Now in its twentieth title Need for Speed is a franchise that’s been around the block. With each passing year comes a new title (sometimes even two) each one different from the previous, rarely falling into numbered sequel territory. In the recent years there’s been an almost constant changeover of developer with four of the last five in the series coming from different studios.
The latest instalment, Rivals, is by Ghost Games for whom this is their debut game. Made up of a large portion of Criterion Games staff (the studio behind both Most Wanted and Hot Pursuit) the pressure was on for Ghosts to deliver a quality Need for Speed title and keep the franchise’s recent resurgence alive – and boy, did they deliver.
Rivals is, most simply put, a maturer version of Burnout Paradise. The open-world, high-octane racer has many similarities with the critically acclaimed 2008 title; although Criterion’s craft had a more playful tone – with online challenges and a stunt mode – Rivals’ has the same free-roaming joyous result.
With a plethora of exotic cars you speed around the fictional location of Redview County in a fast, furious and frenetic racer that offers huge reward for huge risk. Everything you do earns you SP (the game’s currency) which can be used to purchase cars and pursuit tech. It is not a game to play it safe and take the easy route as you drift around corners at 200mph or throw yourself carefree from the top of a bridge under-construction. Smashing your car to pieces is beautiful (aside from the occasions that the physics engine goes haywire) but detrimental to achieving your goals.
Fork in the road
Split into two similar but importantly different modes you can select, and switch on the fly, the career of a Rival or that of a Cop. The way each control is identical – with wonderful precision and effortless enjoyment – however, the polarity lies in the subtly of the way you play. Cops are inherently about taking down those pesky street racers, with the occasional time trial thrown in, whilst Rivals are about racing, fleeing the cops, performing huge jumps and other high-speed activities.
Progression is measured through the completion of Speedlists: a predefined selection of goals that increase in difficulty as you move up through the ranks. You get a choice of three for each rank and each career path: Race, Pursuit and Drive for Rivals; Patrol, Enforcer and Undercover for Cops.
Each of the three presents a varying set of tasks tailored to that particular style. You don’t have to always pick the same one, so if you prefer to just drive around and complete associated goals then you’re free to do so and be safe in the knowledge that, if you want to test your mettle against others, you can simply change.
There’s a plot intertwined within the Speedlists as the game is separated into chapters but it never does anything noteworthy or mentionable, acting as padding to an otherwise tremendous racer. I wouldn’t want to Rivals to drop its attempt at a narrative but it does little to engage but does add a smidge of weight to your actions.
Kickstart my Heart
The best of racers are always known to push the boundaries of graphical fidelity and Rivals is no different. One of the first racers on the next-generation platforms, and the first on the PlayStation 4, Ghosts Games have set the bar high with a truly gorgeous outing that constantly wows with stunning vehicles, vibrant and diverse locales, and a dynamic weather system that takes things to another level. When the storm comes overhead and the lighting crackles in the sky it is a wonderful moment to witness.
Let Me Ride
Meant to “destroy the line between single and multiplayer” AllDrive, the game’s new social system, aimed at creating a seamless transition from playing alone to playing with friends. It manages to achieve this… to a degree. Rivals is in essence and multiplayer game with a single player option. AllDrive does destroy the line between the two modes but not in the right way. Again, without wanting to harp on about similarities, the Easy Drive system implemented in Burnout Paradise was the ideal system for seamlessly bridging the gap between single and multiplayer. AllDrive attempts to address this by bringing you into multiplayer and then letting you go at it solo if you want to – a system that is backwards for a game that can be experienced fully offline.
Where AllDrive does excel however is promoting play with others – whether they be friends or otherwise. Simply by driving around with other players, whether they be on the same career as you or not, you gain multipliers to your SP helping you earn them that much faster.
Personally I feel that AllDrive helps define the two careers more effectively as well. Though both can be played equally well solo or with others, the Cop mode is more suited to playing on your own than the Rivals mode. I found that when playing alone I progressed through my Cop career and then when friends were also playing that I veered for Rivals.
With AllDrive you can also partake in the same events if you wish; though if not then other players can dramatically influence proceedings. Given that up to eight players can share a single map your actions in any given place will impact events that happen to cross paths with your location. Whether on purpose or by accident it’s possible to intersect races and cause exhilarating head-on moments where a crash could end your chances of gold.
This seemed like it may become frustrating but given the short length of the events (few are more than three minutes) it isn’t too much to give it another go. If it is something that you don’t like, then you can set AllDrive to a single player session.
Highway to Hell
Where Rivals excels is in its gameplay. Controls are tight and responsive, drifting feels simple yet makes you feel like a wizard, the balance between pursuit tech – which includes a hard-hitting Electrostatic Field, a mid-ranged EMP, a Jammer to disable nearby tech, a disabling Stun Mine, a stinging Spike Strip and more – and the amount of health your vehicle has, and the variety of play styles as a result of vastly differing cars all contribute to this magnificent racer.
As mentioned early, Rivals is about the risk and reward – a feature that is only really present in the Rivals mode, which subsequently makes it the most enjoyable. As you complete tasks, whether they be events, Speedlist items or just drifting or gaining air time, you are awarded SP. In order to keep your SP as a Rival you must bank your total at one of the hideouts throughout the game, but by doing so you’ll reset any multiplier you may have had. This is where the risk and reward lies; stay out for longer and earn more and more SP as time goes on, or risk being wrecked or busted and lost the lot.
The additional kicker is that as your multiplier increases as does your heat level – this determines how many of the AI cops are after you. So not only is it beneficial for you to survive for longer, but it’s made considerably harder to do so. On the flip side, Cops keep any SP they earn but are rewarded considerably more for higher heat racers that they bust.
Finding repair shops to fix your vehicle up when damage is critical becomes vital and an absolute thrill – though if you fail, it becomes an overwhelming annoyance. It rarely feels as though it’s the games fault though; when I wrecked it was usually due to my over ambition or indecision.
Whether you successfully reach a hideout or command post, wreck your car in a blaze of glory, or succumb to the busting of the police Rivals main bugbear raises its head. Loading. There is tons of it. Once in a session you are free of waiting with events starting at their locations in-world, it’s the bits in-between that languish with frustratingly long periods of lingering.
There are some faults with AllDrive and the lack of variety and inventiveness in the Speedlists means that the game can become a tad monotonous after a while. However, Rivals does so much expertly that it’s easy to overlook these drawbacks when engaged in a terrific pursuit. It’s a fantastic debut from Ghost Games and one that has me eager to see what they do next.