The Need For Speed series has been around since the mid 90’s. Despite its age, it has largely gone without a defining identity for the majority of that time. That’s what happens when you build a series almost entirely around spinoffs, as Need For Speed has not seen a proper numbered installment since 1998’s Need For Speed III: Hot Pursuit (which may only get partial credit, since Hot Pursuit has arguably been the main title among the spinoffs over the years). Ever since then, the Need For Speed name has never gone unaccompanied by a thematic subtitle, like ProStreet, Carbon, Undercover, or more recently, The Run. Each of these games have their own concepts with their own conventions and mechanics, yet still somehow work together to headline the “too cumbersome to be arcade, too over-the-top to be simulation” style of Action Racing.
With two consoles launching this month, the accompanying Need For Speed installment is likely to get an unusually high level of attention, as launch titles are wont to do. This is especially true on the PlayStation 4, which saw its own headlining racing game, DriveClub, tumble down the calendar into 2014. So does Need For Speed Rivals capitalize on its opportunity to take center stage? Read on.
What Is It?
Not to be confused with a similarly named PSP launch title, Need For Speed Rivals is an open-world event racer built around the “Cops against Racers” theme that has been played with off and on throughout the series. Both sides feature their own separate storylines and structure, taking place in the fictional Red View County, which may not size up all too favorably against other past open-world racing games, but still gives you plenty of variety in the weather and terrain it offers up. As you would expect, whichever faction you’re playing as determines both the types of events you can enter and the types of cars you can drive. The game allows you to switch seamlessly from one campaign to the other from any hideout (Racers) or command post (Cops) at your own discretion. Whichever side you’re playing as, you’ll be assigned checklists that you must complete to advance through the game’s storyline. These can be simple tasks like reaching a certain speed or accomplishing certain actions on the road, or particular assignments like winning specific types of events or utilizing your car’s equipped weapons, or “Pursuit Tech”, effectively.
As a Racer, you will set out into Red View County looking to beat other racers in head-to-head races through arbitrarily charted routes, all while avoiding the Red View PD to the best of your ability. You also enter a variety of events by pulling up to various areas on the map and confirming your participation. Races are your simplest events, where you join a small handful of other drivers in a point-to-point race. You can also do time trials, which offer up speed points (Rivals’ currency) for getting to your destination within a certain timeframe. More specialized events include Interceptor, which gives you a limited amount of time to shake the police, and Hot Pursuit, which is a race that injects a few cops into the mix for added chaos. The problem is that it’s nearly impossible to get through any event without attracting the attention of the rozzers, and if that happens, you’re still stuck running from them after the event regardless of the result. To make matters worse, there’s no pause. This forces you to make for one of the many hideouts on the map to “bank” the speed points from your outing, lest you crash out or get busted and lose it all. This fits well with the game’s theme, but can often add an undue sense of urgency that can prevent you from enjoying some facets of the game (such as how amazing it looks on the new systems) as much as you might like.
Without the constant threat of hostility from other drivers, you’ll have it a bit easier playing as a cop. Head-to-head races are replaced by pursuits, where you spot a Racer on the road and start your attempt at taking them down, either by making contact with their car, hitting them with Pursuit Tech, or simply turning on your siren before trying to crash them outright. Rapid Response is essentially a time trial for cops, and you can also take part in Hot Pursuits from the cop’s perspective, which judges you by how many racers you manage to bring down before they reach the finish line.
Why Should I Care?
Starting at E3 and leading up to the launches, EA and developer Ghost Games have been hyping Rivals as one of the first games to really take advantage of the connected nature of the new consoles. The idea is that players can enter each others’ games via events in progress, removing the line between single player and multiplayer entirely. The reality isn’t nearly as snazzy, turning Red View County into one gigantic six-player lobby and leaving players to their own devices until they should cross paths, either by chance or by actively seeking one another out on the GPS. This also means that the entire game has to re-situate itself every time the host disconnects to go play something else or watch The Simpsons. It can still be quite fun if you have a good number of friends playing the game, but if you’re stuck playing public games (which Rivals defaults to), you can quickly find yourself wondering what’s the point.
Despite the conceptual hiccup, as noted before, Rivals does manage to land itself on the list of games you can buy for your freshly launched console to show off the brand new hardware. It would be nice if it did a better job of getting out of its own way at times so you could fully enjoy its gorgeous visuals, but the aesthetic quality is absolutely there for players looking for that in particular, with the art direction having been inspired by “a force of nature”, according to the developers. (ProTip: If you want to rush straight to your “this is why I bought a new console” moment, spend some quality time on the eastern end of Red View County where the weather effects are most prominent.)
Need For Speed’s trademark sense of speed is certainly present here, leaving you feeling as though you’re barely hanging on while trying to take the winding roads of Red View County as fast as you possibly can. As compelling as it can be, sometimes the exaggeration is a bit much, with the camera becoming needlessly shaky at high speeds, and some awkward camera angles in third-person all but guaranteeing a crash when you’re traversing particularly hilly terrain. There’s a dash cam as well, but in 2013, especially on brand new consoles, not having a cockpit view is outright inexcusable, as it would make the game far more playable than it is with either of the two options provided.
What Makes It Worth My Time And Money?
In the end, Need For Speed Rivals is a good if unremarkable game aimed almost exclusively at the series’ established audience, and thus fails to capitalize on the opportunity to grow its player base with the attention that a major launch game tends to get. This is especially tragic in the case of the PlayStation 4 version, as there will be some inevitable audience spillover from the delayed DriveClub, who will ultimately get little out of Rivals other than wishing they were playing DriveClub instead.
Questionable design choices and frustrating moments aside, if taken for what it is, Rivals is still a fun game worthy of at least a look from early PS4 or Xbox One buyers, even if it’s not something most of them are likely to come back to in a month or two. It handles decently, provides some genuinely satisfying moments, and definitely makes your new consoles look really good.