When it works, ‘Need for Speed: Rivals’ is absolutely brilliant

Jon Mercer thejonmercer@gmail.com
Published on January 22, 2014
A screenshot from the game “Need for Speed: Rivals.” — Submitted image

Need for Speed: Rivals
(PS4, Xbox One)
One of the things I really miss from the sixth generation of video game consoles (PS2, Xbox, and GameCube) is a really good, arcade racer. There were a handful of them for the PS3 and Xbox 360, but not nearly in the quantity I believed we would get.

Simulation racers like “Forza Motorsport” and “Gran Turismo” are superb if you are a major motorhead/petrolhead, but for those of us who want the thrill of a Hal Needham movie without a degree in automotive engineering, there’s nothing that satisfies like a high-speed, loosey-goosey arcade style racer.

With “Burnout” all but retired, it’s up to EA’s “Need for Speed,” a franchise with countless iterations dating back to the ill-fated 3DO console in 1994, to pick up the slack.

“Need for Speed: Rivals” shares DNA with some fan favourite racers, most of all being 2010’s world-class “NFS: Hot Pursuit,” but it is the sort of irresistible charm for online gaming that many are hoping for?

It’s this focus towards an online multiplayer experience that “NFS: Rivals” has tattooed proudly on its shoulder.

The first thing the game does once the title screen has been cleared is randomly drop you into a group of up to six players, and sets them loose on the streets.

Gamers choose between playing as the Law or the Racers out to break it, and their career progression is based on winning races, or taking out the competition.

In some scenarios, it is in everyone’s best interest to work together, with bonus XP being served out on hot spoons for the whole group, as opposed to just the winner.

It is entirely possible to play offline (although, markedly less fun), or to set up private rooms for playing exclusively with one’s friends.

I like how XP is handled between Cops and Racers, as Racers can build multipliers and gain more and more points for staying longer out on the road, but can lose it all in an instant of being wrecked or busted.

It’s a daunting Risk vs. Reward scenario that plays out like an automotive take on the insidious “Dark Souls.”

Cops don’t lose points for getting wrecked, but they also have to take their XP from the Racers they take off the road — making playing online a blue collar experience for the thin blue line.

Of course, this is all well and good if you can luck into a day when there is a surplus of gamers interested in playing a certain flavour of Need for Speed; or if all of your friends online share your zeal for cars and crashes.

But the large open world tends to work against the formula that made “NFS: Hot Pursuit” an instant classic. The streets are filled with A.I. racers and cops, but the map is so massive that with just six players spread across, it is easy to play for an hour and never encounter another actual gamer.

One would think that the open world of “Burnout Paradise” would blend nicely with the nitro-fuelled gameplay of “Hot Pursuit,” however, it blurs the action a little too much. There’s no driving force to pull players together, and the open world feels gimmicky as a result.

I’ll put it to you this way — “Halo” didn’t ask gamers to traipse around a massive map looking for multiplayer matches.

This is unfortunate, because as a collection of parts, “NFS: Rivals” is a pretty awesome little game.

The way career advancement is handled feels more natural than it did in “Hot Pursuit,” and makes it just as fun to play on both sides of the law.

The handling is tight enough to carve through traffic, yet once can still rocket around a corner with a beautiful drift at the tap of the brakes. It’s action movie driving at its best.

“Rivals” also looks like a million dollar ride, with great looking textures, and a smooth frame rate.

The soundtrack is standard EA racer, a nice mix of indie sounding rock, with hip-hop and electro alongside buckets of pseudo-Hans Zimmer film score — all of which is perfect for trading paint on a rain soaked stretch of California highway.

When “Need for Speed: Rivals” works, it is absolutely brilliant, a real firecracker of a game.

Getting a full load of players together for a race or a three-on-three battle between police and street racers is a blast.

But the empty open world feels like a bloated and unnecessary addition that acts a bulwark between groups of players already much smaller than the massive teams we already had in “NFS: Hot Pursuit” or “Burnout Paradise.”

As it stands, it’s a very good to great arcade style racer, that could’ve been a must have killer app for car nuts.

Platform: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC (PS4 version reviewed)

Developer: Ghost Games/Criterion Games

Publisher: Electronic Arts

Release Date: Nov. 15, 2013

Rated: E10+ for Everyone 10 and up.

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via thejonmercer@gmail.com.