Prior to the rise of the Import Tuner Scene thanks to the overwhelming popularity of the Fast & Furious franchise during the early 2000’s, Need for Speed was once a highly respected arcade racing series developed by Electronic Arts that acted almost as a virtual extension of your childhood Hot Wheels fantasies. Early entries in the line of Need for Speed titles allowed you to drive nothing but the fastest and elusive production cars on scenic roads across the globe, with the series earning widespread notoriety for occasionally tasking you with out-running a dynamic police force, whose tactics would change based on how long you were able to keep the car in one piece. Even the most hardcore of sim racers can most likely recall fond memories of stomping around locales like Hometown and Rocky Pass in supercars that would now be deemed too old to be competitive in a modern Forza Motorsport title, but there’s no denying the magic of what Electronic Arts had been able to capture during that special time in gaming.
The year was 2002, and Electronic Arts had been given the job of entering the next generation of gaming with a sequel to 1998’s critical and commercial success, Need for Speed III: Hot Pursuit. Capitalizing on the power of modern PC’s compared to relatively restrictive days of Windows 98, as well as the fantastic performance of all three consoles – Sony’s PlayStation 2, Microsoft’s Xbox, and Nintendo’ GameCube – the sequel to Hot Pursuit was promised to be the definitive Need for Speed title; the ultimate culmination of everything the team had learned from the previous eight years spent creating compelling virtual supercar playgrounds.
However, only a fraction of those who owned Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit 2 speak of the game in a positive manner.
While no official reason has been given as to why the development of Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit 2 had been split between two different developers, what we do know from the Wikipedia entry on the game states that the Sony PlayStation 2 version of the title was developed by an entirely different studio than the Xbox, GameCube, and Windows XP releases. After nearly half a decade spent working on NASCAR titles for Sony’s original PlayStation, BlackBox Games of Vancouver Canada were given the job of creating Hot Pursuit 2 on the PS2, whereas the other versions of the game would be developed by a new outlet in EA Seattle – a location which closed at the end of the 2002 calendar year, shortly after the game’s release. My own personal speculation regarding the two-team approach to Hot Pursuit 2 boils down to the inferior hardware inside Sony’s PlayStation 2 – this is a console that routinely experienced framerate drops and a noticeable decline in visual fidelity compared to the other consoles on the market at the time, so it’s possible the PS2 version needed to be an entirely separate project to get around the performance issues, but Electronic Arts has simply never spoken about it.
Yet in an odd twist of events, it was the PlayStation 2 version of the game – the one released on Sony’s under powered console – that ended up as the definitive version of Hot Pursuit 2. Black Box knew full well what they were doing. EA Seattle, on the other hand, did not.
The basic assets of each version of Hot Pursuit 2 were intended to remain largely the same to ensure a sense of parity between experiences on each platform, but this simply didn’t happen in execution. While the roster of cars is identical on paper, the EA Seattle rendition of the title – the version available on the Xbox, GameCube, and PC – noticeably lacked the Arizona desert environment found in the PlayStation 2 version of the game developed by Black Box. And when it came to unlocking the NFS Edition upgrades to each of the title’s 20-odd vanilla supercars as you progressed through the various Single Player campaigns, the NFS Edition cars found in the PlayStation 2 version of the game were of a higher quality than those found in EA Seattle’s offering. NFS Edition cars were given slightly better attributes and fancy two or three-tone liveries in the PlayStation 2 version, while EA Seattle could only throw generic pearlescent paint jobs at the bonus cars.
Menu artwork and general heads up display shenanigans were left largely up to the interpretation of each individual development team. Black Box opted for a simplistic menu design, a throwback to what had been seen in the console version of High Stakes while still moving forward in a new direction, whereas EA Seattle opted for an excruciatingly modern look via sharp edges, gradients, and various shades of faded blue. Black Box went for bold, BIG lettering on the overlay, presented to the user with only primary colors, while EA Seattle experimented with a widescreen minimalist approach. The end result allows for the Black Box version to age gracefully in a visual sense, whereas the work by EA Seattle is almost a time capsule of failed ideas that look like utter shit.
