Need For Speed: Rivals Review
Sony PlayStation 4Also available on Microsoft Xbox 360, PC and Sony PlayStation 3
Ferraris. Ferraris are back in the Need for Speed series for the first time proper (aside from some XBox exclusive DLC in 2009) in eleven years. This is all you really need to know. Now go and buy the game. Play, race and enjoy it. Oh, you want more do you? Let’s dive a little deeper then, shall we?
Need for Speed: Rivals is the latest twitch-racer from Electronic Arts, following on from last year’s Most Wanted. The Need for Speed franchise has been around for twenty years now but much of the noughties saw forgettable entries from various studios until EA tasked their leading racing light - Criterion Games - with reviving the series and taking it back to its roots in 2010. That year saw the release of Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit, a return to the series’ staples of fast cars, police chases and just stunningly good arcade racing. This year Criterion has handed over to Ghost Games. In-between Hot Pursuit and Most Wanted we had The Run from EA Black Box and whilst it looked as pretty as the games it was bookended by, it didn’t match the exhilaration and total enjoyment of Criterion’s propositions.
The reason all of this background is important is because we need to ask the question as to whether Ghost can match Criterion’s executional skills. The simple answer is that yes, they can do - very much so. It helps of course that Ghost Games is built with a sizeable proportion of ex-Criterion employees as that studio downsized, enabling Ghost to grow. It shows. Rivals looks and feels very much like a Criterion title. Using the Frostbite 3 engine we are treated to a stunningly realised 1080p title on PS4, one which looks and flows wonderfully despite the fact it’s restricted to thirty frames per second. The overall aesthetic is helped by lovingly realised car models - including the aforementioned Ferraris, day and night cycles, weather cycles and more. The weather changes and details surrounding it are perhaps the most impressive. As you drive around Redview County you’ll move from cities to deserts to snow-capped mountains and back through forests. You are at one moment driving through a dust storm and out into a gorgeous sun-soaked highway in your convertible supercar, when you then head through a forest and out into hills showered with torrential rain, at which point your convertible’s roof is put back on automatically. A good job too as you’ll soon be in a snowstorm and driving over ice. The sheer quality and variety of environments is wonderful and really makes the world a living and breathing character in the game that never fails to make you smile. Even after hours with the game, when we looked up from a race to see leaves and trees blowing around us, we were seeing something new. The sound is also massively impressive. Different for each car but always loud and exhilarating it is an important part of the game, although not quite on par with last year’s Most Wanted which delivered benchmark sound for an arcade racer as exemplified when driving through a tunnel. That impact and wow moment just doesn’t present itself here.
The gameplay itself is split into two, whereby you have the option to build a career as a racer, or a cop. Both can be swapped between at will and is encouraged as each narrative is entwined with the other, so flip-flopping between the two provides the truest path through the content. Whichever career you choose to begin with, you’ll be asked to pick a Speedlist - typically one from three - where each provides a differently focussed challenge. As a racer it might offer the option to race, and win race events, drive a certain speed and so on; an alternative might encourage aggression whereby you need to land four hits with your tech and total two cops. The choice is yours depending on preference and, in some cases, the reward.
As you progress through the racer career you obtain Speed Points and rank up. Ranking up unlocks a specific vehicle - the variant of which is dictated by the Speedlist you choose - which you can buy using your accrued Speed points, or in-game XP, basically. The SP are also required to load a car out with essential tech as seen in Hot Pursuit, for example an EMP or a Turbo boost. The thing about the racer career is that you’re always having to manage your session in terms of risk and reward. The risk is that the longer you go on, the more SP you accrue and the more illegal driving you execute, the higher your heat level and the more the police are after you. If they bust you, all your SP are gone. However as your heat level rises, so does your multiplier so the SP come thicker and faster. What do you do, hotshot?
