Need for Speed is what I like to call EA’s most well known “hot-potato” franchise. Every few years it jumps to a new developer--from EA’s own Black Box, to former Burnout developer Criterion Games, to a short stint with Slightly Mad Studios. Ghost Games, the latest inheritors of the NFS series, may not have reinvented the wheel while making this year’s white-knuckle racer, but it has equipped Need for Speed: Rivals with all the right parts to make it a serviceable--and enjoyable--game.
You won’t find ample engine customizations screens here, but you will get to enjoy some slick, easy-to-pick-up controls and one of the most populated environments you’ll ever see in a racing game--a good thing, considering it features an expansive open world. Taking place in the California Coast-inspired county of Redview, Rivals has dozens of events, races, and rivals (Need for Speed’s name for other lawless racers) scattered across its stunning landscape. This all works to its advantage; I enjoyed always having something different to see and do each time I got behind the wheel.
The simple act of driving around is a blast. You’ll drift around bends with a pull of the e-brake, careen off half-hidden jumps, fly through speed traps, and ultimately enjoy every minutia of the overloaded landscape. Need for Speed fans: Redview could potentially be your Skyrim. It’s a world stuck in a constant state of change with events popping up where you least expect them, and the returning Autolog feature making it hard to call it quits when there's just one more challenge to attempt. Just don’t hit pause. A world this full of interwoven events slows down for no one--even those who need a bathroom break.
Thanks to EA’s powerful Frostbite 3 engine, ever-changing weather and lighting patterns help make each race feel different, even ones that reside in areas of the world you've already explored. But don’t think weather will always work in your favor. A rainstorm may mean the difference between first and last in a race, and a harsh bit of sunlight may make you wreck where you otherwise wouldn’t. This touch of real-life racing may irritate some, but I found it to be one of Rivals more endearing surprises.
When it comes to stellar collision detection, however, Rivals doesn't deliver. Where Burnout made the rush of speed and crunching impacts between cars feel like cartoonish fun, Rivals’ inconsistent crashes will undoubtedly infuriate you, especially during pursuits. What I thought to be a debilitating blow to an opposing car, the game considered nothing more than a paint scratch. It’s wonderful when it occurs in reverse and you send a racer reeling into the guardrail with a small tap, but it quickly becomes irritating when it doesn't work in your favor.
While I didn’t get a chance to check it out much myself (hooray underpopulated servers!), Rivals’ new All-Drive mechanic is a sort of MMO/racing game mash-up that pushes online friends and random players into your world, creating a on-the-fly competitive and/or cooperative experience. Ghost Games claims it’s a seamless transition from single- to multiplayer sessions and back, but for the time being it’s just one claim that remains to be seen. We'll update this review once some fellow racers join the fray.
Like its predecessors Hot Pursuit and Most Wanted, Rivals is divided into two equally lengthy campaigns: cops and racers. Becoming one of Redview’s most wanted is pretty standard fare and feels mostly like an open-world version of Hot Pursuit. You’re given assignments that range from winning gold in a race to taking down other racers in a chase, and while these are a great way to familiarize players with everything in Rivals' spacious world, they do little to keep the game feeling fresh after a few hours.
As it turns out, speeding after criminals through Redview's streets as a cop hardly feels any different. Sure, there are plenty of paths for taking down countless unnamed racers, and busting bad guys is a blast for a while, but it all starts to feel a bit stale as the hours roll by. Win a gold medal in a pursuit, place second or better in a Rapid Response mission--the objectives of Redview's RCPD hardly differ from that of the city's illegal racers (save for the whole arresting thing), which feels like a missed opportunity for something more interesting.
Regardless of which faction you choose to play, completing the various assignments nets you massive amounts of Speed Points, a form of spendable currency that can be put towards cars and upgrades. The tension created by the risk of missing out on or losing that currency adds excitement to each assignment, even when the various options become overly familiar.
As a racer, your points are always on the line--if you get busted by the cops before you cash-in at one of the many safe houses scattered across Redview, you’ll lose everything you’ve (illegally) earned. And remember: Pursuits can happen anytime, anywhere. If you’re not ready, Redview’s RCPD will get the best of you. While playing as the police, you won't have to worry about losing points you've already gained--but miss that big bust, and your income will take a hit. It's just a shame speed points aren't quite as valuable as they initially seem, though, as I rarely felt the need to upgrade to a new car when I could just as easily achieve gold ratings by using an upgraded version of the introductory auto.
Still, that disappointment won't sully your experience for long. With an impressive open world that's a blast to explore, and some enjoyable--if not repetitive--missions, Need for Speed Rivals sets the bar for what next-gen racing games. It's fast, it's fun, and while its paintjob is marred by a few scuff marks, it's a worthwhile offering for would-be street racers. Let’s just hope developer Ghost Games decides to keep the potato for a little while.
This game was reviewed on PS4.