On the consoles, Need for Speed: Shift was seen as a return to form by the franchise after a series of bungled attempts to recapture the magic of NFS: Underground. This was true of the iPhone release too, which we thought captured some of that tuner magic through a host of customization options and a great emphasis on handling. Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit [App Store] throws that formula right out the window, reviving the hit cops and robbers racer of the last-gen console with the same name. And it seems to be a winner, the iPhone version having giant boots to fill already as its big-brother weighs in a critical success (90/100 on Metacritic).
So we'll get one thing out of the way early: unlike its console counterpart, in Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit you only get to play as the hunter, not the hunted. That's right-- the array of glitzy cars you get to unlock (15 in total) will only sport the black and white of the po-lice, though the range is hardly stunted. You'll get to drive Corvettes, Porsche's, Lamborghinis, Fords, and even a Veyron as this cashed up police force takes it out in kind on the host of tuned-up racers plaguing its streets.
There are no story sequences to worry about in NFS: Hot Pursuit either and nor are any warranted as the devs blessedly throw you into a live pursuit as soon as you fire the game up, bypassing the usual song and dance needed to get started. A quick tutorial showing off the NOS and 180 degree thumb-slide controls is all you need to know as you're thrown head-first into the first of 24 pursuits making up the career mode.
Each event in NFS: Hot Pursuit takes one of four models: Tough Justice, Intercepter, Rapid Response and Power Struggle. The first two are the bread and butter and the events you'll gravitate to most -- these are where you get to dish out serious police brutality. In these events you're tasked with taking out one or more opponents-- by either ramming them off the road or by using one of several tools at your disposal. These include deployable spike strips, police road blocks and EMPs, all of which can either slow down or disable the target vehicle temporarily. The rest is up to you, as your most effective weapon at stopping these cretins is vehicular battery.
The whole concept is great, but unfortunately doesn't live up to what's expected of it. Setting up an effective road block sounds cool, but in practice does about as much damage as mosquitos on the windshield as racers plough headlong through a barracade while barely pausing a beat. Even EMPs that send cars spinning out of control are rendered ineffective when the cars bounce of the invisible bumper bars around the track and teeter back on course with minimal stopping time. Simply put, the poor physics engine on the small screen does the game an injustice, with the expected high-impact crashes only occurring once the enemy life bar is whittled down to nought.
The other two race types - Rapid Response and Power Struggle - are straightforward checkpoint or straight-line races without the pursuit mechanic. The latter is the more interesting of the two, as it pits cops against cops as you thrash out your tweaked out squad cars (and eventually even getting to use your tech against each other) between doughnut breaks. These races are challenging and fun the first few times, but get boring very quickly and pale in comparison to the cops and robbers races.
This is mostly due to the overarching problem in NFS: Hot Pursuit that far too much emphasis has been taken off the driving to focus on the weapon mechanics. We enjoyed NFS: Shift because it put you back in the driving seat; with steering, braking and gears to worry about if you wanted to. In NFS: Hot Pursuit, there's not even a need for a brake or an accelerator (the default setting is auto-accelerate). The whole game can be played by just tilting your screen, and swiping occassionally when you want to hit the turbo. Gone are all the customization options too, the cash system replaced by a bounty system where gaining enough stars and subsequent bounty unlocks new cars and new events.
Fortunately everything in NFS: Hot Pursuit looks terrific, with a range of different environments to race through at varying times of the day. It looks great on a 3GS device, with only infrequent framerate hitches and bland off-road textures spoiling the visual treat; but really comes into its own on the ultra-sharp, high-res retina display of the 4th gen models. The only downside on the presentation front is that spending even half an hour with the game will reveal familiar track segments, with events eventually becoming predictable due to the high level of section recycling going on.
Despite these set-backs, NFS: Hot Pursuit dishes up some seriously high-octane moments, when you're toe-to-toe with an offender tilting your screen to-and-fro as you try to ram him off track, only to have the bugger jam your weapons as you get ahead of him to deploy a spike strip. This experience is heightened dramatically with local WiFi play (where you're finally able to play as the bad guys), but we're disappointed to see that there's no online race option to duke it out with friends across the globe.
All up, as far as the Burnout-meets-NFS vibe goes, NFS: Hot Pursuit on the iPhone misses the mark, its tuner-lite gameplay hard to recommend to driving enthusiasts. It does have more casual appeal however, and for those unphased by the lack of online racing or customization and the sometimes frustrating driving mechanics, NFS: Hot Pursuit will provide some thrilling moments and maybe a couple of hours of content to work through.
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