Need for Speed Rivals
Need For Speed Rivals finds itself in the unenviable position of being a between-generation game that needs to be good enough to look next gen, but also not be so advanced that a version of it can’t be released for the 360 and PS3. Fortunately, it also comes from Criterion and Ghost, who have an outstanding pedigree for crafting high-quaity racing games. Rivals can best be described as something that brings together the open world of Most Wanted’s reboot with the Hot Pursuit reboot’s racing polish and greater sense of focus. In theory, this results in one of the best racing experiences you can have, and in execution, it surprisingly winds up that way.
Normally, there would be some kind of big catch, but there isn’t much of one here. The big hook of the game is being able to race online with others at anytime. It’s called the AllDrive system, but what it really amounts to is just always being online without needing to press right on the d-pad to access the Easy Drive option for it. Easy Drive is still here and you go through a full campaign as either a racer or a cop – similar to Hot Pursuit. You’ve got similar-but-different events that all basically boil down to either busting up races and scoring takedowns on (or at least disabling and outrunning) racers, or beating a clock.
Like Most Wanted, you’ve got a fairly large map to explore and can get a turn-by-turn GPS map to help take you from place to place. Sadly, unlike the Wii U version, you don’t get a fast travel feature. Perhaps that’s for the best though as one of the easiest ways to gain XP is to take part in head to head challenges while going from point A to B and then racking up some points quickly. The XP system is different here than in most games because while you can bank a lot of points, you have to weigh the risk of totaling your car or getting busted versus getting more XP. XP builds up a circular “heat” meter – when a full circle is made, it goes up as does the point multiplier.
If you crash or get busted, you lose the XP banked. The only way to save it is to go to either a hideout if you’re a racer or the command station if you’re a cop and save it. The XP can be used to either upgrade your current car, or swap to a new one obtained by completing speedwall challenges. They’re basically just checklists with objectives being given a fancy name, and allow you to gain the same reward for competing types of challenges – so if you prefer hot pursuits to interceptor challenges, you can still get the same new car and won’t be penalized for going about leveling up in a different way.
Racing feels stiff at first, but once you upgrade the performance of your vehicle, you’ll be golden. The racing feels a lot like Hot Pursuit or Most Wanted, which is a good thing as those were outstanding. Neither quite delivered the same arcade thrills as Burnout’s racing did, but this comes a bit closer than them. It allows you to do more structural upgrades than either game, but the painting options seems ripped from an Underground game – the tribal and flame patterns reek of 2004, and unless you’re still pining for the days of X to the Z pimping your ride, they’ll garner a chuckle when you see them.
Upgrading is a breeze and it’s rewarding to get that multiplier built up and retain it after a few races. Problems arise, at least for the Xbox One version, because of the new controller. While the revamped face buttons, d-pad, and triggers work fine, the new bumpers can be tough to hit in a pinch. You have to press them in a very particular way to not harm your fingers, and even when you do, it never quite feels like you’re pressing it enough. It reminds me a lot of the original North American Saturn pad, where you had this super-comfy pad and then iffy shoulder buttons – except they weren’t as crucial to that system as they are this one. For Rivals, that means you’ll be sent into a panic when you get near a hideout/command center compound because you can be chased down at any time and only have one small part of the entire compound that will actually save you.
Fortunately, the rest of the controls are perfect and the redone triggers are great for racing games. They’re very comfortable and the new d-pad makes going through the Easy Drive menu easier than before, although being able to switch background and text colors would be nice since the white text can be drowned out by the sky or sun during the day. Still, the bumper issue definitely has me recommending the PS4 version instead of the Xbox One version since that pad has weak parts to it that affect this game. The super-tiny Share/Options buttons would be tough to hit, but since you can’t pause the game anyway, they don’t affect this too much. The inability to pause is seemingly brought on by the always-on nature of things, but you can take a break and avoid play in the car customization menu, so it’s not like you’re always forced to play the game to some degree.
Racing is hampered a bit by the always-on nature of things as you’ll definitely run into jerks out to wreck you – destroying your XP and making it harder than it should be gain levels. Still, a few bad apples don’t wind up spoiling the bunch as most people are quite cool online even in defeat. Online play is nice and smooth and if it wasn’t for usernames popping up above cars, you’d rarely be able to tell they were online instead of offline. The racing action is fast, fun, and the cars control just about perfectly once you tune them up. For a licensed arcade racer, it’s hard to ask for much more and the free-roaming aspect has been made more user-friendly by making the world a bit less small, but also making it feel less empty as a result.
Visually, the next gen version of the game looks fantastic. After playing the Wii U version of Most Wanted and getting a taste of what a high-end PC version of a Need For Speed game would look like, console-centric players get an even more concrete idea here. The car models are meticulously-detailed and you can see each rain drop on them as it falls. Being able to move the camera around with the right stick is nice, although there were times when it would just randomly go in front of the car and that would really suck because it could be mid-race and then you’re either out a position or possibly cost a win at the last second. Environments are full of detail and life, with things like falling leaves and rain gathering on the TV making the world seem lived in. Crashes are also pretty satisfying since cars flip, have parts fly off, and get chipped paint – although the latter effect isn’t quite as pronounced as it could be.
The soundtrack is usually in the background behind all of the chatter amongst players, the police scanner, and car-to-car sound effects. The music is all fine to listen to in the game, but only a couple of songs had me interested in checking them out after playing – and since you can’t really pause the game to check it out on iTunes in real-time, it’s easy to forget which song you heard after a play session. The sound effects are tremendous and the crunch from collisions is satisfying and violent. Slamming into a mountainside or building sounds more impactful than flying off into the ocean, which is something you’ll want to do at least once because it’s hilarious. Sadly, there aren’t any great whoosh sound effects for the big air jumps in the game – but the smash your car makes upon landing is good anyway.
Need For Speed Rivals is an outstanding game hurt on the Xbox One by the revamped bumper buttons. Beyond that issue, it’s a well-crafted racing game that blends together the best elements of the past generation’s best NFS games into something that feels like the definitive NFS game right now. Visually, it gives you a glimpse of what the next gen will be and makes you salivate at how the first completely next gen entry will look. The soundtrack is quite good, but is usually drowned out by other things like outstanding sound effects and in-game vocal chatter. At $60, it might not be worth buying right away for those who didn’t enjoy either Hot Pursuit or Most Wanted, but if you liked it, you’ll definitely get your money’s worth out of it.
Reviewed By: Jeremy Peeples
Publisher: Electronic Arts
This review is based on a retail copy of Need for Speed Rivals for Xbox One provided by Electronic Arts.