Like any good racer, the Need for Speed franchise never stops moving. They've come a long way since the early '90s, though the last few years' releases have been more about refinement of the formula than anything else, moving more towards an open world structure.
The latest in the franchise, Need for Speed: Rivals, takes a big step by going all-in on one mode that combines a single-player campaign with online multiplayer. The rest -- including the cops, the cars, and the crashing -- stay the same. In a sense, they've made it so players can jump in and go fast without having to worry about the details.
And it's all the better for it.
Need for Speed: Rivals (PS4 [reviewed], PS3, Xbox One, Xbox 360, PC)
Developer: Ghost Games
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Release: November 15, 2013 for PS4, November 19 for Xbox 360, PS3
Need for Speed: Rivals is an open-world racing sandbox that you're free to do whatever you'd like in. Sure, there's a single-player progression and a light story to follow, but that stuff really doesn't matter in the long run. It's all about going fast and doing what you want as either a racer or a cop, speeding around in a big, crazy racing world.
When you boil this game's structure down, it's a series of checklists to complete. While that might not sound exciting, it works pretty well as a way to keep players engaged. Since Rivals lets you play as either a cop or a racer, there are branching paths to follow to work your way up through the progression. Along the way you're free to take on any of the branches, called Speed Lists, picking the objectives you'd prefer to tackle, or the ones that suit your racing style best. Completing items from these Speed Lists will earn you Speed Points, which can be used to buy and upgrade your cars, while completing the Speed Lists themselves will unlock more cars.
Rivals goes light on the customization. Beyond the basic paint job and trim customization, progressions that add to a car's speed, acceleration, control, and durability are also available. The only true customization comes from Rivals' Pursuit Tech, which lets you add offensive abilities to your cars. Shockwaves, EMP blasts, jammers and more can be equipped in the two available slots of each car. Each of the Pursuit Tech types also has an upgrade progression.
For the racer side of the game, the Speed Lists focus on either racing, driving, or messing with the cops. For the most part, by picking carefully, I found that I could avoid the challenges I didn't care for -- like the interceptor cop chases -- sticking to the fun ones that had me jumping off ramps for distance, or bashing other cars off the road. There are points where the progression forces one objective on all of the paths, though these cases are rare. For the most part, the constantly evolving stream of challenges keeps things fresh, though I found that after I had tried most of the challenge types, it started to feel more like a grind.
It works the same way on the cop side, giving the choice to patrol or enforce with challenge types that are more in line with what a cop with a super-fast sports car might do to uphold traffic laws. While taking down racers with sirens screaming is always fun, some of the challenges, like the "go-fast-but-don't-mess-up" Rapid Response mission are somewhat boring in comparison.
Need for Speed: Rivals' AllDrive mode has you playing your races alongside the rest of the world, effectively mixing single-player and multiplayer experiences together. Every time the game is loaded, you're logged into EA's servers. Other players will show up in your game, and you're free to challenge them in races. Through Autolog, friends' race times and other records are also tracked and compared as you race, adding another competitive layer.
Between the story progression, the speed lists, and AllDrive, you're never at a loss for what to do next. You can keep your head down and keep to yourself if you'd like, but I found that openly engaging other racers makes for a much better time. As nicely done as Rivals' open world is, it wouldn't be nearly as exciting without real racers zipping around you as you try to run from the cops. For the most part, it gets rid of its predecessors' scripted races and messy multiplayer, giving you action that feels more real. AllDrive is the real deal, and it makes for some pretty lively gameplay.
As great as the open world and its always-online connectivity are, there are a few speed bumps in Rivals' game balance. While the cop campaign is mostly problem free, racers' patience will be tried with some supremely frustrating design choices. While both cops and racers earn Speed Points for completing challenges, racers are always at risk of losing their earnings at any time. Cop busts or full wrecks will drain all of a racer's earnings; the only way to ensure keeping these points is to race to a hideout to 'bank' earnings before being busted.
There are multiple issues here. First off, the more Speed Points a racer earns, the higher their point multiplier goes, letting them increase earnings exponentially if they're daring enough. But, with this multiplier increase comes a heat level increase, which means that the cops are more likely to attack. And, with faster cars, the heat level starts out higher.
