My ears are drowning in a cacophony of sirens. If I dare look behind me, all I can see is a frightening medley of flashing blue and red lights. The police - having busted my three street racing pals - have turned their attention towards me, and the pressure is beginning to get to me. There's just under a mile of the race left, but that fails to fill me with confidence. I power ahead, mashing on the X button to activate my nitros. My Bugatti Veyron is quick, but I could do with it being that bit quicker. I grimace as I see a police road block looming in the distance. I readjust my grip on the controller - noticing as I do that my hands are drenched in sweat - and head into the wall of cars in front of me. Flicking the car to the left, I dart through the smallest of gaps in the blockade. I look behind me to see if my pursuers reacted as quickly as I had. They haven't, and a cocky smile spreads across my face and watch the carnage behind me unfold.
Of the countless multiplayer races I played during my time at Criterion's studios in Guildford, this was the most exciting. The deal was sweetened somewhat with a well earned victory, but I'd like to think it was just as entertaining for the guys sat behind the wheels of the police cars as it was for me. Hot Pursuit mode pits four street racers against four cops, like a crime fighting game of cat and mouse. For the racers it's a simple case of being the first to cross the finish line, whereas the cops need to concentrate on ramming, smashing and generally bullying their law-breaking counterparts off the road. We played a few standard races too, but the majority of our time with the game was spent in Hot Pursuit mode, where a rivalry was quickly blossoming between journalists.
Regardless of whether you play as a racer or a cop, certain weapons and abilities are at your disposal. Each car has four technical tricks up its sleeve, one for each button on the d-pad. Police will often find themselves relying on spike strips, but will also call in helicopters and police road blocks at every given opportunity, both of which require some lightning quick reaction times to avoid. Racers don't have such luxuries available to them, but can use EMP blasts to disable the abilities of those caught in their reticules.
Racers can also take advantage of a one-use turbo boost, which I found was most effective unleashed in the last mile or so of the race. The combination of weapons and abilities gives rise to a surprising amount of strategy, and knowing when to use what power-up can often be the difference between victory and a trip to the scrap yard.
The game is split into Race and Cop challenges, which can be selected from a sprawling map off the main menu. Seacrest County is four times larger than Paradise City – home of Burnout Paradise, Criteron's last game – with a whopping 120 miles of road to tear up. It's brought to life with a striking palette of browns and reds, with gorgeous sunsets, golden beaches and an impressive draw distance. The car models look great, too, and Criterion is clearly revelling in the fact that it's been able to work with real cars.
It's not surprising that the word 'Burnout' is uttered so frequently when talking about Hot Pursuit. Criterion has taken the philosophy that made the Burnout series so successful and rebranded Need for Speed around it. Make no mistake, this is still a Need for Speed game, with exotic cars, high octane chases and accommodating handling - but it looks, plays and feels like the next instalment of the Burnout series. Driving through oncoming traffic, drifting round corners and generally driving like a badass will all contribute towards your nitro boost, as well as adding towards an in-game currency known as bounty. As you might expect, the better you drive the more bounty you'll be awarded, which in turn will lead to better cars and upgrades.
So, the game looks great and the racing mechanics appear to be solid, but the real star of Hot Pursuit is Autolog; the social and community engine powering the game. Burnout Paradise had some fairly extensive community features, but with Hot Pursuit, Criterion has gone the whole hog. "There's nothing more powerful than beating a friend at the game" says Matt Webster, producer on the game. An integrated messaging system means any challenges you happen to beat can be shared with your friends. From this message, your friends need only tap the R2 button to take it on themselves, and you'll of course be notified if they beat it. The game will even go as far as to tell you how many attempts your friends have had trying to beat your time - which I can imagine being the source of much banter. Like Facebook, players will have their own wall, where they can post times and photos, and generally let people know what they're up to. It's these features that will define the Hot Pursuit experience, and I'm very excited to get involved with it all.
The Need for Speed franchise has been in dire need of a good kick up the backside, and Criterion is the perfect fit for the boot. The game itself looks great, but the community and social features encasing it are nothing short of amazing. The reason Geometry Wars 2 was so successful was because it constantly let players know how their scores were stacking up against their friends, and Hot Pursuit employs a similar tactic. If people take to Autolog like Criterion is hoping, Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit could be the game that paves the way for the rest of the genre to follow.
Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit is available for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC on November 19.