Need for Speed: Rivals is certainly not a bad game but it definitely is an awkward one. It is full of mechanics that are more or less copacetic towards building excitement and engaging the player, but the husk surrounding it is mostly devoid of giving reason to care about any of it.
Rivals by Ghost Games is the latest in the Need for Speed franchise and one of the few surviving racing games that still falls under the arcade banner. It follows the second Need for Speed: Most Wanted by Criterion Games, a massively likable and successful game, and manages to crib a lot of what worked for that title into its own framework.
It tells the story of cops versus racers and allows you to play both sides. The story beats are delivered to you through stitched-together bits and pieces of fake news stories and totally gnar candid footage of racers eluding cops or our boys in blue really sticking it to those hooligans.
And boy is it horrible. The writing can only be described as lousy. The words follow the prescriptive English syntax, but when it comes to the meaningful use of those words, they say no thank you and we’re taken for a ride on the Nonsense Express. It’s cheesy and overwrought and would be laughable if your forehead wasn’t so sore from every other time you’ve slapped it.
The story itself is rather…disturbing. Cops are portrayed as bullies that grew up with a desire to be armed with a badge, a gun, and healthy sense of self-righteousness. All they want is to see every street racer in the ground rather than behind bars. And racers are maniacs that view the law as some sort of foe made to be rammed into walls and blown to bits with various car weaponry. Neither side feels especially worthy or sane.
Speaking of weaponry, we are treated to quite a bit. All of these real life cars have two slots that can be equipped with things like EMPs, static mines, and turbo boosts that the game calls Pursuit Tech. They can only be used a certain number of times in total and in a span of time, but they certain do manage to add chaos when cars clump up. A single well-placed ESF can cause absolute pandemonium, and it’s just delectable.
But that rarely happens, or at least it rarely happens in any significant way. As soon as you boot up the game, you will be thrown into a multiplayer, online-connected open world unless you tell it otherwise. With up to five other human players darting around streets containing other AI drivers, you’d think there would be a lot more to do.
There isn’t. Most of your time will be spent either driving to events marked on the map or driving to hideouts and command posts so you can warp to the event markers. And when you do try to load into one where cars are driving by, it takes so long to load that they’re all long gone by the time you hit the gas. The world is just so big and the player count so small that unless you have a posse ready to roll, you’ll either be spending a lot of time with AI or convincing strangers to meet up with you. (You’re parents should have already told you that was a bad idea.)
Then when they do meet up with you, they’ll most likely be other racers instead of cops. While the potential for telling a parallel, conflicting story that informs the gameplay is great, it’s squandered on an imbalanced division of intrigue on each side because the reward for playing racer is so much greater and more enjoyable than anything the cop side has to offer.
Racers constantly ride a line of risk and reward as the longer you stay out on the road and accomplish goals and win races, you earn insane amounts of Speed Points as your multiplier goes higher and higher, which enables you to buy more upgrades and more cars faster. It’s fantastic at building up intrinsic drama at the end of each completed Speedlist item where you’re rewarded with beaucoup SP. Do you keep going for crazy gain or do you play it safe and slowly build up your stores?
Cops, however, only ever gain SP by busting and wrecking racers. They never have to buy cars but they also never get to upgrade their rides. It’s a very tepid affair where you drive around looking for a racer, flip on the cherries and berries, and then ram the rear over and over again until they stall out. Case in point: I rarely had a session with more than one human-controlled cop.
When the game all comes together as intended, though, it is quite spectacular. As player racers try to get from event to event and win unscathed, player cops will try to catch them. And during the race, players not involved in any of it will become entangled in the pursuit. It’s a fantastically chaotic thing watching two ad hoc teams collide in the middle of a snow-laden highway, smashing between walls and cars and destroying every fence in sight.
It’s all supported by stellar control. The cars handle just as you would hope, which is to say absolutely geared towards moving fast and moving forward with just enough control to let you dodge traffic, narrowly avoid traps, and pull off huge arcing drifts. Actually playing the game is a phenomenal experience, but the series has handled superbly for the past few games, to expect otherwise would be nuts.
And that’s all wrapped with a beautiful bow on top. The graphics on the PlayStation 4 version are not necessarily mind-blowing but they certainly are refined to the point of being impressive. The Frostbite Engine continues to prove its robustness at rendering floating leaves and faraway vistas. Plus, the thumping, driving house/electro beats kind make you want to drive fast anyways and slink back in your seat as you only feel the world fly past you.
But none of that fixes the problem of isolation. The underlying framework to Need for Speed: Rivals is a blast. But the core conceit of being in an online open world full of other players, racers and cops willing to both help and hinder you, is broken. Six players and no systemic impetus for interaction is not enough to make the game feel anything more than a notch above lifeless even though so much of it is just waiting to bust free.
+ Looks great, sounds great, and handles like a dream
+ When the game works, it works wonderfully
+ Being a racer is exciting and is a constant roll of the dice
– Being a cop is a rather droll, repetitive experience
– The game rarely fulfills its promise in any meaningful way
– A story full of bad writing and insane premises
Final Score: 7 out of 10
Game Review: Need for Speed: Rivals
Release: November 15, 2013
Genre: Arcade racer
Developer: Ghost Games
Available Platforms: PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3, Xbox One, Xbox 360, PC
Players: single-player offline, six players online