Reviews

Need for Speed: Rivals – Review

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Platforms: Xbox 360, Xbox One, PS3, PS4 and PC
Reviewed On: Xbox 360
Publisher: EA
Developer: Ghosts
Singleplayer: Yes
Multiplayer: Yes

Need for Speed: Rivals is an amalgamation of 2010′s brilliant Hot Pursuit and 2012′s Most Wanted, which is hardly surprising given that the development team, Ghosts, is composed of people who worked on both games. It’s an open-world racer where you can choose to be a cop upholding the law or a racer with an emphasis on speed, powersliding and online play. It does the first two things well, and third not so much, but regardless it’s damn good fun.

Unusually for a racing game Need for Speed: Rivals attempts to create a backstory for its action, each chapter heralding an overly dramatic monologue that details the continuing war between the racers and police force. In a way I commend the developers for actually attempting to provide a storyline for their game, something which most racing developers don’t bother with these days, and I still have the belief that a racing title could potentially tell a fun narrative, but the problem is that it takes itself far too seriously, almost venturing into philosophical realms as it talks about the freedom of racing and the actors utter dark, brooding lines. Because it takes itself so seriously, it makes me view it with a serious eye as well, and of course as soon as you do that the entire thing just crumbles into dust. The biggest problem is that both sides of the fence – the racers and the police – are, frankly, dicks. The racers blab about their freedom to do what they want, all while putting everyone else’s live’s at risk, while the cops babble about how civilians need them and couldn’t do without them, all while being just as bad as the people they’re chasing.

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The strange fact of the matter is that this could have actually been an enjoyable tale as it deals with police crossing the line, employing more and more force and eventually becoming no better than those they chase. Had the writers been allowed to they could have created a script in which we get a simple examination of the police force in our own world and the controversial methods they often employ, obviously kept to a minimum so as not to get in the way of the actual racing. As it stands, though, you’ll probably just skip through each cutscene and get on with the driving.

Playing as a racer there’s a clever risk vs reward mechanic in place, as outrunning cops, completing events and generally just behaving like a pillock builds up your multiplier which in turn vastly increases the amount of Speed Points (money) rolling in. The catch is that if you get busted or simply manage to wipe yourself out both your multiplier and all the credits you had vanish into the mists of time, so in order to bank them you must head back to a hideout. Your hard-earned credits can then be used to purchase new cars, install pursuit tech and grab a few performance upgrades. It’s a simple yet highly clever mechanic, constantly making you choose between heading home or risking it all out on the roads for a few more points. Banking several hundred thousand in a single run is a great feeling, but it’s nothing compared to losing it all to one tenacious cop car. It creates a sense of tension rarely seen within the racing genre which makes every escape and narrow shave feel like a substantial victory.

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As a racer the events you can take part in are naturally more focused on outright speed than the more destruction orientated police. Races and Time Trials are self-explanatory, testing your driving skills with police only becoming involved if there just happens to be a patrol car on the piece of tarmac your event is taking place on. Meanwhile Interceptor events task you with escaping from the fuzz as quickly as possible, be it through sheer speed or heavy use of pursuit tech to destroy your pursuer. Hot Pursuit is arguably the highlight, though, tasking you with racing against several opponents while you’re all pursued by numerous police cars. It’s fast and frenzied fun that makes use great use of the handling, mayhem and gadgetry.

The downside to being a racer is that you’ll often feel harassed by the police because they earn a far bigger bounty for taking down racers with high heat. As a result it’s possible to find yourself swarmed by police  almost constantly, and while this can be great fun, other times it can be annoying if you really just want to get on with things in order to progress the story. Regardless, though, playing as a racer is a far more interesting and exciting experience than that of a cop. Sure, plowing into a racer’s car sirens blazing is a blast, but escaping the fuzz feels far more rewarding and the heat rating multiplayer is a wonderful tension creating tool.

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As a copper your primary roll is to enforce the law, which apparently boils down entirely to driving like a god damn maniac, killing innocents in huge head-on collisions and ramming racers off the road, all while driving really expensive cars. While completing events is a nice method of acquiring credits your best source of income is to bust those pesky racers, since, as mentioned, taking down those with a high heat can net you big money. Generally speaking as a cop you won’t rake in as much cash as when you’re a racer, but then the police don’t have to buy their cars and there’ no performance upgrades to purchase, either, leaving only Pursuit Tech to spend credits on. Each time you unlock a new car you’re given the choice of three variances of it: the Undercover model can get close to racers without them noticing, while the Enforcer can pack more powerful tech. These differences need to be more clearly highlighted, however.

