much easier to navigate the game modes when compared to many of the previous Need for Speed's. These game modes can generally be broken down into four categories - Hot pursuit, championship, single challenge and multiplayer, which are all accessible from the main menu.
Hot pursuit is the same game mode found in NFS 3, except it has improved structurally. The player has 33 events to go through, organised in a tree branch like setout. Depending on the performance of each event, you are given gold, silver or bronze medals which all correspond with appropriate point bonuses. The point system is basically a currency - if you have enough points you can unlock a certain car or track for use in single player mode.
The 33 events range from lap knockouts, sub-tournaments, normal races and car deliveries to 'you be the cop' modes, each varying in difficulty and reward. This aspect of Hot Pursuit mode is also featured in championship mode, where there are also 33 events ranging over different race types, however in championship mode the emphasis has been shifted more towards actual racing.
Single challenge is a game mode which allows you to customize settings for any given race, however the main advantage of single player is the points gained from playing are still tallied towards your point system, so it isn't exactly necessary to play the championship modes to unlock items. After selecting your settings including race type, difficulty, opponents and traffic you are set to chose your desired track and car. Each track has four variations which require unlocking - forward, backwards, forwards mirrored and backwards mirrored. This means there are effectively four times the tracks available to unlock, however they are no substitute for more real tracks with different environments. Infact, when you think about it, a track in forward is close to being exactly the same as a backwards mirrored track, and vise-versa, which really means there are only 2 real track variations available.
Once all the settings have been chosen it is time to take your beast to the road. Starting off with your classic three count, it is clear that EA are not trying to aim this game towards the extreme car sim enthusiasts, however the physics and handling of the cars are far from strictly arcade. Although it is true a car driving at 250Km/h which collides with another car or a tree has no chance for survival, the physics have improved slightly over the previous titles. This time around we also see a slightly better damage model to the cars, where car bonnets and other parts tend to crumple after too much punishment, however there is never a time where the damage renders your car unusable - infact I don't think damage has any direct impact on performance at all, which keeps the nicely balanced arcade style of gameplay present.
EA are no strangers to the world of great graphics, everything from their EAGames and EASports brands usually excel in the field of graphical superiority and NFS: HP2 is no exception. Accelerated off the DirectX 8 API, we see the power and elegance of each and every supercar in this game rendered with absolute beauty and precision. The reflective properties and accurate modelling makes this game certainly one of the most visually appealing racers ever made.
However the outstanding visuals don't end there. The in-game tracks are also rendered to top notch quality, with such surroundings as forest, city, beachside and many more, each presenting themselves with gorgeous visuals. By putting the tracks and the cars together, you have one visually stunning game.
EA also usually excels in the area of audio, which is also true here for Hot Pursuit 2. Each car has its authentic engine rev, and along with your usual tire squeaks and police radio chatter, it actually comes off pretty impressive. Much of the game relies on audio, including verbal descriptions of tracks and cars in the setup, not to mention valuable hints given by the police during the heat of battle (for example, what side the spike stripe is on). Since the game does rely heavily on audio it is nice to see that EA have made it a priority in the game's development.
As a fan of the gamepad for the PC, naturally it was my first method of choice rather than a keyboard when firing up Hot Pursuit 2. We use the Thrustmaster Firestorm Dual Power 2 gamepad, which proved to work reasonably well with HP2, however the sheer amount of functions meant that we ran out of buttons shortly. Besides your accelerate, brake, horn and hand brake buttons, you have your gear up and down, camera change, look behind and car reset buttons. These actually managed to fit with the gamepad nicely, however the problem immerges only until you have to map police mode buttons.
With spike stripe request, helicopter request and backup request buttons your keyboard soon becomes pretty useful. However we found that it wasn't hard to sacrifice a few functions here and there - if you play in automatic transmission you won't need the gear buttons on your pad, and camera change isn't usually important enough for a gamepad spot. On top of this the actual police functions aren't really necessary anyway, they usually only get in the way during a high paced chase. So as you can see, it isn't hard to accommodate your gameplay style with the available buttons which is a winner for sure.
There is a definite limit to how successful an arcade racer can really be, but I can almost surely say that NFS: HP2 will break this barrier. Stunning visuals, detailed audio along with that classic Need for Speed style gameplay makes this game a winner. It may not take 2002's best game award, but it certainly deserves a place in every PC gamer's library.