Looking back at console launch line-ups of the past, the racing genre seems to always have a presence. For PlayStation systems, it was always a Ridge Racer, until the PlayStation 4. And with DriveClub pushed back, Need for Speed: Rivals is the only choice for gamers itching to push the pedal to the metal on Sony’s sleek new machine. Rivals is the whopping twentieth game in the racing franchise, but Electronic Arts hasn’t let the latest entry falter behind the competition. Slick visuals powered by the Frostbite engine, seamless integration of multiplayer into the campaign, and weapons make Need for Speed: Rivals an exciting experience for everyone. It’s accessible to less hardcore virtual racers like me, who may be turned off by more realistic titles like Gran Turismo.
When I jumped into Rivals, I was surprised to see a lack of a multiplayer selection at the main menu. Developer Ghost Games blurred the line between what is multiplayer and single player with the AllDrive social matchmaking system. Your friends and other players can seamlessly enter and leave the open world game you’re currently playing. Think of it as Journey except with high-speed cops and robbers. AllDrive works surprisingly well and is never intrusive, except in one situation: when the player designated as the host leaves. When that happened, it really killed my groove as I’d often be speeding down the highway and my screen would cut to an on-screen display showing me everyone’s progress with transferring to a new host. These instances didn’t happen a lot for me, but when they did, it was an adrenaline buzz kill. It would have been nice for Rivals to include local split-screen multiplayer as well.
Rivals is divided into two sections: one where you play as a racer and the other as a police officer. You can hop onto either side whenever you want before jumping into the open-world racing environment. Both are composed of chapters which contain a few levels each. Each racer level sets a few objectives to pass; for example, using weapons on other racers or getting a certain rank in a time trial or race. On the cop levels, you can be required to get to a location at a certain time or take down unlawful racers. Every time you finish a level, you’re taken back to the main menu, making the campaign feel less like a flowing story. Also, the objectives feel like you’re doing a checklist to get a Trophy achievement rather than something logical to the plot. Cutscenes don’t help either as they only occur between chapters and are merely a voice over heard over gameplay footage or a computer screen. Racer cutscene dialogue boil down to, “Police are oppression. We are freedom. Fight for some our misconstrued sense of liberty.” Meanwhile the cop voiceovers go on about upholding the law, even if it requires the use of fear, and other self-righteous talk. But what keeps one playing if not for the story? Completing a chapter unlocks a brand new car to drive, announced with an automobile sizzle reel featuring your new vehicle set to heart-pumping music. Many actions and tasks you do unlock points that can be used to buy functional upgrades, cosmetic modifications, and weaponry. If you love visual customization, Rivals has the tools you need to make art out of the car with a variety of colors, paints, decals, resulting in dozens of possible combinations.
Gameplay is easy enough for anyone to pick up and have fun, as it’s very much an arcade-style racer, yet takes some time to master. The controls feel tight and intuitive, and I found myself getting better at handling my vehicle quickly. The open-world map is filled with several different locals with a variety of curves in the road and scenery to see. Rivals is also part combat racer, with each vehicle able to equip two weaponized abilities called Pursuit Tech. The choices for your Pursuit Tech feature fantastical spy gadgetry such as an EMP field to stall opponents or deployable spikes to knock out your adversary’s tires. For me, Pursuit Tech made the game much more enjoyable compared to others in the genre. A new menu in the top left of the screen named EasyDrive is controlled using the D-pad during gameplay and features common menu selections you will use often without having to pause the game to go to the full menu. For example, EasyDrive has a GPS category with selections that can take you to the nearest repair center or home base.
A reason why racing games are common at a console launch is so the new generation hardware can show off its graphics capabilities by rendering realistic-appearing cars, a common machine in our lives. Need for Speed: Rivals looks great thanks to its use of the Frostbite 3, the same engine powering DICE’s lifelike shooter Battlefield 4. Dynamic lighting and full high-definition resolution make the cars and environments breathe with life. With the variety of scenery comes changing weather, so you may find yourself drifting on the mountainside roads during sunset one moment then cruising through forests in the rain. The shifting weather effects assist in keeping Rivals from becoming a boring ride. Sadly, the visuals in Rivals aren’t perfect all the time. If you look too closely, some textures and surfaces in the environment can look a bit flat, but thankfully are not noticeable while speeding along. However, when driving at higher velocities, I would sometimes notice textures and even whole object pop-into view late.
Despite its minor problems, Need for Speed: Rivals is a worthy purchase for your PS4 this holiday season. There won’t be many other next-gen games that can give you a rush as it does, while being fun for all ages also. Pursuit Tech weaponry adds a small touch of demolition derby into the mix. The near seamless AllDrive is an example of how multiplayer should and will be handled in the future of gaming. Many elements of Rivals came together to make my experience varied and encounters with other racers or cops unique. I’m generally not a fan of racing games, but it seems I’ve grown a need for speed.