By Nicholas Simonovski
The involvement of Criterion in the Need For Speed franchise was not one without its share of criticism and skepticism from the fans. With both the release of Hot Pursuit and then Most Wanted, it’s debatable whether either of those two titles ‘fit in’ with the previous games in the series. That said, while Criterion might have released two titles that felt more like a Burnout game with the NFS brand slapped over it, there’s no denying that the contributions they made were invaluable. Reason being, while Most Wanted mightn’t have been the game a lot of us were hoping for, without it, I’m confident in saying that Rivals wouldn’t have been as great as it now is. And let me tell you, this game is amazing.
Need For Speed: Rivals is ultimately split into two campaigns, one where you play as a racer and the other as a cop. Now this option to play on either side of the law isn’t new to the franchise, but it isn’t until now that I feel that it’s been implemented so well. In Need For Speed: Rivals you climb through the ranks and progress through the campaign by completing ‘Speedlists’. These are essentially checklists which specify a number of criteria that you need to fulfill in order to continue.
Depending on the type of speedlist you select (you are given three to choose from in each rank) these can vary from finishing a race in a particular position, drifting for a specified distance, or successfully hitting your opponents with pursuit tech – and these type of criteria will vary depending on whether you’re playing as a racer or a cop. While on the odd occasion you’ll be forced to do the same action across all three speedlists to progress the story, for the greater part it’s completely up to you on how to play – and it’s this reason that makes Rivals so great.
A lot of developers these days will talk about player choice being at the heart of their games, but when it comes to racing titles that often seems like a difficult thing to do. Fortunately however, Ghost Games manages to achieve this, and in a way that I really don’t think we’ve ever seen before. Not only can you freely switch between which career you’d like to play through, but what you then do when you’re out in the world is also entirely up to you. Perhaps you feel like progressing through the campaign by completing the objectives in your speedlist? Perhaps you’d like to simply drive around the world of Redview, taking in the sights? Maybe you’d like to try your hand at beating your friends speedtrap and jump records? Or, if you’re like me, you’ll complete a race, and then when you’re done, engage in a pursuit and while trying to avoid the police, instigate a head-to-head race with another racer in the world. Whatever you want to do in this game, the options truly yours, and you can stop and change this at any point.
When I was fortunate enough to check out a preview of this game a few weeks ago, I remember speaking to lead designer James Mouat from Ghost, and he described wanting to make playing each of the two sides feel very different. He mentioned a feeling of constant tension and exhilaration when playing as a racer, where it wasn’t just about winning a race, but that real risk of being busted by the police and losing everything. Spending the last few days with this game, he wasn’t lying! Each time I venture into the world of Redview, I feel that the pressure’s on.
There’s nothing quite like the feeling of being in a pursuit when you’re at a high heat level, you’ve got a high multiplier with a stack of speedpoints to bank, and you’re sitting on ‘damage critical’ just hoping you’ll reach a repair station in time so you can last a little while longer. There were multiple times when I’d make it back to my safehouse, put my controller down, and realise that my palms were sweaty from it all. There’s also no greater disappointment than being busted and losing all your accumulated speed points for that session.
Contrast this to playing as a cop, and it’s a completely different game. Unlike being a racer, where the pressure to outrun and outlast is always there, as a member of the police, you sort of just drive around doing whatever you like whenever you like. You can decide to particular in the events, you can drive around and initiate a pursuit, but it’s never as though you’re at a risk of being busted or losing your points – and I like that Rivals really establishes this dichotomy between the two factions. Like I mentioned in my preview, I’ve traditionally always been a racer fan, but with this game I found myself enjoying being a cop just as much.
Of course, while Rivals does succeed in doing a lot of things right, I did find a few slight niggles whilst I’ve been playing through. While this might seem like a personal gripe, the crashes that we’ve seen from Hot Pursuit and Most Wanted make their return, and I’d be lying if I said they weren’t a little frustrating. Like I’ve always said about them, they can often disrupt the flow of the game when you’re forced to watch a three second clip of your car roll after an accident, and I’ve even had times when I’d be reset in the opposite direction during a race. Fortunately, they appear to be less common (and annoying) than they were in MW.
Another problem I’ve noticed is with the game's in-world map; as Rivals is ‘always on’, its map will pop-up on screen without pausing the game. It's fine if you bring up the map yourself, as you'll most likely pull over to the side of the road, but at times the game will bring up the map on its own. Watching your car drive forward uncontrollably while you fumble to close the map due to no fault of your own is irritating to say the last. I’ve been advised that it is due to the Kinect sensor picking up police chatter as voice commands, and I’ve been assured that it is being investigated, so hopefully it’s resolved soon. Fortunately, I’ve yet to lose a race or get busted as a result of this. The final issue I’ve noticed is the camera will sometimes randomly rotate around the car or look on to the side mid-race. So far the only thing I’ve been able to do is wait it out (it lasts for a second or two) and it tends to return to normal. Apart from all this though, it’s smooth sailing.
Need For Speed: Rivals really is a genuinely fun and well-developed racer, and Ghost Games need to be applauded from coming into the franchise and making what is a very solid title. While you’ll notice a lot of influence from Criterion from their previous two NFS games, Rivals doesn’t feel anything like Burnout and is bounds greater than Most Wanted. The racing is fast and intense, the game itself looks fantastic, and with the story mode, all those problems where the last title lacked direction and purpose are all a thing of the past. Whether you’re playing alone or trying to compete with friends, Rivals is an exhilarating racing experience that you owe to yourself to check out!