The Need For Speed franchise has now become synonymous with the concept of street racing, thanks to its wildly successful Underground spinoff. It’s not hard to see why: Accessible gameplay for newcomers with a hint of customization for hardcore driving fans is just the first hook used to get fans addicted. But it’s more than just nitrous injected machines and tearing up the streets at night; the more immediate thrill comes from the sense of participating in the illegal racing scene distilled into a console form. Now, players can take this rush of adrenaline with them, as EA drives Need For Speed Underground: Rivals onto their PSP.
The first thing that will start the engines of any racing fan is the sheer amount of content crammed onto this disc. This is easily one of the most packed PSP titles out there, with the crux of it coming out in gameplay modes that revolve around your individual character profile. See, just about any single race you participate in can earn you awards and points that can be used to buy cars, upgrade the speed or handling of your machine or visually trick out its appearance. This comes across via a number of different ways. While you can do a quick race with a fully tricked out car or a custom ride from your garage, most of your time will be spent engaging in Circuit Races.
Here, speedsters will have access to four separate difficulty levels of races along three different race types. Circuit Race is your standard lap-based tear around a track. Lap Knockout eliminates the last place car on any lap, while Rally Relay has drivers switching off between two separate cars between stages. Apart from these, you can also engage in a series of “challenges,” which are virtually race modes by themselves under the Quick Play Battle Banner. First of all, you’ve got Drift Attack, which requires you to go around pillars within specific drift zones under a time limit. Next is the familiar and ever popular Drag Racing, which is your standard sprint to the finish line. A slight variation on this is the Nitrous Run, which gives you unlimited nitrous meters as long as you pass marked nitrous gates in an attempt to cover as much ground as possible. Finally there's Street Cross, which is a combination of lap based racing along with technical skills like braking and cornering.
There are a couple things that do wind up standing out about Rivals from the previous NFSU title. First of all, there is no storyline attached to the game, nor is there overwhelming and annoying advertising plastered on every building. Instead, this game is structured solely around racing. That’s a major plus to moving the series away from the dreaded problems that NFSU2 had. However, Rivals does wind up falling into other problems from its console predecessor. First of all, the rubber band AI issue has potentially never been as substantial or as infuriating as in Rivals. At times, you’ll have to run almost perfect races to even be somewhere near contention for first place, even with a fully tricked out car. There’s something seriously wrong if you spend a ton of money and time upgrading a car, yet you’re still having trouble pulling away from your competition.
Second, while you’d hope for a ton of courses or even more track variation, you’ll find Rivals primarily limited to a lot of tracks running in reverse or course repetition. This means that if you’re astute enough, you can memorize any potentially tricky sections and navigate your way around or through them. Third, the translation from the console over to the PSP has essentially rendered the Drift mode useless. This isn’t like the standard drift you’ve come to know in previous Underground games; instead, this feels much more stunted, especially with more of the other game modes focusing either on technical racing or flat out speed. Finally, and perhaps most disappointingly, the multiplayer is relatively flat. While you can play head to head via Wi-Fi against another player in a race, you’ve only got straight circuit play; all of the other modes are unavailable. Other than that, you’ve got party play where you and three friends pass the PSP around to see who gets the best time on a course. That’s pretty disappointing for a game that would’ve been phenomenal as a 4 player Wi-Fi matchup.
Fortunately, Rivals delivers in the visual department. Car models are pretty much what you’d expect for the 24+ vehicles in the game, and adding visual enhancements feel and look appropriate to the mockups shown to you in the Pocket Garage. More eye-catching than this are the environments, which manage to throw in random moments of traffic, road flares to mark courses and some destructible shortcut elements to add to the illegal feel of the game. Add to this visually capturing a sense of speed when you kick in your nitrous and you’ve got an impressive title.
Sound is also extremely well done, primarily due to the music included in the game. Sure, Rivals captures the different noises of custom gears shifting and engines roaring, but the primary focus of sound within the game comes from the 20+ songs on the soundtrack. Ranging from Snoop and The Terror Squad to Skindred and Paul Van Dyk, you’ve got plenty of leeway to create your own custom soundtracks. What’s more, you can choose to listen to the entire musical score of the game thanks to the EA Games Pocket Trax jukebox setup (complete with its own “screensavers”) and even two music videos. This may seem like a minor ploy to get fans excited about certain artists, but it actually shows off what a UMD disc can do when a developer crams it full of content.
While Rivals isn’t a perfect racing game, it does manage to fulfill that adrenaline rush that speed junkies crave on a regular basis. With plenty of game modes and tons of upgrades, players will have lots of replayability in their hands. However, limited courses and radically aggressive rubber band AI hamper this game from being THE racing title of the PSP launch.