Need for Speed: Rivals goes out of its way to piss you off. For the first 15 minutes – as if you’ve never played a racing game before – it insists on making you sit through inane, unskippable cutscenes and video tutorials that teach you things you could have probably figured out yourself. And since you can also play as a cop, it will then make you sit through those tutorials again when you switch from racer. But despite its best efforts, this is a game you will enjoy the more you play it.
A lot of that has to do with the near-perfect progression system. You can play as either a racer or a cop and both are presented as separate “careers”. But there’s no tacky storyline here and no FMV cutscenes featuring B-grade Hollywood talent. Instead, career progression comprises of sets of objectives that you must complete as you drive around the open-world of Redview County. Each set consists of three or four objectives that you can typically complete within five minutes out on the road. Each time you complete a set of objectives, you’re well rewarded with pursuit tech (power-ups), upgrades, and a new car unlock. So you’re constantly unlocking content for doing everything from winning events and escaping cops to using power-ups and catching air time.
There’s no incentive whatsoever to free-roam and explore the open-world.
The downside to this objective-list method of progression, however, is that you’ll find yourself only doing what’s required to complete your current objectives and then moving on to the next set. There’s no incentive whatsoever to free-roam and explore the open-world, which, by the way, just seems like a jigsaw puzzle comprised of pieces from past NFS games like Hot Pursuit, Most Wanted and The Run. There’s variety but very little will seem new to regular NFS players.
That open-world is given more significance when you hop online and access AllDrive. Rivals’ is a persistent online game world, where very often the racers and cops you encounter are other players. You can challenge them to one-on-ones, join races together, indulge in bouts of cops vs. racers, or just form up and drive around to earn Speed Points collectively. AllDrive is a great concept, but EA is only just scratching the surface of what’s possible with such a system, and its implementation in this game is limited at best.
The banking system is annoying at first, but once you come to terms with it, it adds a tremendous sense of tension, and the game is all the better for it.
Almost everything you do in Redview County – from winning events, to escaping cops, to driving like a maniac – earns you Speed Points (SP), which you can use to buy unlocked cars, pursuit tech, performance upgrades and customisation tools. But there’s a catch. You’ll have to ‘bank’ that SP before you can use it, and unlike Test Drive Unlimited 2, where banking points simply meant pressing a button, here it can only be done by driving to a Hideout. So if you win a couple of races, escape a few cops, and display general badassery to amass a bucketload of SP, but then total your car or get busted, you’ll lose all the SP unless you bank it at a hideout.
That may seem like obtuse game design, and it is annoying at first, but once you come to terms with it, it adds a tremendous sense of tension, and the game is all the better for it. Imagine having just won a tough race and evaded a few cops to rack up 100,000 SP – enough to buy that Lamborghini Gallardo you just unlocked – but you’re now 2 miles away from the nearest hideout where you can bank that SP, your car is at critical damage, and you’ve got two cops hot on your tail. It’s these moments, more than anything else, that will make you put up with Rivals’ annoyances.
Try as I may, I can’t think of a single rational explanation for not allowing players to pause a race.
Chief amongst those annoyances is the lack of a pause option. Once in a race or chase, or even while free-roaming, you can’t pause the game. Pressing START on the controller brings up the world map, while the game continues in the background. That’s fine if you’re playing as a cop, but as a racer, it means you lose the race and probably get busted by the cops, losing all your SP in the process. Try as I may, I can’t think of a single rational explanation for not allowing players to pause a race. The ability to locate interest points and quit or restart races via the EasyDrive menu on the d-pad is welcome, but doesn’t make up for the inability to pause proceedings.
I’m having a hard time trying to understand why the cop “career” in this game even exists. The whole banking concept and the thrill that comes with it is missing when you’re playing as a cop. You also don’t have to buy cars, so SP loses a lot of its value as well. And if you start out playing as a racer first, all the cars you’ve unlocked there show up here automatically, taking away a lot of the incentive in completing objectives. Even in terms of events, all you really have is time trials and hot pursuits.
Rivals looks downright bad on PS3, with nearly every object on screen consumed by jaggies – clearly a victim of cross-gen development.
I must also mention here that Rivals has a dynamic day-night cycle and it can get pretty dark at night in the absence of street lights. That’s not much of a problem when playing as a racer, but when you’re a cop, the bright flashing lights on your car, coupled with the dark surroundings, make finding your way pretty hard. The only way around this is to switch to the first-person camera view because turning the lights off is only possible when you’re free-roaming.
Visually, Need for Speed Rivals looks downright bad on PS3, with nearly every object on screen consumed by jaggies – clearly a victim of cross-gen development. The PC version looks and runs far better, with additional eye candy in the form of precipitation on the cars and leaves blowing across the road. Bizarrely though, the PC version is locked at 30 fps.
Rivals is one of the better Need for Speed games to come around in recent years, but that really isn’t saying much, with the series being reduced to a speck in the rear-view mirrors of the likes of Grid and Forza (with Horizon). EA’s insistence on sticking to the cops vs. racers premise and its repeated underutilisation of the open-world setting aren’t doing the franchise any favours, and so AllDrive and the game’s clever banking system seem little more than futile attempts at breaking the mould.