And utter shit is an understatement when it came to how each title appeared once the cars finally hit the track. The comparison below features the exact same forest environment across the two titles, albeit on different sections of the track, and it’s easy to see from a visual standpoint just who exactly put out the better product. Black Box went for a lush redwood forest with a fairly high contrast color palette for the road artwork – complete with unique rubber markings to display the fact that you weren’t the first to lay a patch of rubber down, while EA Seattle’s offering looks dull and washed out. The track layouts were not a strong point in Hot Pursuit 2; possibly the game’s only negative aspect, but at least you can still fire up the PlayStation 2 version of the game without wanting to gouge your eyes out.
Nostalgia has a funny way of clouding our judgement more often than not, but I’ve spent enough time with both versions of Hot Pursuit 2 at multiple points in my life to assess them in some kind of objective manner for PRC.net. Not only had each version been miles apart on a visual level, they drove in two distinct styles as well.
I obtained the EA Seattle rendition of Hot Pursuit 2 numerous times over the past fifteen years – once off the file-sharing application KaZaa not long after the title’s release, and I also was bored enough to play through the game to 100% completion on the Nintendo GameCube during New England’s decimation of the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl 39. My complaints with EA Seattle’s adaptation of Hot Pursuit 2 stem largely from the ridiculous input lag that polluted not just their PC release, but the GameCube offering as well. The controls were so sloppy and so insanely delayed, even in YouTube videos by other competent drivers, you can see them adjusting the steering mid-corner to accommodate for the complete lack of precision. Combined with a driving model that felt floaty and aproximated – to the point where even the player car appears to hover above the racing surface for brief moments – the EA Seattle version of the game sucked to play. It looked awful, and it drove like shit. If you owned an Xbox or GameCube, it was hard to believe this was an authentic Electronic Arts product.
However, the PlayStation 2 version of the product, develop by industry veterans Black Box, was a completely different story. Driving with the standard Dualshock pad, my first impressions of this game at a friend’s house way back in the day was just how tight the steering on each car was, and this fidelity wasn’t lost when selecting the Extreme handling model – something that had been left out of the EA Seattle version of the game. While the entry level vehicles offered to the player at the start of the game were still uncompelling in their own right, the medium and high tier cars really came alive when pushing them to the edge of the game’s simplistic tire model, yet there were never any scenarios where you felt the dualshock couldn’t keep up to what the game asked of you. The best way to describe it for PRC.net readers who haven’t gone this far back in the Need for Speed line of games, is that it was basically the exact same handling model as the two Underground releases, albeit with less downforce and more body roll. Sure, you had much more grip than you’d ever have in real life by a long shot, but unlike the Burnout-infused arcade racers of today, you still needed to drive the car, and if you sucked, the game made no concessions to hold your hand.
I’ve been recently playing through the Single Player campaign on the Black Box PlayStation 2 version with my aging Driving Force GT, and this is really a hidden gem when it comes to wheel compatibility for arcade racers. Unlike later Electronic Arts/EA Sports titles, which used extremely exaggerated force feedback effects to appeal to the casual audience, Hot Pursuit 2 is strangely satisfying – almost as if you took the sublime effects found in Assetto Corsa’s early access period, and simplified them as much as possible without losing their overall purpose. I’m still not in love with the track layouts found in the title, but wheeling some of the mid-range to top tier cars against an intelligent police force, and being able to feel the precise moment when you’ve dropped just one tire onto the grass, was a lot more fun than I expected it to be.
The police force in EA Seattle’s rendition of Hot Pursuit 2 were often simplistic and timid. They called road blocks, spike strips, and helicopter assistance with significantly less frequency than what was found in the PlayStation 2 version, often leading to races where the police were just sort of there in the distance, but never played an integral role in how the event progressed. Black Box chose a much different path, and made highway patrol ruthless to the point of frustration. Police were given nitro boost and insane rubber-banding to help combat talented virtual drivers; a decision that can actually be won in the player’s favor provided you hold them off long enough during each event. Helicopters do not hesitate to throw explosives at you, eventually culminating in an abundance of air-dropped spike strips that should spark the imagination of any law enforcement offers who have found their way over here. The police are a dynamic entity on the PlayStation 2; there’s significantly more unique radio chatter, their tactics are much more aggressive, and provided you’re a big enough asshole, you can temporarily take squad cars out of commission by running them off the road. Black Box created a war on wheels that defined the game, whereas EA Seattle felt squad cars should be little more than a minor distraction.
