Review: Need for Speed III: Hot Pursuit (Playstation)

In this review, we throw on some black leather gloves as we play the Playstation game Need for Speed III: Hot Pursuit. We find out how well this racing game plays.

This game was released in 1998 and was the third game released in the franchise. Previously, we reviewed the first game, Road & Track Presents – The Need for Speed and the game ended up getting an OK score. We then reviewed Need for Speed II and found the game barely passable, let alone enjoyable. So, we decided to see if the series turned itself around in this third game.

As the title suggests, there is a pursuit mode in this game. It was what helped improve the score in the first game, but was removed in the second game. The return in the third game was certainly a welcome sight to say the least. That was the god news. The bad news is that this mode doesn’t unlock anything nor is it any major part of the game itself. Instead, it allows you to race on already unlocked tracks with already unlocked vehicles (some vehicles were surprisingly removed from this mode though). You race against an opponent as you hope you can complete the set number of laps and, if possible, beat that opponent. There are improvements to this mode over the previous time it was introduced. One way this mode has been improved is the increased AI abilities of the police. Now, the cruisers can set up road blocks, try to force you off the road, and even get in front of you and gradually slow you down. For added difficulty, the occasional spike strip is laid out to try and stop you. The downside is that these races only exist on the circuit races. The tracks are often quite difficult to navigate – especially if you are new to the tracks. So, this mode is probably best attempted after you have taken on some of the other racing modes first. Adding to the difficulty is the occasional vehicle driving through. This existed in the first game and has made a return here.

Single race operates a lot like pursuit. Like pursuit, you go up against one other opponent. You also race on tracks that you have already unlocked and race in vehicles you have also unlocked. Unlike pursuit, all regular vehicles you have unlocked are available for racing. You can’t unlock anything in this mode. Obviously, the differences is that there are no cops or other vehicles to contend with. It’s just you against whatever opponent you have selected.

Tournament mode, meanwhile, is where a lot of the unlocking action takes place. You race on 8 different tracks in a predetermined order and configuration. After each race, you get tournament points based on how well you placed. 1st gets you 8 points, 2nd earns 7, 3rd gets 6, 4th nets you 5 points, 5th gives you 4 points, 6th leaves you with 3, 7th gets you 2, and 8th place leaves you with a measly 1 point. There is a restriction to this mode: you must stay in the top 3 positions to keep going. If you fall to 4th or worse at any point, you get eliminated from the tournament. You’ll start with a limited stock of cars to choose from. IF you make it to race 5, then you unlock several of the remaining cars (and can choose to race with any of them between any race!). Also, since the first 4 races take place on tracks you have unlocked, every track you make it to after that becomes an unlocked course for you to race on. If you beat the tournament, you get to unlock one additional car. Which car that is depends on the difficulty you’ve selected (beginner or expert).

Knockout mode is a returning mode as well. It is also the only other mode where it is possible to unlock things. In this mode, you race in a series of tracks. After every race, the competitor who finishes last gets eliminated. If you make it to the end with only one other opponent left, you get to race in one of the two locked secret courses. Which one that is depends on which difficulty you have chosen to play (beginner or expert).

Practice mode is also available to help fine-tune your driving skills.

Adding to the complexity of the game is both difficulty and game play mode. The difficulty modes are beginner and expert. In beginner, opponents give you a better chance at success. You also race in most tracks during knockout or tournament with normal settings. Meanwhile, in expert mode, you race against much more difficult opponents and races within knockout and tournament are much more complex (with night driving, reverse courses, and even mirror mode occasionally getting thrown in). What you earn in tournament and knockout also depends on which difficulty you’ve selected.

There are also two modes of play. You can choose to race in either Arcade mode or simulation. In arcade mode, collisions with other cars are much more simplistic. Handling is also easier. In simulation mode, however, collisions are more complex and handling is significantly worse. I’m unsure if this mode changes what you can unlock, however.

One of the criticisms I have leveled against the previous games in this series is the overly simplistic unlocking system. Previously, the games just gave you 95% of everything in the game and let you play it however you felt it needed to be played with virtually no progress tree to speak of other than maybe a little checkered flag to indicate you won a race. This game does tweak the system a little and allow for unlockable content. This was a mild improvement.

The problem here is that this series still suffers from very little in the way of actual modes of play. When you boil it all down, you really only have two championship modes with two difficulties each. In total, there are four modes that allow for progress for anything. Everything else is just an added feature you play for nothing in particular – including pursuit mode which was basically what this game highlights on the outside through the title, art, and intro which is very strange. Compounding the problem is that this game practically demands near perfect driving to get anywhere. You make a few minor mistakes and you’ve basically sealed your fate in a particular race. This puts emphasis on memory work. The second you switch to the harder mode, a lot of that memory work goes out the window as you have to almost start over from scratch because night mode means you get low visibility for the track ahead to name one problem. With the added difficulty, you’ll end up sitting there playing the same particular race for hours just trying to be good enough to qualify for the next race. Because of this steep learning curve and play that starts off as challenging and only grows more difficult, it is easy to see players getting turned off from this game early on. This problem is very similar to what we’ve seen in Multi-Racing Championship where the developers seemingly knew that gameplay was limited, so they ramped up the difficulty to force players to keep playing in an effort to artificially increase the amount of time it requires to complete the game. Given that this game has 8 tracks, the problem is much less apparent, but the problem is similar.

