Hot Pursuit goes back to the Need for Speed series' roots and takes on the gameplay style of earlier "Hot Pursuit" titles in the Need for Speed franchise with exotic cars and high-speed police chases. It is primarily inspired by the original Need for Speed on 3DO. Hot Pursuit lets players be either a cop or a racer and features a full career mode for both roles. The relationship between the cops and racers is described as "a dog chasing down a rabbit", with the cops being more powerful compared to the racers. Each side has several power-ups including calling for roadblocks and radar jamming.
The game takes place in fictional location known as Seacrest County. It's an open world and features over 100 miles (160 km) of open road, four times larger than that of Burnout Paradise, Criterion's previous title. According to Criterion is the single-player section, somewhere between 12–15 hours long, but with lots of replay value.
Hot Pursuit also features a new social interaction system called "Autolog" described as "Facebook for the game". The game features both single-player and multiplayer game modes with up to eight players; as an option to live multiplayer racing, players can post records and achievements on the Autolog feed for friends to see, which they then can try to beat. Autolog also contains an experience system called "Bounty". Players can also add custom soundtracks to the game.
The driving model of the game is described as "fun and accessible", not as arcade-styled as Burnout Paradise, but far from a simulator. All vehicles in Hot Pursuit are licensed real-world cars and SUVs, described as "all the cars you dreamed of driving, in the way you dreamed of driving them". Most vehicles are available in both racer and police variants, but a few are exclusive to each side. Also exclusively featured in the Hot Pursuit is the Porsche 918 Spyder. Ferrari however, last seen in a Shift DLC-pack but notably absent from all other Need for Speed games since Hot Pursuit 2, is also absent from Hot Pursuit.