Predator versus prey — that's what Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit is all about. Sure, the game spends plenty of time drooling over painstaking renderings of exotic supercars and nudging players to top their lap times, but it's no more about cars than Moby-Dick is about whales. That's the surface. The heart that beats within is that of the quarry barely eluding its pursuer's claws, or that of the hunter closing in for the kill. No matter which side you're on, every race feels as if it could be your last.
The core of Hot Pursuit is an eponymous mode in which specially tuned police cars try to bust an illegal street race. For racers, the goal is simple: reach the finish line, preferably in first place. The cops' objective is to smash up all the racers before they get there. In this, Hot Pursuit takes a page from the Burnout series — which was also developed by Criterion Games. The single best way to wreck another player is to drive into him or her at high speed. Of course, the dizzying velocity that Hot Pursuit offers makes you wonder why the cars don't blow apart on their own after breaking the sound barrier.
Whichever side you choose to play as, you have some weapons at your disposal. All drivers can drop spike strips to blow out the tires of vehicles behind them, or fire EMPs to disable — temporarily — those in front of them. Racers can also jam the cops' radar and trigger a turbo mode in order to accelerate to ludicrous speed. The cops can set up roadblocks and call in helicopters. Given your limited assets, tactics are critical. Say you're a racer and a cop has locked onto you with an EMP. Do you jam him for the easy getaway, or try to outmaneuver him now and save your tech for when you really need it?
Best of all, none of the weapons is unbalanced. All have weaknesses, and all can be counteracted by skillful driving. Roadblock ahead? Swerve into a gap between police cars, or head off-road for a shortcut. As opposed to so many extreme racing games that replace skill with luck and/or bullshit, racing well is the best way to win a round of Hot Pursuit. Last-place drivers aren't rewarded with an unstoppable purple shell that'll destroy all the competent players in front of them. They still need to learn how to drift, how to take risks to shave seconds off their time, and how to deploy limited nitrous boosts for maximum impact.
You'll need to play more-vanilla modes in order to upgrade your abilities and unlock new cars. All have their virtues, especially the one-on-one duels against devious AI opponents (though the single-car time trial, which penalizes you for collisions, seems a stuffy inclusion). Think of these as practice for the main event — because, really, it's hard to imagine what else you'd need.
Hot Pursuit is a triumph, achieving everything it sets out to do with verve and aplomb. Playing as a cop or a racer is equally thrilling — you'll find yourself transforming from a freedom-loving outlaw into a fascist thug in the span of a single loading screen. Hey, there's no time to ponder the philosophical implications when you're racing for your life.