The game itself has 8 normal tracks with a few hidden ones. At first, this was a very impressive feature given that each track in the first four races in championship mode were so long and had their own features. Unfortunately, once you get into the last four tracks, you quickly discover that the last four tracks are just the first two tracks, but with different conditions and a slightly alternate rout. This means that nearly half the game is recycled content. A rather anti-climactic discovery to say the least.

With that comes the track designs themselves. This ends up being a good news bad news scenario. The good news is that there are a lot of interesting features in the tracks themselves. You can see dinosaur bones, drive in aquatic locations, blow past buildings of various structural design, move through rocky deserts, and even navigate through the docks of a harbor city. The bad news is that alternative routs come few and far between. It’s possible to take a more direct rout through a grassy area (especially since going off road has so little impact on driving performance), or drive between a certain set of rocks to decrease the driving distance of a switchback, but these alternate routs end up being just small features of the track instead of being something you are encouraged to try out.

With that, there are the cars themselves. Each car has its own strengths and weaknesses. What those strengths and weaknesses are simply aren’t displayed in the selection screen. Instead, they are buried in a rather obscure “compare” feature most of the way down the menu. From there, you can see the actual stats themselves. The feature has the added bonus of being able to compare stats to other cars, but the very fact that this feature was so buried to begin with in a racing game is disheartening. While the stats are extremely basic, one stat in the compare screen was actually a bit misleading. There is a bar that rates the car “overall”. While that sounds like something to help dumb things down for less-savvy drivers, this bar ends up being practically meaningless. Some cars simply perform better on tracks then others. For the courses with more straightaways, you might be better off just picking a car with high speed and low handling. If you take on a course with substantially more corners, then a car with better handling might be a preferred option. With the “overall” meter, there is supposedly a difference between the two cars.

While this game certainly improves things over the previous game in the series, it ultimately proves to be little baby steps in the right direction. This is not the thing a franchise needs to do when the industry, as a whole, were taking major leaps and bounds at the time. There are games out there with a whole bunch of shorter, but more championship modes. The difficulty curve of some of these games is way easier on the player. Other games feature far more unlockables spread out over a much greater period of time in the game itself. Some games feature cars that can be fully customized (not something even found in this game). Other games feature a money system to help spice up the action (which, again, is not featured in this game). The only way this kind of style of play is even defensible is that it makes the game much easier to just pick up and play. With the difficulty and learning curve the way it is, that argument is blown out of the water, leaving behind a game that just keeps falling further and further behind.

Generally speaking, while this game does improve on general gameplay over the previous game, these improvements were small baby steps while the rest of the field was improving by leaps and bounds. Games like Gran Turismo, Rush 2 – Extreme Racing USA, Top Gear Overdrive, Diddy Kong Racing, and Extreme-G all have their interesting features that just leaves this game in the dust. With all of these games on the market at the time, this game looks overly simplistic at best. While the improvements are appreciated in this game, they just don’t even come close to the features found in other games at the time. So, this game ends up likely disappointing all but the hardened fans of the franchise.

Graphically speaking, this game is a huge improvement over the previous game. The buildings were nicely done and the effects of the cars themselves were a nice highlight. There was, unfortunately not much in the way of special effects other than the occasional dust cloud from crashing your car, though the Heads Up Display changing colors to suit the night condition worked nicely. While other games do tend to outperform this one, the graphics still held up decently enough here. A pretty good effort in this one even if damage is non-existent.

The audio was a bit of a miss for me. The sound effects were basic and the only thing memorable were the cops demanding that you pull over (or screaming if they crash into something) and the car horns for passing another car were interesting. The music, unfortunately, was a miss for me. The thing with the music is that even though they occasionally have their decent moments in game, I can’t really think of anything that was particularly memorable given that it seemed like it was just a series of loops that plays as you pass through certain areas. An interesting feature that the music changes as you make it through certain areas or a brief loop playing if you crash, but the music only goes as far as filling an audio void more than anything else.

Overall, I was really hoping this game helped turn the franchise around. The concept of the pursuit races making a return in a big way got me excited, but this mode was only a small little side-feature that gives absolutely no new features in the game once you get into it. While the mode was improved with improved police AI and even spike strips, the potential was largely missed in the end. The actual races that earn you something end up being limited to 4 (two modes with two different difficulties each). While you do unlock stuff, you don’t really do much more in the game itself. With so many interesting and addicting features in other racing games released at the time, this game ends up falling flat. The physics left a bit to be desired, but the races themselves were of decent length and were rather feature rich. Unfortunately, there are really only 4 tracks with two routs in each in the end that you race through in the tournament and knockout modes. The steep learning curve and ramped up difficulty do little to improve the quality of the game. The only real highlight of the game was the vastly improved graphics. While they were by no means perfect, they were decent all around. Audio was, unfortunately, a bit of a miss with previous few features in the sound effects and very little in the way of memorable tracks. Unless you are already a fan of the franchise, chances are, this one will just be a dud for players.

Furthest point in game:
Championship: Beginner: Won. Expert: Finished 6th and eliminated on first track.
Knockout: Beginner: Won. Expert: Eliminated on track 2.

General gameplay: 15/25
Replay value: 6/10
Graphics: 7/10
Audio: 2/5

Overall rating: 60%

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Google+.

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