Developer: Ghost Games / Publisher: Electronic Arts / Platforms: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Windows / Played On: PlayStation 4 / Release Date: November 15 (PlayStation 4), November 19 (Windows, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3), November 22 (Xbox One) / ESRB: Everyone (Mild violence)
The PlayStation 4 is launching with neither a Ridge Racer nor a Wipeout and the only racing game available at launch is from an annualized franchise from EA. However bizarre that might sound, we’re happy to report that Need For Speed: Rivals is not only a worthwhile launch game, but is also the best Need For Speed since 2010’s Hot Pursuit. It’s no coincidence that Hot Pursuit was developed by Criterion Games and Rivals is by Ghost Games, which is made up mostly of ex-Criterion developers.
In many respects, Rivals could have been titled Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit II. Its cutscenes–which are thankfully brief–feature ham-fisted voiceovers from both racers and cops, overplaying the heightened stakes of an open-world war on the roads. There’s no commitment to joining either side. In fact, Rivals encourages you to play both perspectives thoroughly, and toggling between the two is as easy as going into your garage.
Like the Burnout series, points and nitro are awarded for risky behavior. This is layered on top of the points you earn from winning races, surviving chases, and busting offenders. Between all the cars and objects coming at you it’s often hard to pay attention to the performance tracker and score multiplier. That’s okay because the game does a fine job in recognizing practically every impressive thing you do on or off the pavement. When you do find a couple seconds to take a breath, you might be surprised how many points you’ve accumulated.
It’s an achievement that the biggest rush in Need For Speed: Rivals does not come from threading the needle between cars or tearing past a police blockade. Instead it’s the stress-induced tension of trying to make it back to your hideout in one piece. That’s because no matter how well you perform, the points you accumulate in your most recent outing are wiped out if you get busted. It’s a classic scenario of risk versus reward. You can cash in every time you see a hideout, but earning points for worthwhile items like cars and upgrades will be a very slow process, especially when you’re only bringing in a few thousand points at a time. On the other hand, you can get rich more efficiently if you get an entire fleet of cops after you, then hustle to the hideout and bank over 100,000 points. With the various instant fix drive-thru repair shops sprinkled throughout the map, the game tempts you to keep driving and milk the point multiplier. There’s no bigger disappointment in Rivals than getting busted and finding yourself back in your garage with a big goose egg.
Your heat level could be compared to the wanted level in Grand Theft Auto. The huge difference is that you don’t need to be anonymous in order to return to your hideout and cash in your point winnings. All you have to do is arrive at any hideout and you’re golden, even if numerous police cars are right on your tail.
The attraction of playing both as cops and racers has never felt this balanced. Driving as a speed limit-defying law breaker has almost always been the more appealing side. Ghost Games figured out how to make the police role equally appealing by way of the game’s point system. Cops don’t earn points as gradually as the racers. Instead, cops confiscate racers’ points with each successful bust.
Whichever side you’re in the mood for, the controls feel similar to 2010’s Hot Pursuit. That means cars are appropriately weighted as they drift, fly off ramps, or careen through obstacles . While you can’t deeply fine-tune your cars, you will be able to improve familiar racing game stats likes strength, top speed, and acceleration.
EA and Ghost have made a big deal about Alldrive, which blurs the line between single-player and multiplayer. It might sound new, but smoothly transitioning from one mode to the other isn’t all that different from the online integration of Burnout Paradise, and that was five years ago. Both games also use Easydrive, which has proven to be a useful d-pad-functional UI tool that keeps you in the action.
In the adversarial context of Rivals, Alldrive provides a solid multiplayer infrastructure where your friends are intermingled with numerous AI cops and racers. Competition is always close by, though the schadenfreudian satisfaction of depriving a buddy of his racer points is much better than doing it against a computer controlled racer. We only wished that each map accommodated eight to 16 friends as opposed to the six-player cap Ghost settled on.
We also hoped that, like Burnout: Paradise, Need For Speed: Rivals would pull off 60 frames per second fluidity. While this is not the case, Ghost’s visual design choices strike a pleasing balance between superb detail and satisfyingly consistent 30 frames per second performance, the latter providing a cinema-like quality to the game. This is complemented by the game’s lighting, which often showcases contrast effects with the environmental colors, not that all different from Criterion’s visual work on Hot Pursuit.
In a PlayStation 4 launch line up that can be described as “solid” at best, Need For Speed: Rivals single-handedly fulfills the driving game spot in this initial library. Driving on both sides of the pursuit/chase coin are equally engrossing, but where the game transcends other racers is the opportunity to race friends and escape the police at the same time. It can be a lot to take in, but there is a near palpable rush in managing these objectives while trying to make it back to your garage in one piece.