Still Playing: Need For Speed Hot Pursuit

What’s the best driving game for drifting? Is it Ridge Racer, with a drift mechanic so videogamey that it’s not so much a powerslide as a skid-activated autopilot? The digital precision of Super Mario Kart? Or is it Metropolis Street Racer, because you could make it display a rude word every time you went round a corner sideways?

For me, it’s Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit. There aren’t any rude words – at least, none that you don’t utter yourself as you clip a police roadblock and total your vehicle 30 feet from the finish line – but the driving model is based on drifting in the same way that boxing is based on punching people. You may just do one thing, over and over, but there’s almost unlimited nuance to how you do it. It’s a meditation on going sideways round corners in very fast cars.

The location helps, of course. Hot Pursuit is less car porn than road porn (though considerably less disgusting and illegal than that sounds), and Seacrest County is the porn star – hundreds of square kilometers of glorious Americana, with a higher crime rate than Bogota and a police department with a budget not far off the US national deficit. Seacrest’s road network, taking in almost every terrain there is, was clearly designed for driving rather than for arriving, because the layout makes no kind of sense. Motorway flyovers connect to nothing at all. Bridges jut out pointlessly into the air. One minute, you’ll be driving through a scrubby desert; pass through a tunnel, and you’ll suddenly be among powder-fresh snowy mountains. Crest the brow of a hill in a rainy, overcast valley, and the sky will begin to shimmer, thick cloud peeling back in seconds to reveal blinding sunshine.

It’s in these contradictions that the game’s true ancestry shines. Seacrest County’s roads and their uncannily quick shifts from climate to climate resemble nothing so much as Outrun 2’s 15 stages, unpicked from their customary tree diagram arrangement and woven into an unlikely but exciting network. And it’s here that the core of the game’s appeal is found. Hot Pursuit, like Outrun before it, is a head-rush distillation of the sheer punch-the-air euphoria of slinging a fast car into an apex-hugging drift across a coastal highway. Criterion has tweaked the controls to the point where each corner feels like you’re dancing with physics, feathering the throttle and countersteering masterfully as you balance your car on the fulcrum between under- and oversteer, between crash barrier and head-on collision.

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