High-octane thrills and spills are front and centre, but what else is new? Find out in our Need for Speed Rivals review...
Arcade racers used to be a staple of your average high street games retailer - Need for Speed, Burnout, Ridge Racer, Midnight Club and countless others used to line the shelves. If arcade-style racing started with all these names on the grid, it seems now that Need for Speed is the last man standing.
More recently, the humble arcade racer has taken a bit of a backseat to semi-simulation racers like the brilliant Forza Horizon, and the full fat racing simulation of Gran Turismo 6 and Forza Motorsport 5. Driving and racing games are as varied as they have ever been, and thankfully Need for Speed Rivals will continue to contribute to that... by doing the same thing it has always done.
"Need for Speed should be about balls-out fun, drifting around a corner at 200mph in a million dollar sports car being chased by the police and surrounded by traffic." says Rivals creative director Craig Sullivan. "That's what Need for Speed was then, and still is now."
The message is loud and clear, but can Rivals really deliver the goods? We revved up the disc and rolled out into the Redview County.
Need for Speed Rivals: Gameplay
Need for Speed Rivals is an open-world racer. Not surprising really, as it's been a long time since this franchise was about out-and-out circuit racing, but also because a significant number of Criterion staff have been exported to southern Sweden to carry on their good work. And in Craig Sullivan, Ghost has (or technically, is borrowing) a man who was lead designer on Burnout Paradise - arguably the game that launched the open-world racing genre as a whole.
The gameplay revolves around playing as either a cop or a racer, and ticking off the relevant tasks to complete your current mission, whether that's winning races and avoiding cops, or taking down reckless teenage speed junkies. Essentially what we're talking about is a mixture of Need for Speed Most Wanted and Need for Speed Hot Pursuit, with a few new bells and whistles.
Everything you do will get you 'Speed Points' - your universal currency to spend on all your car customisation, upgrades, new weapons ('pursuit tech') and all that good stuff.
The pursuit tech on offer includes the likes of a spike rack deployed behind you to sabotage the tyres of your chasers, an EMP burst that locked on to a target in front and a powerful nitrous boost. All in all there are 10 different weapons, some exclusive to the police or the racers.
Some are better than others, but there’s nothing completely overpowered in the mix, and it adds a different dynamic when you know your assailant is trying to land an EMP rather than run you off the road.
Here's the catch - you're earning speed points for everything you do on the roads, but you have to stash your points at safe houses around the map to keep them
Need for Speed Rivals: Multiplayer?
The longer you're out on the roads, the higher your speed point multiplyer will get. But raking in the big bucks comes with significant risk - if you crash (or get busted by the cops), you lose everything.
Also, racers who have been out the longest will have the highest bounties on their heads, so generally speaking, if you've been out on the streets for a while, the cops will be coming for you.
And… well that’s it really. There’s no doubting that the core gameplay is fun and exciting, but Rivals doesn’t really deliver anything deeper than that. After an admittedly good tutorial, you’re thrown into a huge world and save for the mission pointers you’re left to your own devices to take part in races and chases.
But these missions don’t change much through-out the game. Nor do the cars. Nor does the pursuit tech. After a few hours and a lot of fun, we definitely hit a wall where we were looking for something different to do.
There are also other small issues that start as niggles but become increasingly irritating as time goes on. For some reason there are only two camera angles, and the one of those that is behind the car is too low and close to the back of the car. The result is that you’re frequently unable to see what’s in front of you.
The steering on many of the cars also feels decidedly more lethargic than previous Need for Speed titles. In a game that revolves entirely around high-octane car chases, we’d expect the steering on a lot of the cars (which range from Corvettes to Aston Martins) to be on the twitchy side if anything.
Combine the sludgy wheel-work with the rubbish rear camera angle and you sometimes find yourself speeding into unavoidable crashes, which is mighty frustrating when it can result in you losing all of your speed points.
Need for Speed Rivals: Alldrive
Let us start by saying that we really, really like Alldrive as a concept. Imagine a world like Burnout Paradise or Forza Horizon's single player modes - an open world with traffic, computer controlled opponents to race, and events scattered around the world.
Now imagine that some of those computer controlled opponents are actually other players around the world in their own 'single player' worlds, completing their own challenges and progressing through the story arcs. That's the essence of Alldrive - it completely removes the line between single and multiplayer.
Matchmaking options let you choose how you want to play. You can play on your own if you want, or you can play with friends or you can play with the world, but there's no separate single and multiplayer experiences - Rivals is what it is, you simple choose who you want to play with.
Combined with the returning Autolog - which records your fastest speeds and times at various speed cameras and road races around the world - Alldrive adds another level of competitive gameplay to the mix. If you see that a friend is currently beating all your times, you can jump in as a cop and deliver some timely justice.
Equally, if a friend is having some issues with the cops, you can jump in as a racer and lend some assistance. Or just let them suffer and do your own thing, it's really up to you.
Sounds good right? Well, it is actually. Ghost has got the balance right – you will regularly run into other players and initiate chases and it’s an absolute blast. But behind the great concept is a bit of an empty void, because ultimately, you’re still just chasing people around in fast cars and we’ll admit that we got bored after a while.
Need for Speed Rivals: Graphics
If Rivals has a strong suit aside from Alldrive, it’s the graphical performance. Frankly, it’s a thing of beauty.
Typical Frostbite hallmarks are there - there's plenty of lens flare as you crest over hills, and motion blur really adds to the sense of sheer speed. For most of us, Frostbite 3 is inexorably linked to Battlefield 4, but the engine has a lot to give to racing games too - even if Need for Speed: The Run didn't do much to prove that.
Both current and next-gen versions of the game run at 30FPS. Granted, this sounds a little bit low but in practice it wasn't noticeably slow, and the whole playtest was very smooth. Bear in mind that all though Forza Motorsport 5 will be running at 60FPS, Forza Horizon only ran at 30, and that played like a dream.
Redview County is split into various areas that showcase a range of different environments, from dusty canyon highways to lush hinterlands. And it all looks beautiful, as do the cars.
Need for Speed Rivals: Tablet gameplay
Need for Speed Network is a companion app, available on iOS, and soon on Android. Calling it a companion app is a little misleading, as it can be played as a game in its own right.
Sure, it displays all your latest Autolog info in real time, and you can look at any of your friends' latest achievements and records. You can also use the app as a second screen - much like Smartglass and Forza Horizon - using a live map to set waypoints and markers.
Here's the cool part - it also lets you watch your friends driving around the map in real time. You can jump into their game and place a police blockade in front of them, or refill their nitrous if you're feeling friendly, or restock their pursuit tech. It's all pretty clever.
Here’s the less cool part – there’s a significant lag between what’s happening in the game and what’s happening on the screen. So while the app shows your friend’s position on the map, in reality they’re a good 5-10 seconds ahead of that.
It’s a small detail, and one we can forgive when you don't have to be in a room with your console to do any of this. So you can interfere with your mate’s game from the safety of work, the bathroom or even potentially from another country.
Need for Speed Rivals: Verdict
What Ghost is trying to achieve here is an experience that feels natural, where you just stumble across other players as you play. And thus, what was single player suddenly becomes multiplayer.
Rivals manages this – which is impressive – but it has failed to deliver a fully-realised game to back it up. The core of the game is fun, but there’s nothing there to keep that fun alive for an extended period of time – not even Alldrive. We can’t help but feel that perhaps we were spoiled by the majesty of Forza Horizon, which on the surface doesn’t appear to do much different, but left us feeling warm and happy inside every time we put it in the disc tray.
Need for Speed Rivals is fun, there’s no doubt about that. And racing fans will undoubtedly find plenty of enjoyment in roaring around open roads and taking on other racers in mini games of cat and mouse. But others – like us – may find the general lack of depth and small annoyances a little too much to bear.
Need for Speed Rivals release date: Out now
Need for Speed Rivals price: £35 on Xbox 360, PS3 £55 on Xbox One, PS4