When out hunting those pesky speeding law-breakers you’ve also got a couple of event types to partake in. Rapid Response is essentially a time trial under the guise of reaching a location at speed to help out a fellow officer, while Interceptor pits you against a single racer who you must smash to pieces. Hot Pursuit is you and a few other coppers taking down every member of a race before they cross the finishing line.

Of course we can’t talk about a racing game without mentioning the car selection, and hot damn does Rivals really impress. The selection isn’t as vast as you’d see in Forza or the like but everything here is worth it, ranging from Porsche to Ferrari, all of which sound fantastic with savage engines. Each side also has a unique selection, with only the Aston Martin Vanquish being available to both.

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As is the trend at the moment Rivals attempts to blend both its singleplayer and multiplayer components into a cohesive whole. You share the open world with up to five other players, able to challenge them to races, hunt them down and partake in events together while still also being able to do things by yourself, either by blankly ignoring the other players or by heading into the options and switching over to singleplayer mode rather than letting the game automatically connect you upon starting. Aside from other players the world is also inhabited by AI racers and cops, and like your fellow gamers you can simply drive up to them and tap LB to challenge them to a head-to-head race or smash into them to start a pursuit.  Long stretches of straight highways designed for high-powered cars gives way to rolling hills and twisting climbs where agility rules supreme, creating an immensely pleasurable driving experience. This is a world deftly designed by the developers to suit Rivals brand of manic racing.

Criminally for a game with such a clear and almost forceful focus on playing with others Rivals does almost nothing to actually bring you and your fellow gamers together. Unless you’ve got a group of friends with which to play you’ll most likely end up on a server filled with people just trying to go around their business, completing events and goals in order to progress through the storyline. Sure, chases will occur on occasion, but the shortage of players within the world means that you’ll never happen to run into others as much as one would probably like and really there’s nothing going on to get anyone involved in the action. Coordinating a race requires you to get on the microphone and persuade everyone else to drive across the map to your location or use the fast-travel, but if just one or two people are looking to simply get on with their career then it can feel a bit pointless. After just a few hours of play I realised that your essentially inhabiting a world all of your own which only occasionally intersects with others, despite having 5 other players roaming around. Of course to a degree this is a fault of the players themselves and of the gaming community as a whole, but the developers clearly have a long way to go in understanding how to bring players together in the manner they’ve envisioned. There needs to be a way of either ditching the open-world and simply search for races and events, or of quickly setting up a group activity that others can join at the touch of a button.  More importantly 6-players simply doesn’t feel like enough people for a world of this size, cutting down the opportunities for emergent gameplay.

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Rivals also doesn’t seem to entirely grasp or embrace the concept of an open-world and what makes it work. The world is a decent size and blasting around the many roads is fun initially, but after just a few hours I began to question the existence of it all, wondering if I wouldn’t have preferred it had the developers spent the time creating many varied and well designed tracks instead. The reasons for this are simple: after a fairly short period of time you’ll be familiar with almost all of the roads, and aside from jumps there’s nothing to discover while roaming about. Speed traps and zones which measure your average speed between two points allow you to compete with friends on the fly, but it’s nothing something likely to hold your attention for that long.  Had there been more players driving around the environment then the open world would have been much more fun, but at the moment it just feels…empty. Lifeless. And without the depth of a game like Forza exhibits in its handling simply driving for pleasure isn’t hugely entertaining, as Rivals handling model needs the frantic mayhem of a pursuit or race to come alive.

In truth the developers just don’t seem to comprehend what makes an online open-world game tick correctly, and what we’re left with as a result is  a shadow of what it could have been. It’s like they were under the same impression that I’ve seen other developers fall under, the idea that by simply having an open world your game is immediately better, and sadly that just isn’t the case. Likewise while the concept of a merged singleplayer/multiplayer experience is likely the future, that doesn’t mean developers should simply do it under the impression the game will be automatically awesome. It just doesn’t come together in Rivals.

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At least the actual racing is still bloody good, mind. Like Hot Pursuit before it Rivals favors expensive,exotic cars and powersliding around corners in a beautiful example of why arcade racing is so much fun. Cars have a sense of weight to them when you’re just driving around normally that can briefly fool you into thinking that Rivals is actually aiming for a semi-realistic  handling model, but as soon as you tap the brake coming into a corner the rear-end steps out and you can keep the finger on the throttle almost the entire time, only letting off for minor adjustments in angle. It’s like a modern version of Outrun. There’s not a whole lot of skill involved, but it does lead to plenty of awesome moments like sliding between oncoming cars and weaving through packs of racers like a lunatic. Crashing into other cars feels brutal and savage, and thus playing as a cop smashing through the opposition feels good, but for pure satisfaction it’s hard to beat evading numerous police cars as a racer, sliding and spinning around them in a haze of tyre smoke. Simply said Rivals handles exceptionally.

