It’s hard to believe, but the Need for Speed franchise is celebrating twenty installments with the arrival of Need for Speed Rivals. The illustrious series has had its ups and downs over the years, but in recent times it has really found its feet.
Need for Speed Rivals was developed by the new (Need for Speed dedicated) studio Ghost Games, with support from racing powerhouse Criterion Studios - the brains behind Burnout Paradise - and boy does it show. This is great news for gamers who are interested in a racer that takes itself less seriously than the more conservative Forza Motorsport series, for example, and as a result Rivals will appeal to motorheads and casual racers alike.
In Need for Speed Rivals, the police have been brought into the fold in a meaningful way, thanks to the inclusion of two separate campaigns. You alternate between playing as a local Police officer (either undercover or highway patrol - whichever you prefer), and illegal street racer. It’s a stretch to really call these modes a “career”, because the story is sparse and largely uninteresting, but they are both very unique and require a different playing style to be successful.
With regard to the setting of Need for Speed Rivals, it’s a wonderful open world with a diverse landscape of coastal and inland roads. The coast is dramatic and windswept, and this has been captured well. It’s not huge, but it’s very much fit for purpose. Traffic is pretty sparse, but given the speed and that there is no lack of cops trying to take you down or other racers trying to edge ahead, this is a good thing.
The career mode guides you through various challenges and rewards you by levelling up and unlocking new rides. Goals such as side-slamming racers, rear ending someone, or using your Pursuit Tech (weapons) are just some of those you'll encounter. Some new cars will come easily, while others you will really have to work for. The rides to unlock include some amazing vehicles from Ferrari, Porsche, Audi, BMW, Chevrolet, and more. It’s not a huge list, excluding the Police range - but that’s not what Need for Speed is about.
A great feature of the career mode is simply that the cars you're unlocking aren’t necessarily always better, so at times you might rather invest your coins in upgrading your current ride than cast it aside for something new. You won’t just be tweaking performance; Police and racers both have a bunch of upgradeable Pursuit Tech weapons installed in their vehicles which you can use while out on the road to take down other cars.
In the Police career don’t expect other drivers to pull over when you put your lights on - Need for Speed Rivals is about trading paint, and hard-hitting body slams. Using Pursuit Tech effectively is key to being a successful racer, but it's even more important when getting crucial takedowns as a cop. If you are racing as an undercover cop, you can blend with other racers until the opportune moment and then shut them down; you'll also get some support from the AI controlled Police force.
Pursuit Tech examples include the Electrostatic Field (which shuts down another racer's power) and the Shockwave (which blasts nearby cars into the barrier). Upgrades improve their impact, but they do need to be applied with some skill; timing and placement is everything. A total of eleven weapons means there is a fair bit of diversity on offer.
Need for Speed Rivals uses something called "Speed Points" as currency. Speed Points are earned for almost any action - powersliding, driving into on-coming traffic, using Pursuit Tech, destroying other racers, and - of course - winning events.
As a racer, you increase your wanted level (which doubles as a points multiplier) as time passes, which means the longer you stay active in the open world without returning to your garage, the more points you earn.
The Police, however, are onto this, and - as you increase your multiplier - they crank up their efforts to take you out. Get taken out, and you'll lose all of your unbanked Speed Points. This mechanic is a great way to add intensity to the game, and the “just one more race” mentality takes over as you put more and more at risk.
The world is well designed with shortcuts and alternative routes, which is easy enough to follow visually. Graphically, it looks great, and the frame-rate runs smoothly for the most part, with 30 frames-per-second having been the goal across all platforms. For current-gen the developers have done well to eke every inch of power out of the Xbox 360. The dynamic weather system changes things up from time to time, which adds a spark of unpredictability.
Gameplay is true Need for Speed style - arcade to the core. You can easily drift corners simply by tweaking the accelerator and the brake in combination - something that would have been impossible in a realistic simulation. I’m okay with that, because it’s just so damn awesome. It really makes Need for Speed a viable pick-up-and-play racer, but it still has the depth to satisfy those that want a bit more.
One of the newest - and possibly biggest - features of Need for Speed Rivals is the AllDrive feature. AllDrive allows you to seamlessly transition from a totally singleplayer experience to full-on multiplayer. Every time you play (while connected) you're launched into an online instance in which five other players are also racing around on the same map. You can opt out, but why would you? Each can do their own thing, only occasionally bumping into each other. Otherwise, someone playing as a cop can decide he wants to mix things up as you grease past him doing 200+km/h and engage in a chase.
While I love the idea, and I think it’s great to have a more living open world, the player cap is set at six - far too small a number to really feel immersively multiplayer on a map of this scale. I also did encounter some significant frame-rate and lag issues on occasion, possibly depending on who I was connected to as host, which made the game crawl at one stage for over a minute, which makes me wonder if the experience might be better on next-gen consoles.
Need for Speed Rivals is undoubtedly an impressive effort from Ghost Games. Creating an immersive open world racer with two distinct careers, and the even more ambitious AllDrive feature wouldn’t have been easy, and overall it works very well. The small player cap is disappointing in this day and age, but AllDrive shows real potential. The frame-rate issues I encountered were a downer on an otherwise impressive arcade racing game.