Over the years, Need for Speed suffered the indignity of being carted around to multiple developers, all trying to take it in multiple directions all at once, as it tried to survive EA’s incessant annualization. After the Need for Speed Underground series was a breakout hit in the PS2 era, and its follow up games continued with the same general level of critical and commercial success, the series lost the magic somewhere in the transition to the HD era, with games like The Run, ProStreet, and Undercover all delivering increasingly mediocre products.
Thank goodness for Criterion Games, the custodians of the Burnout franchise, who were handed the reins to Need for Speed in 2011; their game, Hot Pursuit, breathed new life into the series, something that continued with last year’s Most Wanted. And so when EA announced that for the next game in the series, a new studio would be given charge, everyone wrote it off: studio changes were all too common for this franchise, and they almost always had ended disastrously. Plus Need for Speed had been bad more often than it had been good, and there was generally no reason to suspect that the new game would turn out anything more than mediocre.
"Rivals is structured pretty much exactly like Most Wanted and Hot Pursuit: it's set in an open world, and there are races and other events involving cars at high speeds. There are cops waiting to bust the racers, there are high speed, thrilling pursuits."
Pre-conceived notions can be a powerful thing. They can completely color your view on a product or on an experience, before you even try it. I went into Need for Speed Rivals expecting a style over substance approach, a game that would just make me bemoan the lost glory days of Need for Speed Underground.
I was wrong. Need for Speed Rivals is amazing.
Rivals is structured pretty much exactly like Most Wanted and Hot Pursuit: it’s set in an open world, and there are races and other events involving cars at high speeds. There are cops waiting to bust the racers, there are high speed, thrilling pursuits. There are new cars to buy, and in a nod to the Underground games, there are minor car customizations that you can access. There’s a story that’s told, but really, it’s kind of pointless to even think about it, and I’m not even sure that it takes itself seriously after a while. Mostly, it’s about speeding through the world in search of one event after another.
"In introducing Speed Points, however, Rivals introduces some asymmetry to the game design, and it's probably the first indication that you're meant to play the racer's perspective more than the cops'."
Again, like previous games, you can choose to play as a cop or a racer, and there are full fledged campaigns for both sides (although as always, the racer story is significantly better and more fun). You travel around the world map, go to events marked out, initiate them, engage in races, if you’re a racer; as a cop, you look for racers to bust. There’s a surprising amount of variety in the sheer number of objectives that you get (even more so considering that this is after all a racing game), and though you won’t necessarily like everything on offer, you will at least appreciate what the game has to offer; and thanks to how the game is structured, it is entirely possible to not even participate in any kinds of events that you don’t want to participate in, except for maybe once or twice when it might be necessary for progression.
Rivals, however, introduces a twist to this more or less established Need for Speed progression formula by introducing Speed Points. Speed Points are essentially multipliers for your winnings, and the more points you get, the higher your winnings will be. In introducing Speed Points, however, Rivals introduces some asymmetry to the game design, and it’s probably the first indication that you’re meant to play the racer’s perspective more than the cops’.
You see, if you get busted by cops, you lose your speed points. It’s back to zero. Reset. The only way to stock them up is to store them at a safehouse, which means you need to escape the cops and get to a hiding place, fast. The sheer thrill of finishing a race with the cops hot at your tail, and then weaving in and out of traffic, and through the streets. Speed Points actually mean something as a racer, because there is always the risk of losing them, and the risk:reward ratio means they are hard fought, hard earned, and therefore more valued. There is no such risk as a cop, and that just makes progression plain, standard, and just not as fun or thrilling.
"Another neat twist that Rivals introduces to the long standing formula is its AllDrive feature, which simultaneously addresses the issue of the open worlds in the previous NFS games being empty and isolated (and as a result, paradoxically claustrophobic), and which makes the best case yet for persistent online connectivity."
Of course, Rivals tries to make up for this by giving the cops some serious firepower in taking racers down: we’re talking about all sorts of fancy toys here, those that range from grounded and with real world analogs to wildly implausible and hilariously over the top; on the other hand, racers get to tune their car, make it faster and better, make it look any way they want via a suite of customization tools that id disappointingly limited.
Another neat twist that Rivals introduces to the long standing formula is its AllDrive feature, which simultaneously addresses the issue of the open worlds in the previous NFS games being empty and isolated (and as a result, paradoxically claustrophobic), and which makes the best case yet for persistent online connectivity. In Need for Speed Rivals, the online and offline modes are effectually mixed; you’re always connected, and even as you zip around the world, trying to make your way to that time trial you’ve simply been unable to beat for ages now, you can see other, real players speeding through the map.
If you want, you can engage these ‘Rivals’ to a race (or any other kind of challenge, really); if not, just watch them go by and continue doing whatever you are doing. Nothing is forced on you, and if you’re the kind who prefers more passive kinds of social interactions, you get to compare their best times and other stats, so you just have a target to work against.
It really does add to the open world in more ways than one- it’s a real place now, actually full of illegal racing, and you can see them zip by, even as you are trying to outrun the cops. Not only can you see them, you can go up to them and you can interact with them. It lends to this immaculately constructed open world, giving it even more of a sense of authenticity.
"As great as the graphics are, the sound design is not. Don't get me wrong, the cars sound great, but I severely dislike the constant chit chat and the selection of music."
Speaking of the open world, it looks great. It’s clear that EA’s intent with this game was to push the franchise on to the new consoles, but the game seems to more than hold its own on the current gen consoles. It looks fast and zippy on the Xbox 360, with the general sense of speed being enough to smooth out any of the technical imperfections the graphics might have; only once did I run into some bad framerate drops that impeded my experience, but apart from that, what technical imperfections exist are few in number, and can be safely ignored.
As great as the graphics are, the sound design is not. Don’t get me wrong, the cars sound great, but I severely dislike the constant chit chat and the selection of music. I guess this has always been a ‘hallmark’ of the series, but it seems more unbearable now than it did back in the PS2 days.
Need for Speed Rivals is not the perfect Need for Speed game: it still lacks the full fledged customization that made the Underground series stand out so much, the cops’ side of the story isn’t as fun to play as the racers’ side, and there are other minor annoyances as well. But it is the best this franchise has been in a very long time, the most fun and the most thrills that it has to offer this side of NFS: Underground. I’m not willing to hand it the mantel of my favorite Need for Speed game just yet, but damn, the series is off to a wonderful start in this new generation.
This game was reviewed on the Xbox 360.
The same Need for Speed formula that's so familiar, perfected and polished; the Speed Points system adds an incredible amount of tension and excitement to the game, at least on the racer side; the AllDrive system adds so much life to the game and its open world; hilariously over the top and fun; looks great
The cops' campaign is undoubtedly not as fun as the racers' campaign; the sound design is grating; minor technical issues; the customization function is solely lacking compared to the Underground games