Hands-on – One last drive with NFS: Hot Pursuit and a chat with EA Games Europe chief Patrick Söderlund

Tuesday, 2 November 2010 14:00 GMT By Joe Anderson

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The Need for Speed series was in trouble a year and a half ago. “They were losing quality, repetitive and EA were beating up the franchise and losing consumer interest in the brand,” says Patrick Söderlund, Senior VP of EA Europe.

Something had to change. Let’s face it, racers are a dime a dozen, especially on this generation of consoles, which has spoiled us for choice with titles such as Forza, Project Gotham Racing and Gran Turismo (well eventually, anyways), to name a few. Söderlund knew this, so when he was asked to come in and rescue the series, he and his team decided to stop the cycle of the same team making game after game each year, and instead have several studios working the series, as he felt this “would make the brand successful again.”

Now, after last year’s Shift from Slightly Mad Studios, if you’re going to continue rescuing a failing franchise, asking the studio that developed Burnout Paradise would seem a good start.

[All text by Joe Anderson]

Criterion’s always been a developer that likes to do things different. Sure it creates racing games, but rather than focus on simulation, it only has a selection of words in its vocabulary – speed, action and fun – and in Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit, it has captured those words, bottled them and locked them in the boots of some of the most exotic cars you have ever seen.

We’ve previewed Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit previously, but before we went hands-on with the game this time, we had the enviable task of spending some time in a real Seacrest County Lamborghini police car, chasing down Top Gear’s former Stig, Ben Collins, who was driving a lovely Porsche Boxster. The sense of speed felt here was unbelievable and we were keen to find out if this real life experience would transfer to the game in some way.

“The sensation of speed is important in any racing game,” Söderlund told us, “so there’s been a lot of work gone into that area to make it a cool experience.“

Being a semi-professional racing driver himself, Söderlund seemed to be a good person to ask how the sensation of real driving translates into the game, and he was only too happy to tell us.

“What I like about this particular game is that Criterion’s managed to create a game you can play and control with relative ease,” he said. “They have managed to capture the characteristics of each car so the Nissan GTR will feel a little heavier – but still very fast, than a light weight Porsche Boxster.”

There are certainly many games which capture the feel of racing, but most of them don’t provide the action which Hot Pursuit does, which is something Söderlund was keen to point out. “There is a difference in feel that I really like, but if you look at Hot Pursuit as a pure simulation it’s not that and that’s not the intention either.”

Instead of being focused on simulation, Hot Pursuit continues and improves upon one of the main focuses of Burnout Paradise; the ability to connect to friends, beat their times and race them with the click of a button. This is all done thanks to the games Autolog system, a new always on online hub which, as soon as you add a friend who is playing the game, will connect you both with all the stats, challenges and times that your brain can process.

Thankfully, this new focus doesn’t come at the expense of the single player campaign, as Söderlund explains. “You can play the game offline and have a great experience; you can play single player as a racer or a cop and progress and unlock cars, so you never really have to be online if you don’t want to.”

However, in order to get the most out of the game, Söderlund believes online is the way to go.

“I’ll be honest with you. If you ever dare to be online, and if you add some friends to your friends list, that’s when you really see the power of Autolog, and the game will be more fun for it. Even though you have a great time in single player, it’s going to be a truly stand out experience on multiplayer.”

We would have to agree with this, having seen the Autolog in action and what it brings to the game; it’s a truly outstanding experience, although it’s nice to know it’s not at the expense of the lone player.

It’s lucky the online is so strong on this generation of consoles, because according to Söderlund, Criterion are pushing the systems to their limits. “We continue to push the platforms, even though we can’t technically do that much more, we always try to figure out things to cheat and make it look better and test things.”

Unfortunately, we never really got to see anything new on our visit to Chertsey. However, what we did see was enough to convince us that this game could very well be the rebirth of the series, and that’s something Söderlund agrees with.

“From an action/adventure experience, it is a rebirth, it’s truly innovative and has done things we haven’t seen in a driving game before and, to some extent, in any game before.”

With Gran Turismo 5 being rescheduled, you would think EA may be worried about the competition, but the audience it’s aiming for doesn’t sound like the type of motor enthusiast who’ll be lining up for Sony’s highly anticipated title.

“We would hope this will appeal to a large audience,” says Söderlund, “the same people who go to see the Hollywood blockbusters at the cinema, play FIFA and Shooters. We want to capture a big broad market.”

Having seen the game on more than one occasion, it would be hard to argue that the audience EA wants aren’t already lining up for this game. Hot Pursuit is what racing should be: it’s accessible, sociable and a whole lot of fun, though maybe not as fun as driving a real Lamborghini.

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