A deep dive into the tech behind the remaster.
As we draw closer and closer to the launch dates for the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X, we’re seeing a number of “swan song” titles from major franchises, likely the last numbered entries to release on eighth-gen platforms. Some of the games like Watch Dogs: Legion are pushing visuals and gameplay forward, while compromising on performance and image quality, even on the mid-gen consoles.
With Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit Remastered, EA has seemingly flicked a thumb at the nose of ninth-gen console fans by releasing this eighth-gen only title on November 6th, less than a week before the PlayStation 5 comes out. We have no news yet about enhanced versions for the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X, though some kind of update is more than likely.
But what exactly are gamers getting on November 6th? Let’s take a look.
A look at 2010’s Hot Pursuit
Considering that the 2020 remaster is based on one of the seventh-generation’s seminal racing titles, it makes sense to go back and take a look at the technology underpinning the original 2010 Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit.
Hot Pursuit was, itself, a reimagining of 2002’s Need for Speed III: Hot Pursuit. After the Need for Speed franchise dove deep into story and open world complexity with the likes of Need for Speed Underground, Hot Pursuit was something of a return to roots. The features an open world environment, four times larger than the one in Criterion’s previous outing Burnout Paradise. However, gameplay placed a much stronger emphasis on the interplay between police interceptors and racers, with two separate career modes for each.
Hot Pursuit is built on a heavily enhanced version of Criterion’s Burnout Paradise engine, designed around a more expansive, wide open environments, a refined physics model, with deferred lighting for the environment and image-based rendering for cars. By targeting a 30 FPS update, unlike the 60 FPS experience in Burnout Paradise, Criterion was able to push the visuals out there, one of the reasons why Hot Pursuit holds up so well, even today.
The image-based rendering for vehicles, in particular, is a standout feature. In Hot Pursuit, the environment around the cars is rendered first. The cars themselves are introduced in a separate rendering pass. This allows for lighting, shading, and reflections on cars to be based on the surrounding environment, significantly enhancing realism.
In terms of image quality, the game delivered this high level of visual fidelity at a locked 720p, with 2x MSAA, no less, on seventh gen consoles. This is a remarkable state of affairs, considering how low resolutions dropped towards the latter end of the seventh generation. If we had to pick a single multi-platform seventh-gen title that’d hold up in a 2020 remaster without too much of an asset rework, it’d probably be Hot Pursuit. But what does that mean today, in terms of the 2020 remaster? How much work has Stellar Entertainment put into it? And how does it hold up relative to contemporary titles? This is where things get a bit disappointing.
Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit 2020 – a performance-oriented retouch
We’ve seen some phenomenal remaster work this console generation, starting with Rockstar giving Grand Theft Auto 5 the next-gen treatment. Saint’s Row 3 Remastered was another example, with physically-based rendering and a new lighting model completely transforming the game’s aesthetic.
Unfortunately, Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit doesn’t appear to do any of those things. There’s a reason the game has been able to target 4K/60 FPS on the Xbox One X and PlayStation 4. That’s because this is, at heart, a seventh-gen title with a light coat of paint on top.
Model quality: the biggest improvement
Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit always made great looking cars a priority, with the separate image-based rendering system for car lighting built to ensure that cars are in top form. If there’s one positive about the Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit Remaster, it’s that the cars receive an extra lick of paint: model quality and polygon counts are up, even compared to the maxed out PC original. It’s not a radical improvement. Model quality is still very much in line with seventh gen titles, with the cars themselves not that far off from what we see in late gen titles like Forza Horizon 2. PC gamers looking for any kind of measurable improvement over the original, will likely see it here.
Draw distances: pushing things out further
Unlike Burnout Paradise, Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit takes place in a more expansive, rural environment. This means that draw distances can have a measurable impact on overall quality. While the original was praised for its environmental rendering, remaster dev Stellar Entertainment has dialled things up a notch or two here. Grass, buildings, electricity posts, and Hot Pursuit’s many, many trees render much further out into the distance. This complements the higher resolution output on the mid-gen refresh consoles. At the original game’s 720p output on seventh gen consoles, there weren’t quite enough pixels onscreen to make extreme distant detail properly visible. This is, of course, a moot point at 4K.
Enhanced Transparencies and reflections
High quality alpha effects for smoke and fog render at a higher resolution than in the original game, scaling nicely with the higher resolution output on consoles. Enhanced reflections do justice to the image-based lighting system used for the cars, bringing environmental reflections into much sharper focus. Again, these are minor touches, but they contribute to a more refined experience overall.
Resolution and framerate
Although the consoles versions aren’t the focus and we are not showing any console footage in this video, we just wanted quick give away some information about them.
The biggest improvements console gamers will see with the 2020 Hot Pursuit remaster are in terms of resolution and framerate. Arguably, the PC version of the game has always supported higher resolutions and framerates, so this is nothing new for the Remaster’s PC outing. However, gamers on the Xbox One X and PlayStation 4 Pro are in for a 9x improvement to render resolution which is 4K and 30fps, or a 2x boost to resolution coupled with a doubled framerate which is 1080p and 60fps. Apparently, only the PC version supports 4K/60 FPS output. This is somewhat puzzling considering how well a number of last-gen remasters have run on PS4 Pro and Xbox One X. Regardless, console gamers who want a performance option will have access to a 1080p/60 FPS mode on the enhanced consoles.
Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit Remastered only runs at 1080p/30 FPS on the base PS4 and Xbox One. It’s hard to see a reason, apart from a lack of optimisation efforts, as to why this last-gen title runs at such a poor target on the base consoles. A 1080p/60 mode, even one using dynamic resolution scaling would have been far more preferable. As it stands, base Xbox One and PlayStation 4 owners are getting a bump to resolution from 720p to 1080p, the other added enhancements and… well, that’s about it.
This late into the console generation, we expected a bit more, even if Hot Pursuit Remastered isn’t a new game entirely. The overall experience holds up well, but that’s mostly down to the fact that Criterion’s original 2010 game was far ahead of the curve in terms of visuals and the gameplay experience. 10 years later, slightly enhanced LODs and model quality don’t seem like this is a compelling remaster from a technical perspective.