By the middle of the racer campaign, you're certain to have cops on you at all times, and there is no break or breathing room. Even if you're flying at over 200 miles per hour with nitrous flaming out the back of your car, the cops are on you, coming from all directions, plowing at you at any given opportunity. Chances are you will be busted, and you will lose all of your Speed Points. Since Speed Points earnings are tied directly to the acquisition of new cars and their upgrades, you're essentially losing your progress with each bust.
There were sessions of play where I was being busted six times an hour, which means that aside from Speed List challenge checkmarks, I was literally spinning my wheels, going nowhere. In the later levels cops are so aggressive that the game's open-world sense of freedom is completely drained. Cars can be pulled over for not moving at all, first off -- that's ridiculous.
I had points where I had pulled my car near hideout after barely breaking free from multiple attacks, mashing L1 to make sure I'd be able to bank my Speed Points, only to find the cops flying at me from every angle, coming out of nowhere to bust me before the game even registered my button presses. I streamed a couple of these sessions via PS4 last week, and my viewers got a kick out of me losing my mind over Speed Point losses. I didn't think it was funny at all.
There are a couple of other design holdouts from Most Wanted that they still need to fix. When you need to set a waypoint most -- during a pursuit where you're in danger of losing all of your Speed Points -- Rivals' conveniences no longer feel convenient. You can use either the EasyDrive mini menu by tapping the d-pad, or the overworld map, by pushing the Option button. Either has you taking your eyes off the road when you should be going full speed. With no way to stop and look, you're going to either crash or get busted. There's nothing even close to a pause button.
The mini-map is pathetically small, poorly placed, and barely usable. Just like with Most Wanted, it's too far away from the action in the bottom left corner to look at, which means you'll have to take your eyes off the road to know where to go. Doing so at 200 miles per hour never ends well -- and with that kind of speed you're actually out-driving the map! The colored path lines are slow to appear anyway, but at that speed they appear far too late. Worst of all, the range the map displays is too restricted, leaving you unsure of what's ahead until its too late. Ghost Games have added street-level graphical indicators to help guide you in the right direction, but they're hard to see, and they still don't give enough of a clear view of where you need to be going.
That all said, I want to thank Ghost Games for dialing back the crash animations. In Most Wanted, they lasted so long that it felt like the game was making fun of you for losing, and were sometimes so disorienting that I had to look away. In Rivals, they're big and flashy, but not drawn out.
Need for Speed: Rivals looks great on the PS4, though there's nothing inherently next-gen about it. It looks like a souped up current-gen title with added areas of polish. All of the cars are shiny and highly detailed, and the day-night cycles and weather changes are impressive. Ghost Games' California-inspired world, Redvies, is particularly lovely in its desert areas. Again, no complaints, but I can't wait to see what a ground-up built, next-gen Need for Speed will look like.
My only gripes on Rivals' presentation are the story elements and their narration. The tutorial narrator sounds bored or annoyed, which does little to get you excited about the race. The story itself is nonsensical, and the cutscenes are so silly that you'll likely end up skipping them. But the voice bits assigned to each level's Speed List are so bad that you might get some enjoyment out of them in that unintentionally funny kind of way. It sounds like some dope with a nose cold trying to mock designer cologne commercial one-liners. "Fate is out there. Somewhere," one says.
Rivals crashed on me a few times, with one crash so bad that the PS4 asked me to send a crash report. Twice, when trying to use the PS4's Share button to upload clips, the game crashed and closed out on its own, losing my progress. Another time, in checking the map during a race, I was kicked out of the game. A few graphical glitches also popped up in the distance, though they were nothing major.
Even with the balance issues and design missteps, Need for Speed: Rivals is a blast. Literally. Plowing into cops to watch them explode off the side of the road as you zip by is never not fun. So is blasting them with EMP to watch them flip in the air. And through AllDrive's connectivity, I loved being able to race up alongside someone and mash L1 to instantly challenge them to a head-to-head showdown. Ramping jumps, drift contests, dodging speed traps -- it's all a blast. There's simply too much fun to be had here to get hung up on the gripes.
Just be sure to take breaks when playing the racer campaign, as the grind, and the suicidal cops can wear on you.
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