November 27, 2013
Drifting around a long, sweeping coastal road in Need for Speed: Rivals, behind the wheel of a roaring, tyre-screeching Ferrari 458 Spider, with cop car sirens blaring in your ears, supercars breathing down your neck and waves crashing in the distance, has to be one of the most enjoyable next-gen experiences I’ve had so far. It’s ludicrously fun.
You see, like the best arcade racing games, Need for Speed: Rivals doesn’t give a shit about realism or the laws of physics. All it cares about is making sure you’re spending most of your time going sideways at 150mph with a big, stupid smile on your face. Even after playing the game for hours and hours, and despite the relative ease at which you can pull it off, a perfectly executed high speed drift still makes my brain do a quiet little squeal of delight.
Indeed, taken alone the core of Need for Speed: Rivals, the actual racing, is difficult to pick fault with. It’s some of the stuff that surrounds it that falls short.
Here’s the setup. There are racers and there are cops, both of whom drive ridiculously powerful cars and don’t like each other much. They express this dislike by either bashing each other off the road, or blasting them to bits with upgradeable gadgets like shockwaves, mines, spike strips and the like. Players can swap between these factions whenever they fancy while completing two separate but overlapping campaigns, in a manner reminiscent of the ace Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit.
All of this takes place within Redview County, an open world comprised of visually distinct geographical areas, from the aforementioned coastal roads to leafy forests, arid deserts and icy freeways, which you are free to navigate at will. Think Need for Speed: Most Wanted and you’re almost there. But Rivals isn’t just a mash-up of the last two Need for Speed games. Not quite. It brings its own ideas to the party in the form of AllDrive.
In theory AllDrive adds a total of six real players to the mix, allowing friends and strangers to drop in and out of games smoothly, while adding to the tyre-shredding chaos of the world. Neither truly single-player nor multiplayer, nor even co-op, this is mingleplayer, the most ugly yet potentially game changing of next-gen buzzwords.
Yet AllDrive rarely works in the way it was intended. Thanks to the size of Redview County, you may occasionally encounter other real players, but unless you’re all deliberately trying to stay close, you’re more likely to randomly zip past each other while engaged in different, divergent races and challenges. You’ll only occasionally end up competing against or alongside others in a natural manner.
Even more frustrating is the lack of dedicated servers, which means you’ll be kicked out of the game and have to suffer disruptive migration every time the host decides to bugger off and do something else. It’s annoying, turning what should have been the game’s greatest strength into one of its weaker elements. Thankfully the AI drivers are plentiful and capable of providing a decent challenge, but it’s a shame when you consider what could have been.
Far better is the structure, which when it all comes together can bundle race types into one another in the most exhilarating way. If you’re a racer, for example, you might trigger a head-to-head with the press of a shoulder button, but that head-to-head attracts the attention of the police, so a pursuit race type is initiated and before you know it there’s loads of racers and cops all on one stretch of road, smashing into one another and generally having a whale of a time.
This is facilitated by some fearsome rubber banding, ensuring that everyone in a particular event is capable of catching the others up. It means that even when you crash, you’ll be back in the mix before you know it. Only the biggest of cock ups, or the complete destruction of your car, can put you in a unrecoverable position. So that’s great and it adds to the drama of each event, but it also means that you’ll often be overtaken or pipped to the post at the last minute in races, through no fault of your own.
There’s also a distinct lack of different event types across both the cop and racer careers, something which is highlighted by the way in which you progress. From the start of the game to the very end, your Speedlist will charge you with completing a checklist of challenges, all of which amount to variations on the same, limited themes. Complete a Speedlist, rank up, unlock a new car and rinse and repeat. It would all be rather dull and repetitive if it wasn’t for the quality of the actual racing.
Far more interesting is the way the XP system works for racers. Out on the road you’ll amass points by drifting and completing races, takedowns and events, all while earning multipliers for staying in one piece. The longer you remain alive, the more points you rack up and the more heat you generate, meaning that the cops will go all out to bring you down. The only way to safely bank your points is by pulling into your nearest hideout. It adds a nice element of risk and reward to proceedings, as you’ll want to constantly upgrade your weapons and purchase new, unlocked cars.
Cops, meanwhile, don’t have to bank their points and are instead rewarded for taking down racers. They don’t have to pay for their cars either, as they automatically unlock them while ranking up. Their XP is spent exclusively on gadget upgrades like roadblocks, EMP pulses and police helicopters. It’s not quite as fun but it does the job.
Which is more than can be said of the surprisingly short achievement list which blows 10 of its 25 cheevos on Racer and Cop Rank progression, while the rest are dribbled away on prosaic guff. The most interesting of the achievements are 5, 4, 3, 2, Mach 1! and Deep Down, You Know You Want To, but that’s largely because they whiff of Ford sponsorship. Stinky.
Despite all this, the quality of the racing is inescapable. This is a game that rips through gorgeously presented environments at a terrifying speed and rarely insists that you unclamp your finger from the accelerator, instead encouraging a quick dab of the breaks to initiate one of the most satisfying power slides in recent memory. On the road Need for Speed: Rivals is an absolute joy, a fact that despite the disappointments of the game that surround it will keep you coming back for more.
Engines roar with adrenaline-pumping clarity, while the soundtrack is a matter of taste. I found the relentless bombast of the licensed dance tracks painful.
There’s some lovely vistas in the game thanks to the interesting, varied environments, while the cars are all modelled accurately. It’s a pretty next-gen game, with more lighting and particle effects than you can wave a flaming Porsche at.
Throwing super cars and highly modded cop cars around long, sweeping corners and bombing down rival-filled straights while avoiding and dispatching all manner of gadgets is an absolute blast.
The headline addition, AllDrive, either actively gets in the way of your enjoyment thanks to host migration or has little to no effect on your experience at all, thanks to the fact there’s a maximum of six players in your world at one time. Disappointing.
Half a list populated with dull, uninteresting filler. Zero effort has been made on any of the achievements aside from those that involve Ford, suggesting sponsorship may have changed hands. Distasteful.
A fun, engaging arcade racer with thrills, spills, explosions and crashes aplenty, Need for Speed: Rivals is let down by the largely pointless AllDrive and a lack of race types. A mixed bag.