Need for Speed may be one of the longest-running yearly-release franchises, but it’s far from stagnant. Each new release has, for the most part, been drastically different from the last. Just over the past few years, the series has gone from arcadey police-chases, to somewhat-serious simulation, to story-driven racer, to an open-world exploration game. But this year’s entry, Rivals, bares quite a few similarities to last year’s Most Wanted. “An open-world street racer with an emphasis on police chases” would act as an ample description for either title. That said, the side of the chase on which you’ll want to be on in Rivals is entirely different.
The rivalry the game’s title references is that between the Police and the Illegal Street Racers. As such, you can play through both a Cop career, and a Street Racer Career. Careers are broken up into chapters, and chapters are typically made-up of several “Speed-Lists”, which are just lists of objectives you’ll need to complete to progress. The game’s actual story could hardly be described as such, it does nothing more than to add a bit of context to why you’re completing the objectives you are, but it does take itself seriously to hilarious results. The Cop talks like a grizzled war-vet on the brink of taking-down a terrorist organization (the Racers), while the Racer talks as if he’s some sort of freedom-fighter that society “needs”. While it may not be compelling, some of the ridiculous straight-face dialog may at least inspire a cackle or two.
As a cop, it’s your duty to keep the many winding roads of Redview County free of Street-Racing hooligans by any means necessary. You can equip yourself with a wide-range of Mario Kart-esque “Pursuit Tech” gadgets that will assist you in your enforcement of the law; be it a spike strip that is deployed from the back of your car, or a devastating “Shock Ram”.
There are three primary activities you can take part in as a Cop; Rapid Responses (a point-to-point race against the clock), Hot Pursuits (in which you chase and attempt to “bust” a group of five racers along a set path) and Interceptions (a timed chase between yourself and one racer who you need to “bust”). Points at which you can activate these attractions are generously scattered across the game’s huge open-world, but there are also a handful of things to do while driving in-between them.
For one, every time you encounter one of those dastardly AI Racers (which Redview is full of), you can initiate a chase by turning on your enforcement vehicle’s sirens. Additionally, there are speed-cameras strewn all about Review County’s streets; passing through these quickly not only nets you a few in-game “Speed Points”, but the speed at which you pass through the various cameras will be posted on a leaderboard along with your friends’. The same goes for the game’s many jumps, only jump-distance is measured rather than speed. Completing any activity in the game grants you a number of “Speed Points” that you can spend on unlocking vehicles, upgrades, or more powerful Pursuit Tech.
Chasing-down Street Racers as a Cop is incredibly satisfying; and though there are only a handful of activities, they remain compelling long after the credits roll. Playing a Racer, however, is a different story entirely.
After completing the Cop career, I was excited to get on the other side of the chase; taking on the role of the hunted, rather than the hunter. I was expecting being chased to be just as exciting as chasing was. It turns out, though, that it’s just sort of silly. The Cop AI isn’t particularly smart; they’ll regularly speed through their own road-blocks that are fixed with spike-strips, and often crash into each other. What they lack in intelligence, though, they make up for somewhat in numbers. As a Racer, simply driving near a Cop’s car will inspire what must be a majority of the Redfield County’s police force to come chasing after you; and they’re incredibly aggressive. At one point, I was moving toward an intersection while being chased by what must have been five police cars. As I passed through said-intersection, about three cops rushed-in from the left, while one sped-in from the right. They were clearly attempting to crash into me, but instead they took-out their buddies who were trailing behind me, which allowed me to speed away easily. While moments like that can be fun to watch play-out, it isn’t terribly satisfying to escape when it feels like the game is unintentionally doing most of the work for you.
Racers have access to the exact same activities as the Cops, only they’re, of course, experienced from the Racer’s perspective. Although unlike the Cops, they can take part in Races. Races are basically the same as Hot Pursuits, but you don’t automatically have the attention of the police through the entire race. Also — an alternative to chases — you can challenge any AI Racer you encounter to a Head-To-Head race that will somewhat impressively start, and plot a race from wherever you are on the map. Unfortunately, though, a great racing experience Need for Speed: Rivals is not. If you decide to take-part in Hot Pursuits or Races, there’s no traditional “3…2…1…GO”-style starting-line. You engage the race, control is taken-away from you, and your AI opponents speed ahead of you. Then from a complete stop, you have to catch up to them. While presentation-wise this is slicker than a traditional race set-up would be, it makes the game’s races feel more like chases. Catching-up to your opponents normally isn’t too tricky, as there’s a fair amount of rubber-banding going on, but the more difficultly-rated races can prove frustrating, as your opponents are more difficult to catch-up to, and it doesn’t feel like you’ve received a fair start. Also, chances are you’re going to be chased by the police while racing. Although they aren’t smart, they’re a wildcard, and thus they further skew any possibilities for a strictly skill-decided race.
Head-To-Head races are the closest thing you can find to a fair race, but even they’re a bit off. If you’re driving adjacent to the racer you’re challenging, there’s a chance the actual race will continue along the road you’re taking, or it may plot the race in the opposite direction. However, if you try to challenge a Racer who’s headed in a different direction than you, the race will immediately begin and be plotted in the direction they’re going.
Impressively enough, though, if you’re connected to the internet, by default the game’s open-world houses you along with up to five other human players in “All-Drive” mode. At any point in the game, you can challenge a fellow human Racer to a Head-to-Head race, or as a Cop you can decide to chase-down a human Racer. While Head-to-Head races can still be unpredictably plotted in multiplayer, chases are infinitely more entertaining when both participants know what they’re doing. Unfortunately, though, the game’s map is so huge that ending up near another player is a pretty rare occurrence. Additionally, All-Drive games are player-hosted. So whenever a host disconnects, the game halts for several seconds while the hosting duty migrates. This isn’t a particularly bad thing in itself, but how it handles you being in the middle of an activity is frustrating. At one point, my objective was to earn a gold medal in a Hard-difficulty race. I managed to get past my AI opponents, but just when I was on the final stretch, hosts began to migrate. I figured it would just resume from where I was, which wouldn’t have been a big deal, but instead it did what it does at the beginning of a race, only from where I was: directly in-front of the finish line. It said “Race starting”, control was taken from me, and all of my AI competitors sped through the finish line only seconds after I regained control.
Another reality that spawns from All-Dive mode is that because the whole game was crafted with multiplayer in-mind, there’s no way to pause the game; even if you’re system isn’t connected to the internet. As a Cop this never causes issue – if you have to leave your game for a second you can just pull-over and you’ll be fine. But after I switched-over to playing a racer, I at one point had to walk away and do something for a minute, so I pulled over, and didn’t think much of it. But as I walked back into the room, I saw that several AI police cars had been repeatedly crashing into me, and as a result, I was “Busted”.
There is a way to halt the action, though, and that is to make a stop at either the Racer’s Hideout, or the Cop’s Headquarters. Both of these locations are what Bonfires are to the Souls series in that going to them the only way to “pause” the game. In Rivals, though, it’s also the only way to keep your Speed-Points safe. Whenever you earn Speed-Points, they always remain on your person (car?). When you either crash your car into an unusable state, or are busted by the cops, you lose all of your Speed-Points. But you can “bank” them at either kind of sanctuary for later use.
Need for Speed: Rivals is an incredible over-aggressive-traffic-cop-simulator, complete with a beautifully-rendered open-world, fun activities, that offers great arcade-style controls. All that said, it’s a poor racing game thanks not to controls or vehicle handling, but to odd design decisions. Its online component can cause frustration, and isn’t quite as “big” as it needs to be, but if you’re looking to chase-down some baddies, Rivals is the game for you.
Version Reviewed: PS4