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EGM Review:
Need for Speed: Rivals

By
Posted on November 15, 2013 AT 12:01am

Catch me if you can

Need for Speed: Rivals is subversive.

Ignoring the unhappy detour that was The Run, the last few entries of EA’s arcade racing franchise have been staging a quiet revolution against the entrenched tropes of the racing genre. Most Wanted and Hot Pursuit, to varying degrees, both eschewed conventional notions of progression and rigid structure to deliver an experience that was more philosophically in line with their open worlds.

In many ways, Rivals, the first title from newly minted EA studio Ghost Games, is the culmination of those two efforts. It’s a rejection of nearly everything we take for granted about racing games. You won’t find any circuit races—or, for that matter, that many standard races at all. In fact, I managed to beat both careers, one for cops and one for racers, while only taking part in two or three.

That’s because Rivals does very little to restrict how you progress. Both careers are divided into three different disciplines, each with their own focus and set of objectives. Completing any of the three sets will bump you up to the next level and unlock new vehicles, either for purchase (on the racer side) or to drive immediately (for the cops). You’re also free to hop around at any time. You might, for example complete your first assignment from the undercover cop tree, your second from the patrol tree, and your third from the enforcer one.

The objectives themselves are fairly varied. Sometimes you’ll get a fairly vanilla list of event types to complete, but you’ll frequently encounter more unexpected criteria, like jumping a certain distance or taking out a number of racers in the open world. In that regard, Rivals often feels like a game where things you’d expect to be mandatory are optional and things you’d expect to be optional are mandatory. You can actually get through a decent chunk of the game without finishing first in any events, and you can frequently progress by skating through the same low-difficulty events over and over again, or by not doing any events at all. It’s decidedly different, and while it’s certainly easy to exploit, I appreciate how little restriction is placed on the player. In an age where most multiplayer games resort to lengthy, restrictive level grinding to keep players coming back, Rivals tries in earnest to get out of the way of the fun.

But Rivals’ largest innovation, no doubt, is AllDrive, which merges single-player and multiplayer into a single connected experience. By default, you’re placed into an active multiplayer server every time you start the game. If you’d like, you’re still free to ignore everyone else—or even play offline with AI opponents—but the real draw is for each session to feel like a dynamic showdown between cops and racers. Indeed, when you’re on either side of a pursuit with other human players, crazy, exciting things seem to happen on a regular basis.

For the concept to be worthwhile, though, a solid number of both cops and racers need to be out on the streets at all times, and that’s where Rivals hits a rough patch. The cop career is always challenging, always fast, and always engaging, right through the final chase. The racer career starts out just as strong, but at around the halfway mark, it collapses into a unenjoyable grind. There are a few key reasons for this drastic shift.

The Next-Gen Factor

Most cross-gen games have been somewhat underwhelming on the new hardware, but Rivals makes fantastic use of the PlayStation 4’s graphical oomph—even more so than the other big Frostbite 3 game, Battlefield 4. There’s one notable exception, however. When you get to the much faster late-game cars, pop-in becomes blatant. At 240 miles per hour, the engine seems incapable keeping up, and you’ll see mountains flicker into existence on a fairly regular basis. I’m not usually one to nitpick, but the incoming geometry here behaves in a way I’ve never seen before—it flashes bright magenta or lime green a split-second before the textures completely load. That makes it both an garish stain on the otherwise impressive next-gen graphics and a visual distraction that draws your eyes away from the road.

The first is that cops and racers earn Speed Points—the game’s currency—in different ways. For cops, they’re effectively accumulated like experience, a steady and linear increase based on performing actions or winning events. For racers, they’re more of a gambit. Earning more SP in one session without returning to your hideout increases your multiplier, allowing you to boost your earnings even more quickly. At the same time, it also increases your Heat Level, making the response of AI police even fiercer and the reward for human cops to take you down even larger. And if you total your car before banking those SP at a hideout, they’re gone forever.

That means that, while playing as a racer, you can spend a decent chunk of time racking up SP, get overwhelmed on the way back to your hideout, and end up with nothing to show for that effort. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but it can be infuriating in its execution, especially because faster cars start you off with a higher Heat Level. By the end of the game, it feels like the police are always breathing down your neck and utterly impossible to escape in a straight sprint. On several occasions, I hurtled through the desert pushing 250 miles per hour, and the cops still managed to catch up to me.

The second is that racers are extremely limited by police pursuits. As a cop, you can quickly restart an event at any time, whether in the thick of it or at any point after it’s ended, by using the D-pad to navigate a simple menu. As a racer, you can do the same—but only if you’re not being pursued. The trouble is, a fair portion of their events force cops to begin pursuit when you start them, so you can almost never restart a race that you know you’re going to lose until you quit out and lose your tail, which can take a frustratingly long time. Well, that’s not entirely true—you could also let yourself get busted and then restart from your hideout, but that forfeits all the SP you’ve earned. On some of the later, lengthier events that demand split-second precision and repeated retries, both options are just inexcusable.

It’s quite clear what happened here. If racers could restart their last event at anytime, players could effectively abuse it to teleport out of every police chase the moment it happened. That’s not the worst problem in a purely single-player environment, but with AllDrive, you have to assume that every AI-controlled cop is a player. No one, of course, would ever bother playing as a cop if the racers had a permanent get-out-of-jail-free card. Ghost Games’ answer is to awkwardly cripple the quick restart to save their AllDrive concept. I’m all for killing sacred cows and championing innovation, but this is a clumsy solution to a complex problem. It’s effectively no solution at all.

And it’s not just the single-player experience that has to make sacrifices; multiplayer takes a hit, too. AllDrive makes starting a head-to-head race with a passing stranger trivial and instantaneous, but it makes putting together a larger race with a group of friends a clunky chore. You effectively have to camp out on the starting line of the event you want to do, tell everyone else to come, wait for them to show up, and then finally start the race. Conventional lobbies might be too stuffy for AllDrive’s seamless vision, but they do a lot of heavy lifting toward making multiplayer games user-friendly.

If AllDrive is indeed the future of the Need for Speed franchise, then Ghost will need to do some earnest thinking about how to solve some of the serious design challenges it presents. While this initial effort enables some wonderful emergent moments that greatly enhance the experience, it too often throws out the baby with the bathwater.

But I won’t deny that the majority of Rivals’ running time kept my adrenaline pumping and my lizard brain enthralled. The simple thrill of trading paint and hurling attacks at your competitors as you barrel down the highway doing 120 can do an awful lot to atone for any and all flaws. True to the name of its franchise, Rivals excels at delivering a blistering, addictive sense of speed—even if design hiccups occasionally slow proceedings to a crawl.

Developer: Ghost Games • Publisher: EA • ESRB: E10+ • Release Date: 11.15.2013
7.0

While the driving is superb and the visuals are stunning, the inherent limitations of Rivals‘ AllDrive concept begin to hamper the experience near the end. The result is a game that’s three-quarters great fun, one-quarter miserable, frustrating slog.

The Good Driving feels suitably fast and responsive, cop career is a blast from front to back.
The Bad The racer career devolves into a grind at around the halfway mark.
The Ugly Watching your Bugatti Veyron do a quintuple backflip into a canyon.
Need for Speed: Rivals is available on Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC. Primary version reviewed was for PlayStation 4.
Josh Harmon, Associate Editor
Josh Harmon picked up a controller when he was 3 years old—and he hasn't looked back since. This has made him particularly vulnerable to attacks from behind. He joined EGM as an intern following a brief-but-storied career on a number of small gaming blogs across the Internet. Follow him on Twitter @jorshy. Meet the rest of the crew.

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