Both developers had different ideas on how to progress through the game as well. The basic outline defined by Electronic Arts required the use of a fluctuating NFS Points system, where completing Single Player campaign events and on-track maneuvers would reward the user with a form of currency that would allow them to unlock the cars and tracks they were interested in driving, rather than a linear progression that saved the best cars until the very end. EA Seattle gave a giant middle finger to the users and dispersed these points extremely slowly, to the point where insane grinding was required to acquire virtually any meaningful piece of content on the inferior version of the game – a task made even more excruciating thanks to the horrendous driving model.
Black Box had taken a much more user friendly approach and handed out NFS Points quite liberally throughout the race; awarding the user for everything from clean passes to navigating through a law enforcement road block, and as a result, the more prestigious cars and challenging tracks could be obtained through light to moderate levels of playtime. As an added bonus, those who braved the rather challenging event tree of Single Player challenges could obtain new cars and tracks without parting with any virtual currency at all, resulting in a progression balance where grinding simply didn’t happen – unlike the PC, GameCube, and Xbox versions of Hot Pursuit 2.
Across both titles, career mode had been split into two distinct sectors, essentially boiling down to Events with Cops, and Events without Cops. Unfortunately, this is where both games began to falter. The track layouts simply weren’t up to par compared to the original string of games on the Windows 98 platform, and coupled with single lap times approaching the four minute mark, even just a few races could eat up a much bigger portion of your day than you’d anticipated. Further adding to the drudge of career mode was the distinct lack of overall environments, leading to a constant repetition of certain track layout portions before you’d even gotten all that far into what Hot Pursuit 2 had to offer. I’d say the repetition is arguably worse in the superior PlayStation 2 version, as earlier this weekend I ran into a three race tournament event that had me racing on the exact same Desert Sands layout three times in a row, with the only difference being the last place car in each prior race would be eliminated.
The soundtrack may have possibly been handled by an external entity, as the same lineup of songs and artists appears across both versions of the game, down to the way each individual track had been mixed. One of the most underrated parts of Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit 2 has nothing to do with the game itself, but rather how the audio had been mixed in a uniform way. I’ve got the official soundtrack rip from the game sitting on my MP3 player, and from an audio standpoint, it seems as if Electronic Arts had obtained the rights to every master track long before Rock Band and Guitar Hero made this an industry standard practice, mixing them to achieve an identical vibe regardless of the genre. The drums are thundering, the guitars crystal clear, and the vocals are caught somewhere in the middle of it all. The combination of Rush’s One Little Victory, Pulse Ultra’s Build Your Cages, Bush’s The People That We Love, Course of Nature’s Wall of Shame, and Buzzhorn’s The Ordinary are all riffs people who’ve played Hot Pursuit 2 won’t soon forget, and most importantly, they’ll remember them as they appeared in Hot Pursuit 2 – heavy and loud.
Yet it was the Nashville-based Hot Action Cop stealing the show; Electronic Arts inserting two extremely suggestive tracks from the band’s debut album which required heavy lyrical editing to earn a spot in an E for Everyone product like Need for Speed. I promise you that the way these songs appeared in Hot Pursuit 2 are not as the rest of the world knows them, and you’re in for a pretty big surprise if you’re bored enough to look up the original lyrics. These guys are actually still around, by the way.
As the game hit store shelves, critical reception to the EA Seattle-developed Hot Pursuit 2 was lukewarm at best, with mainstream gaming publications deeming it to be a completely average racer with no outstanding qualities whatsoever. A quick google search of EA Seattle brings up a tidbit noting the studio had been closed at the end of 2002, indicating this whole idea of Electronic Arts outsourcing different versions of the game to different entities had been a colossal failure. Black Box, on the other hand, went on to be the sole developer of future Need for Speed titles – a decision which paid off immensely for Electronic Arts almost immediately, as the team struck gold for three straight years afterwards with the releases of Underground, Underground 2, and the fan-favorite Need for Speed Most Wanted – and again with the Skate franchise, which is set to return in the near future.
Electronic Arts have tried to bring back the Hot Pursuit tag in 2010, partnering with Criterion Games of Burnout fame to create a product that can be described best as “Burnout with real cars”, but it’s very possible we’ll never see a game – or development process – quite like what we saw with Hot Pursuit 2 ever again. It just didn’t work on any level whatsoever, and if you have horrible memories of Hot Pursuit 2 as an entirely forgettable game simply not worthy of the Need for Speed name, now you know why.