The racing genre of games goes back generations, dating back as far as the Atari 2600. It has stood the test of time with gamers in every subsequent system launch, and has shown up on 26 different platforms to date. Published by EA, the very first title, The Need for Speed, hit the 3D0 system in 1994 and has been a pioneer in innovation, helping to launch some of the greatest racing titles such as the Forza and Grand Turismo series.
The latest in the long lineup of games in the series is Need for Speed: Rivals, which is the first of the series on the new Playstation 4 and Xbox One consoles. Developed by Ghost Games, it centers around a never-ending street racing rivalry between cops and racers in an open world setting with tons of exotic cars to unlock and different events to partake in. But is the game any fun? The only answer I can come up with is: sometimes.
The gameplay is the real reason anyone plays a Need for Speed game; high-adrenaline racing with supercars is the name of the game. Need for Speed: Rivals takes cues from previous games, and lets you choose to be either a racer or a cop at any given time throughout the career mode. Choosing to play as a cop lets you pick from three different challenge types: Pursuit, Undercover, and Enforcer. These different types come with different styles of cars and their own objective list you need to complete in order to “rank up” and unlock better cars and progress the story. On the racer side of the career mode, you can choose to upgrade your vehicles, paint them and add decals, and change the license plate names. The differences I found between playing as a cop and racer from a story standpoint were pretty slim.
Rivals controls like any modern racing game, which isn’t a bad thing since the control scheme has been essentially perfected, but there ARE minor tweaks and additions. Throttle and Brake/Reverse is handled using the triggers, while the all-important E-brake has been delegated to the X button. The B and Y buttons are most important, however, as they are used to trigger your pursuit tech, such as your spike strips and EMP blasts. At first, I ran into some issues of pressing the wrong button to correspond with the item I wanted to use since there is no onscreen indication of which button controls which gear. After some trial and error, I found that the left tech icon is Y and the right tech icon is controlled with B. You use the left thumb stick to steer, and the right to move the camera in a full 360-degree motion around your car, which has never proved useful for me in any racing game.
The racing itself can be fast and exciting, feeling like a more-realistic version of Mario Kart as you either try and hunt down racers or escape the cops using a variety of different tools and gadgets. As you progress through the game, higher levels of tech become unlocked, thus making them far more effective at taking out the competition. My personal favorite is the spike strip; at its highest level it deploys a massive strip across the road and totally takes racers attempting escape out of commission for a period of time, allowing you to ram and smash them into submission. Other awesome weapons in your arsenal are police helicopters that you can call in to follow your target and drop spike strips, EMP blasts that will knock the engine and electrical systems of a car offline, shockwaves that blast a powerful wave at surrounding cars dealing huge damage, and roadblocks you can call in to try and stop evading opponents.
Unfortunately, when playing single player, the AI racers and cops out to take you down are often boring and predictable. After a few days of playing, it became increasingly easy to avoid capture, knowing exactly what gear to use and how to avoid the cops, and how to take down even the fastest cars. The REAL fun of Need for Speed: Rivals comes when you jump into an online session and tangle with other human cops and racers. A lot of my time with the game was spent chasing down other high-level players in their super exotic cars with two or four other players as cops and a hoard of AI cops trying to help us. The chases can last quite a long time, especially if the racer is skilled and knows the many different roads and shortcuts that are riddled throughout the open world.
These instances, while a lot of fun, grew tiresome, and it became harder and harder to find sessions with people who wanted to engage in these high-speed affairs, opting instead to do solo missions and leave as soon as they became a target. It’s these issues that really left me with a sour taste from the game overall. There are different solo missions to attempt, such as timed checkpoint races and interceptor events where you have to try and take down a group of racers before they can finish or try and finish an entire race before one of the AI cops can bust you, but these events became boring and forced, as they were usually a requirement to “rank up” and unlock a newer, faster car.
The Autolog system developed for Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit is back, which is an awesome way to track your progress throughout the game’s events, speed traps, jumps, and missions, and compare it to your friends’ who have played the game. It is a great system that has worked really well in other titles, but is useless if you aren’t playing with others who have the game as well. I was really pumped to jump in and try and beat my friends’ times and such, but even weeks after release only one other person on my friends list has played the game, which is either a sign of the popularity of the game or that others are simply playing on Xbox One and PlayStation 4 instead.
The story, if you can call it that, was uninspired as well. Cops and racers, pitted as rivals, each out to best the other. There were only a few cutscenes and short dialogue to drive the story forward. You were always met with the same thing: choose a list of things to accomplish (such as getting gold in a race or getting big points in a driving session), and just like that you can unlock the next car and move on. The story had very little substance, and felt like something thrown together to try and give players a reason to keep going other than to get a sweet new car.
Visually, the game looks great. Cars are all modeled to match their real-life counterparts, and a dynamic night/day cycle and weather system keeps things fresh as you cruise around. The damage to the cars and environment is very detailed too on the Xbox 360, which makes me even more excited to see how it runs on the Xbox One or PS4. Playing through the racer career gives you some cool customization effects for your cars; new paint and decals make them pop and stand out among the crowd. The music has some fantastic beats that are droned out with the sound of engines roaring, tires screeching, and police scanner chatter giving information about recent racer sightings or cop locations. Rivals does a good job on immersing you in your surroundings as soon as you hit the pavement.
All in all, Need for Speed: Rivals has some great moments. If you surround yourself with a group of friends who have the game and enjoy playing it, you can spend tons of time beating their scores or just chasing down the best racers in the world online. If not, the weak story, repetitive missions and events, and a boring and lackluster AI might become too much for you to want to keep coming back.
This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of Need for Speed: Rivals. The game is also available for the PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC.