Need for Speed Rivals review: the thrill of the chase

Has a video game subtitle ever been so thoroughly explored before? No one expected actual ghosts to appears in the latest Call of Duty, for example. But Need for Speed Rivals completely embraces the concept of rivalry, integrating it into every aspect of the game. The end result is a game with crystal-clear vision and execution. Rivals ends up being a rather unique racing experience--one that isn't meant for everyone, but will be beloved by those that "get" it.

The entire game centers around competition. On the surface, there's the high-level battle between cops and racers. Players can align themselves with one of two factions, both which play quite differently. Racers will do what racers are so wont to do: go fast and try to beat other drivers to the finish line. Cops, on the other hand, will try to stop racers--any way they can. With the way rewards are divvied, the entire game has been designed to push players to race (and crash) with one another.


However, what makes Rivals so remarkable is that every other aspect of the game has been turned into an ongoing competition. Simply driving around the road will activate persistent challenges. Speed Cameras record the fastest speed at a certain point in the map; Speed Zones are stretches of road where the average speed is recorded; and there are plenty of jumps to see who can get the most airtime. As you drive around the environment, you'll see leaderboards pop up, showing who is dominating any one of these hundreds of challenges. You can set new times, speeds, and scores at any time--in or out of an active event--meaning that no matter what you're doing, you can continuously engage your friends and rivals (even if they're not playing). It quickly turns into an addictive battle to dominate as much of the map as possible.

Rivals simply drops you into the massive world of Redview County, and it can be overwhelming for players that see the hundreds of challenges that scatter the map. However, Ghost Games has created a progression system that offers structure, while affording the flexibility that an online-enabled game demands. If Rivals fit a more traditional racing mold, gamers would all be flocking to the same races on the map in the same order--and that would be quite boring. Instead, both cops and racers are given much more flexible objectives to complete. Racers may be tasked with "earning a Gold in a Medium Race" while Cops may have to "take down two Racers." The flexibility of the progression system means that--much like the other challenges that exist on the map--you can be completing your objectives at any time, even if you're caught in a high-speed pursuit with other human players, or if you're simply driving around the map to cruise around.

Ultimately, the refusal to adhere to rigid definitions of a "race" and "campaign" is what makes Rivals so special. There's a transient feeling to nearly everything you do in the game, and the way it seamlessly integrates online and offline elements, single and multiplayer goals, enables moments that are only possible in Rivals. For example, as a Cop, I was pursuing a speeding racer, and I was definitely losing him. However, another online-connected player came out of nowhere and unexpectedly rammed the racer off the road. That player had his own objective to complete, and it coincidentally happened to align with my objective as well. I couldn't help but think "anything is possible" in the world of Rivals.

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The freeform nature of racing is Rivals' greatest strength, but also its greatest weakness. Players wanting a more traditional driving experience won't find it in Rivals--even when playing offline. While the campaign offers structure, it can become repetitive when taken out of context of a dynamic online world. And as a Racer, you're going to be pestered by a lot of Cops. In fact, just driving around the world always increases your "Heat" meter, guaranteeing that you'll be pestered over time. You could do leisure drives around the world as a Cop, but your objectives typically don't veer into traditional racing territory.

But those that embrace what Rivals is trying to do will discover how smartly-designed the game is. Both Cops and Racers play completely differently, making it feel like two games in one. Racers will have a greater connection to their vehicles, as they can be far more deeply customized than cop cars. Each vehicle must be purchased, and there are various enhancements and personalizations that can be applied. All of these cost in-game money, which encourages racers to go out and earn SpeedPoints. A fascinating twist has racers earning a multiplier as they stay out in the world for longer. However, the higher the multiplier, the more visible you'll become to Cops. When busted by Cops, Racers will lose any money they've earned that session. They'll need to "bank" their loot and reset their multiplier to one if they want to secure any of their earnings. It's a classic example of risk-reward in action, one that ties perfectly into the rewards that Racers will want to get.

Cops, on the other hand, can play it far more safe. They don't even have to buy new vehicles, as they're unlocked as the campaign progresses. However, to get access to power-ups, they'll need SpeedPoints--and the best way to do that is to catch Racers. Racers lose all of their SpeedPoints when caught, and they go directly to the Cops that helped take them down. No wonder the Cops are so motivated to take down other players.

The rivalry between the two factions is powered by a racing engine that is a pure joy to play with, especially when driving the faster cars unlocked towards the end of the game. The sense of speed is absolutely terrific, and handling is perfectly arcadey, making it incredibly easy to boost, drift, and jump through the hundreds of miles of track. Powered by Frostbite 3, the next-gen version of the game is especially pretty to look at, particularly during rain storms at night.

Need for Speed Rivals is a unique, satisfying experience that's a sheer joy to play. It may not be able to scratch the itch that a more traditional racing fan may be looking for, but it sets the bar for what online-connected worlds should be about. As you try to dominate the map, take down racers, and unlock the fastest cars, you'll always be mindful while playing online: anything can happen, and that's pretty awesome. [9]

This review is based on early and retail PS4 code provided by the publisher. Need for Speed Rivals is now available on PS4 at retail and downloadable on PlayStation Network for $59.99. It will also be available on PS3, Xbox 360, and PC on November 19th, and Xbox One on November 22nd. The game is rated E10.