"Filled with much of what made its namesake so delightful, but in larger doses, Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit 2 stands not only as the ultimate example of what a Need for Speed title should be, but also of what any entry in the genre can hope to accomplish."
Shortly after the launch of the original Playstation, Electronic Arts released what was to be the first of a long line of stellar racing titles, The Need for Speed. Filled with awesome cars, impressive visuals and just plain fun, the title was one of the system's early successes and remains enjoyable to this day. It was followed up by what many consider a stinker, then redeemed by Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit. This third entry in the series is considered by many the best of the series on the Playstation. Successors failed to capture the raw entertainment value of that title, especially in the case of the last entry in the franchise on the PSX, Need for Speed: Porsche Unleashed. Players were limited only to the Porsche and rather dull tracks, which led some to fear the once-might franchise had begun a downard spiral from which it would never recover.
No doubt fearing the same thing, Electronic Arts sent its development teams back to the drawing board. The result is a direct sequel to Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit, appropriately titled Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit 2. Filled with much of what made its namesake so delightful, but in larger doses, Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit 2 stands not only as the ultimate example of what a Need for Speed title should be, but also of what any entry in the genre can hope to accomplish.
From the minute you begin playing, its evident the developers wanted to take the time and do things right. The intro is a true joy to watch, splicing gameplay and video together so seamlessly you can't help but get excited. When the car tops the hill, hangs in the air, and the camera swoops around, then blends into the title, you know you're in for a treat. And you are. This is just one of many effects used to give the player a true sense of speed and adrenaline.
Another effect that adds to that is the sound, and more specifically the music. Perhaps taking a cue from developers of games such as Tony Hawk's Pro Skater, the people responsible for Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit 2 got a handful of exemplary liscensed music. A look at the list is hardly likely to excite anyone. For the most part, even the mainstream stuff doesn't sound all that impressive. Uncle Kracker is a one-hit wonder, and Bush dropped the ball in most fans' eyes a few years back. Still, each song complements the racing quite well. No-name bands provide impressive music, too. Someone spent a lot of time deciding what to include. And the quality is nice, too. Then there are the sound effects. Engines hum at different rates, depending on what you're driving. Tires squeel around corners. You can hear an opponent crashing into a wall behind you, or a dog barking from a street as you fly past. Is the music getting in the way a bit? Just go to the options screen and adjust it down a bit.
Speaking of the options screen, it's one of the most feature-rich I've seen. Besides balancing out the sound, you can choose from three sound outputs, including Dolby Pro Logic II! Even if you don't have that system, things still sound good on surround. There is also selectable difficulty, and most importantly, an option to turn off some of the visual effects.
These visual effects are adrenaline-inducing, sure, but after a while they grow tiresome. For example, come over a hill and catch some air and the camera might pan around you, then unleash the action again. This can mess up your concentration, or it can simply become monotonous as you get good at topping your speed and find yourself catching air more frequently. It's nice you can turn off the whole thing.
What you can't turn off are some of the other visuals, things like hazy smoke and dust storms. This is fine. They really add a lot to the experience. Nothing excels beyond what we've already seen in Gran Turismo 3: A-Spec, unfortunately. That ends up not mattering, though, because what's here is so nice. Compared to the competition, the areas here seem a lot more open. This is a definite strength. You don't feel as if the polished framerate is present only because you're racing through disguised tunnels. Instead, the environments are extremely open. There are exceptions, such as when you're on a mountain pass or the like, but the greater sense of freedom is nice.
This feeling is made even more tangible by the number of shortcuts you can take. Each area seems to have at least three or four of them, and some have more. Some are quite simplistic, just a corner you can shave here and there. Others take you through mines and such. It ranges from something reminiscent of Need for Speed: High Stakes to Beetle Adventure Racing. The whole time, nothing feels like it was added at the expense of a cohesive racer.
Of course, all of this is very nice. But how is the most important aspect, the gameplay? For the most part, it's rock solid. There are two modes, really, broken down to extend gameplay. One is just the standard racing championship, and the other is the infamous Hot Pursuit mode. The former is your standard racing deal. However, it's divided into several types of race. There's the typical one where you try and finish first after three laps or so. Then you have the knockout races, both through a single race (where the last racer each lap is booted off until there's a winner) and the series of races where you have to keep racing the same area--or close to it--for what seems an eternity. Sadly, Electronic Arts resorts to this rather cheap way to 'expand' the experience. They also do mirror courses and such, which means by the time you reach the end, you'll know each area like the back of your hand.
This is both good and bad. Good because you grow familiar with things and can challenge yourself more to improve, bad because you are covering familiar ground more than you are new ground. The good news is that there are 30 tracks. Even though many of these feel so similar you wonder why they were ever made separate, there's still enough fresh stuff to satisfy anyone, and to provide for some good variety if you pick this up for a quick race with a friend. Of course, if one of you owns the game and the other doesn't, the owner is going to be at a huge advantage.
This advantage isn't a matter of choice, really; it comes through necessity. Mostly, that's because of the Hot Pursuit mode. In this, the police figure into the formula. Either you're an evil racer selfishly risking the lives of others because you have the need for speed, or you're a policeman who gets a thrill out of stopping anyone whose speed exceeds 55. As a speeder, you'll grow to hate the cops. One wonders if the developers didn't plan this more than is obvious. Get pulled over and you see a brief clip of a policeman looking like an idiot as he leads you toward the car or whatever. There's some mildly funny stuff. Funny, that is, if you're not ticked off about the arrest. Sometimes hit detection is a little off. And the policemen are good at ganging up against you, pulling out spike strips, forming barricades, and even using a chopper. Your defense is the on-screen indicator and, more importantly, the CB. So playing with the sound turned off is hardly an option.
Regardless of the mode in which you choose to play, the experience ends up being the same deal. You race through a track, you practice your cornering and learn the shortcuts (failing to do so quickly spells the end of any chance of placing more than third or so), and you get ticked off as you hit a tree and your car takes an apparent eternity to turn around. Still, the good in this title far outweighs the bad. Few of the weaknesses are even worth your attention. As far as racing games go, it's hard to have more fun on the system than you can have with Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit 2. If you have an even mild appreciation for the genre, this is the one title that most belongs in your collection.
Staff review by Jason Venter (October 12, 2002)
Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.
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