Regardless of which side of the fence your on you’ll have access to Pursuit Tech, fancy gear that can be bought and equipped which essentially acts like power-ups from a kart game, but without the trouble of having to snag them on-track from floating boxes first. Weapons like EMPs, shockwaves, roadblocks, spike strips and helicopter support are all at your disposal, with two slot available per car. While the weapons themselves aren’t exactly memorable they are pretty fun to use and are well balanced between both sides, adding a bit of spice to the already exciting racing.

Progression through the game is handled by the completion of Speedlists, sets of various objectives that gently herd you around the different events, encouraging you to get a Silver or Gold in a race, bust a certain amount of racers, patrol a set distance, smash into cars or use your pursuit tech. While the lists get longer and a touch more complex as the game goes on they’re rarely ever time-consuming, choosing to instead provide bite-sized chunks of objectives that won’t take you long to complete with the reward of a new card awaiting. With the thought of a new set of wheels as a prize and the quickfire pace it’s easy to feel like you’re really making headway even after just 30-minutes of playing, while giving you three sets of objectives to choose from at a time lets you pick a method of progression that fits in with your favored style of playing. The only shame is that the developers didn’t implement optional speedlists that make use of the multiplayer, like tasking you with taking down another player, winning a straight-up head-to-head race or wrecking a cop.

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Even on now last-gen technology Need for Speed: Rivals looks mighty impressive, boasting  a high level of detail and a strong color palette making for a striking racer. Cars gleam and look beautiful, and the world features a couple of different styles of environment that blend neatly together. Dynamic weather also plays a part with storms rolling in across the landscape, soaking the roads as lightning creates a dramatic tableau to your racing. There’s a couple of hitches along the way, but in general this is an outstanding looking game.

The camera angle can be a bit of a problem, however, as it sits quite low and can obstruct your view of oncoming traffic in certain situations, especially when coming over the crest of a hill, for example. But a far larger issue is that host migration often plagued my time with the game, forcing me to wait a few minutes for a new host to be selected, and in the process losing me several events due to the AI apparently being able to carry on racing while I stared at a static screen. I also lost progress a few times due to these unexpected drops. The worst example of this came when I had built up around 400,000 credits as a racer, deftly dodging all that attempted to halt my meteoric rise to pure awesomeness when suddenly the session lost connection. When the game had finally selected a suitable host I got back into the game only to discover that I had been reset to square one. Yay.

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Other things also point to a general lack of polish and thought, such as how the GPS system doesn’t reroute you to another Repair Shop or hideout should you get closer to it. This isn’t a huge problem if your just casually driving around, but if you’re in a pursuit and desperately need a repair or to scamper into a hidey-hole it’s a little daft. The GPS also doesn’t tell you if the other player you set a route to has entered a Hideout/Police HQ, so you could drive miles to find nobody there. Bring up the list of players using the  EasyDrive drop-down menu and it doesn’t tell you who is a racer and who is a cop, nor how close any of them are to you, further making it awkward to play together. Likewise the menu doesn’t tell you how close events are until you actually select them. These sorts of things don’t ruin your experience, but they’re niggles in a game already struggling to reach its own potential, and serve only to further hold it back.

The final negative I’d like to raise before finishing this review is that the game’s perception of damage can sometimes be strange. There would be times when I’d slam into a racer or cop head-on only for them to take no damage, or I’d hit them for a certain angle and while the impact was clearly heavy they’d drive away with nary a millimetre removed from their health bar. Again, this isn’t a huge problem, but can be a frustrating one, especially in a tough event where it comes right down to the wire and you slam into them, only to find it had no effect.

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When everything magically comes together Need for Speed: Rivals makes a strong case for blending singleplayer with multiplayer. The racing itself is intense and exciting, and blasting around with friends and even random people is great fun, but ultimately it struggles to come together often enough. There needs to be at least a few more players within the world and far more emphasise on bringing them together for this to succeed as a true blending. But those problems can’t overshadow just how fun the game even when you’re only up against the notably quite challenging AI racers and cops, simply enjoying the open road and the great handling.

The Good:
+ Ace handling model.
+ Looks great.
+ When it all comes together it’s amazing.

The Bad:
– Dropping sessions.
– Multiplayer aspects of the game don’t come together properly.
– Needs more players.

The Verdict: 4/5 – Great.
Though the singleplayer and multiplayer don’t blend as well as the developers intended that doesn’t negate the powersliding brilliance and fun that comes of it.

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