There are plenty of strategies to enable greater reward. You have obviously chosen the very fastest vehicle you can afford, and you can drive all over Redview. Maybe you’ll just escape the twelve cop cars and helicopter? If not, be sure to look out for repair stops to make sure you don’t destroy your car and get busted that way. You might just attack all the cops with your tech and your car itself. But if all is lost, you’ll have to enter the nearest hideout, end that session and bank the SP. The Cop career is a little different in that SP you accrue are needed only for the pursuit tech as the cars are freely available once unlocked.
Both careers are as enjoyable as each other in terms of the actual racing. The handling of the cars is as wonderful as it ever was in Criterion’s efforts, with each vehicle driving true to its vision. Ferraris are fast and powerful and loud and easy to manoeuvre. The Ford GT is a great big and heavy beast with insane power but a back end which you don’t want to lose when instigating a drift. Drifting is imperious here and it’s a shame there aren’t the winding corkscrew environments as in previous titles to really make the most of the fun afforded by the mechanic. At least it means employing drift in high-speed pursuits is an exact art, not one where you need to worry if it’ll work properly. You can get it right most of the time - and always it’s your fault if it fails - and ensure the chase isn’t given up.
The police career is the more enjoyable overall, though. Whilst each allows you to do time trials or race-type events alongside all the other things you might need to do to complete a Speedlist - such as drift one thousand metres or drive over 176 mph - the police career is more in your control. You are the law so you have the rights to do whatever you want. Heading towards a specific event using your GPS and you see a racer go past you? You can enter a pursuit if you want, or leave them be. As a racer you have no such rights. Therefore if all you want to do is head to that Gold event in order to complete your Speedlist, the police may have other ideas. Quite often the police who have other ideas are real people, and of course they want to total you - if they do, your lost SP are awarded to them as a reward.
Rivals, you see, introduces AllDrive to the world, an upgrade on Autolog. Autolog still remains in situ ensuring that at every speed camera, race event and more your friend’s times and scores are communicated to you at every corner, ready for you to note, ignore or challenge immediately. But AllDrive means that as default you are always online and in a multiplayer game. That means the racer you challenge to a head to head when playing as a racer might be real; that policeman who busted you could be in Singapore. A wonderful idea made a little less so by the usual issues with online gameplay. Often you find yourself in a game with a bunch of friends playing and chatting and you just want to focus on the SP but get no respite from the game they’re playing. They might be loud and in your ear, or they might just not be happy that you have joined their game. It’s not your fault - it’s all done automatically by the game. You can set it to always spawn you in your own gameworld and limit other players to AI only, or friends. In truth that’s the preference and as such AllDrive loses a lot of its value unless you and a sizeable group of friends buy the game with the intent of multiple and long driving sessions together.
Perhaps the biggest disappointment of the game lies in the fact you’re restricted to the structure the game provides. Yes you can choose a Speedlist that suits your style and if you struggle you can easily change to another one, meaning you’re unlikely to ever hit a wall. But you’ll find yourself longing for the chance to just free roam around the county trying out a variety of races or time trials depending on what takes your fancy. You can do this, of course, but that doesn’t bring with it any real progression. You get the SP and if you happen to complete what’s on your Speedlist you do rank up and move the game forwards but you’ll be forced into your hideout more quickly than hoped because of the damned cops. Unless you’re in a cop career, but then a race event isn’t pure; you’re hunting the racers down. Basically, the glorious openworld and fantastic twitch-handling makes you long for Burnout Paradise, just as every Need for Speed game does.
Ferraris. That’s where we came in. We said that's all you really needed to know about the game and that you should just go and play it. Having now shared various other thoughts, that recommendation still holds. It is wonderful to be able to race Ferraris around the gorgeous game map - as well as many other cars - and you’re doing so within a structured, enjoyable game with fantastic handling, a super sense of speed (but not quite on a par with the very best) and the very on-the-edge mechanics which underpin this twitch racer. Unfortunately what keeps this title from hitting the heady heights it had the potential to reach are significant factors, like the forced end of racer sessions or impossible free roam type approach to the game. It also doesn’t feel like the fastest thing ever. So a very good racing game, rather than a great one. Nevertheless it does make you long for Ghost Games’ next attempt at Need for Speed.