Need for Speed: Rivals is a game that evokes the many successes of the series and truly epitomizes the need for speed.
Rivals begins with a choice: Racer or Cop. Choose the path of a Racer, and the game brings forth the traditional Need for Speed experience: 25 customizable cars from modern muscle Ford Mustang to the futuristic Lamborghini Veneno. Like previous games, if you earn the appropriately titled Speedpoints through races and other challenges you can buy new cars, upgrade their five stats and choose a color or decal to make the vehicle your own.
As a Racer, the more Speedpoints earned during a session then the higher the point multiplier becomes. Racers must navigate to one of the many safehouses (a return to the series last seen in Undercover) in order to bank their accrued currency.
Both Racers and Cops have limited health, but car damage is only cosmetic a la Hot Pursuit. Unlike Hot Pursuit however, cars can be repaired instantly by driving through a repair shop (which looks suspiciously like a gas station). If a Racer’s health bar is depleted, they not only lose their multiplier but all Speedpoints earned during the session as well. It becomes a desperate gamble of speed and skill to reach the nearest safehouse or repair shop, but it can be incredibly satisfying to escape the Cops with a big score, especially if your health is critically low. At the same time, it never feels discouraging to lose a big score, as a simple Hot Pursuit or other race can quickly rack the points back up.
Rivals allows players to switch between Racer and Cop at any time, so your initial decision will not restrict your game. As a Cop every unlocked car is free, a wholeheartedly appreciated benefit. The cop side offers 23 different vehicles each with three different statistically different variants. The patrol car accelerates faster, the enforcer car is more durable, and the undercover car is lightweight for better handling. There are no personalization options beyond those three types, however. Cops also lack the point multiplier that makes the Racer side so interesting, but they do not lose their speed points if they enter their safehouse equivalent, the Command Post. Essentially, playing a cop is about wrecking Racers. Stats-wise the cop cars can outperform and outlast the Racers, but vehicle weapons heralded by both Cops and Racers called ‘Pursuit Tech’ level the playing field.
Police-only Pursuit Tech, such as spike stripes or road blocks, are mainly offensive and meant to slow down Racers. On the flip side, Racers have access to tech like turbo boosts and jammers – generally tech that is more defensive and meant to help a Racer outmaneuver rather than overpower. It’s frantic fun to blast a rival with a big shock wave, or ram into them with an electrocuted car. Pursuit Tech is open to friendly fire however, so you can choose to help or hinder fellow Cops or Racers—a choice that carries throughout the game’s story and core mechanics.
To progress and unlock new cars, you are given a choice of three Speedlists to complete, categorized by ‘Drive,’ ‘Pursuit,’ and ‘Race.’ The choice attempts to correlate to the player’s approach. Do you just like to drive fast and take huge jumps? Pick Drive. Does the thrill of the chase and the flash of red and blue get you going? Pursuit is for you. Want to take out every other racer you see and leave them in the dust? Race. The Speedlist choice doesn’t limit player options; rather, it rewards the player for adhering to an area of the game. It also has a nominal effect on the story. Players can shape a thematic narrative by picking their Speedlists, but the story is little more than a collection of cheesy one-liners and cutscenes consisting of scattered images of cars and computers. Moreover, the Speedlist can be changed at any time, so the tunneling choice is simply an illusion that contradicts the openness of the game.
Rivals’ world is a compilation of archetypal geographical sites; from snowy mountains and dense forests to Carbon-esque open canyons. There’s a night and day cycle as well as a weather cycle that’s purely aesthetic (albeit beautiful), and the different lighting effects on the car models can be incredibly impressive. These cars aren’t modeled to be realistic, but to be sleek and sexy, and sexy there are. At one point I was in a race up the mountain while being pursued by what felt seemed like the entire police force. It was pitch dark, the mountain snowfall glistened in our headlights, and the lens flare of flashing red and blue reflecting off the vehicles gave an intensity to the otherwise poignant scene. It was reminiscent of NFS: Shift 2 in the way I relied on the lights of other drivers to guide me through the dark.
Throughout the world is a number of events familiar to the series; time trials, races, hot pursuits, and more fill the streets. It’s just disappointing that the world size, while never feeling small, does not mirror that of most recent predecessor Most Wanted. It’s simply not as big, full, or varied in environments, and in those ways a step-down from the series’ high-point. What Rivals does succeed in is the way it promotes players to always keep driving. Right from the start, every car is pre-equipped with a nitrous container. Free-roaming AI racers and cops allow for on-the-spot head-to-head races and pursuits. Cops will band together either with or against the player, and racers are always around for those off-times in between events. The best part: while connected online, these AI will be mixed in with real people.
Playing with others is awesome; the system is so seamless that sometimes it’s hard to notice if there are real people in the game. When another player is nearby, an “All-Drive” alert will show, and any pursuit or event they are participating in will allow you to join in instantly. If it weren’t for the alert (and the sometimes ostentatious driving of other players) it would be hard to spot the difference from an AI. One of the best All-Drive features allows players to wait at the starting line of an event for other players to line up and complete the race simultaneously. Alternatively, players can band together with their friends as cops and sabotage the remaining racers and reset their Speedpoints. As before, it’s immensely satisfying to make it out of those pursuits as a racer, and even more so against a horde of human cops. The AI and online features make sure the world never feels lonely, despite the minimal civilian traffic. The returning friend leaderboard ‘Speedwall’ also assures there’s always a record to beat. Players can go from a multiplayer pursuit, to a head-to-head race with an AI, to a Speedwall challenge against a friend without ever letting go of the gas. The game is truly about rivalries, whether cop versus racer, racer versus racer, or friend versus friend.
Rivals does support Xbox One’s Kinect, which compliments the game’s lust for speed. Health getting low? Say “GPS, Repair Shop,” or any other of the many Kinect commands to add a waypoint to the mini-map without ever slowing down. It’s a bit spotty, however. One voice command is “Open Map,” and I’d find myself doing something crazy in the game, saying “Oh, Damn!” and it would open my map in the middle of my race. It’s often convenient nonetheless. Rivals also has an official companion app in which players can effect others racers with their phone during multiplayer games via “Overwatch”. Using points earned during waiting games, players can pop tires, refill nitrous, and otherwise troll friends or rivals with a touch of the screen. There isn’t much point to it however, and it’s much less useful than the Most Wanted app before it, which synchronized bonus speed points to the console.
Need for Speed: Rivals is not a massive game, but it knows its purpose. There’s always a reason to keep going, and keep going faster, and it’s a game that comes away fully deserving the name Need for Speed.