Ah, old faithful. A franchise nearly as old as 3D gaming itself, Need for Speed has been around for four console generations, delivering hours of thrills to varying degrees of success. The series has seen highs (Underground) and lows (The Run) in its nineteen year history, but it came into almost total clarity when Criterion Games took the helm. Injecting elements of their massively successful Burnout series into the franchise, Hot Pursuit and Most Wanted were great entries that brought it back into the spotlight and ensured its viability for the upcoming generation. With Most Wanted, however, the team may have gotten a little too close to realistic mechanics at the expense of the high-speed thrills of Hot Pursuit. Developed by Ghost Games, which is kind-of-sort-of Criterion, Need for Speed Rivals remedies that with one of the fastest entries in the series yet.
Need for Speed: Rivals has a story in the sense that there are cars going fast and cops that need to go just as fast to catch them. There’s narration and cutscenes as it progresses, but they’re really just meant to elicit a mood and do so quite effectively. Upon starting, players choose to either be a racer or a cop. Both campaigns take place in the same world, but are completely separated from each other. Each has its own unique cars, event types and objectives. Everything takes place in Redview County, which is a geographically dense area that includes forests, deserts, mountains and a few sparely populated towns for good measure. Rivals blends an open world with a mission structure thanks to the Speedlist, allowing players to either do missions or simply cruise around at their leisure making trouble.
The Speedlist is an interesting new mechanic that makes knowing objectives simpler than ever before. Throughout the campaign, there is a career flow that separates events into three Speedlists per chapter. There are six categories available: Race, Pursuit and Drive for racers, while cops get Patrol, Undercover or Enforcer. Three Speedlists must be completed to move onto the next chapter and can be mixed and matched from any of the categories. Speed Lists typically include three or four objectives, which range from racking up Speed Points to completing events.
Speed Points are the currency and lifeblood of the game, collected by successfully completing events, busting racers, escaping cops or otherwise wrecking havoc. Every racer has a health bar; the longer they survive, the higher both their multiplier and heat level gets. Health can be replenished by driving through a Repair Shop and having a high heat level doesn’t necessary help you unless you’re the kind of person who loves continually running away from cops, but it does work hand in hand with the multiplier to raise your score. Both SP and the multiplier continually increase until the driver banks it by heading to a Hideout (for racers) or RCPD Mobile Command Posts (for cops). If a racer gets busted or destroyed before reaching one of these safehouses, they lose all of their accrued SP for the round. The kicker? Whichever cop busts the player steals their SP. This gives a constant sense of danger and intensity not usual for games of this type, as one must always be conscience of their current status and make sure to not peak their head out too long before returning to safety. The only downside is that there are relatively long loading times both going in and coming out of the safe-houses, making for an unfortunate break in immediacy.
These safe-houses function as garages where cars can be purchased, upgraded or customized. New cars become available as Speedlists are completed and rank increases. Cars range from muscle cars like the Ford Mustang GT to dream cars from Lamborghini and Ferrari. Customization includes paint, rims, decals, license plates, wraps and liveries. Some of these are available from the start, while others most be unlocked and some even cost SP. Cars can also be upgraded in five categories: Durability, Strength, Control, Acceleration and Top Speed. Each category has five upgrades, meaning that it will cost quite a bit of SP to fully deck out a car. This system is refreshing for two reasons. One, it doesn’t get into the specifics of parts for what you’re upgrading, simply sticking to the basics as any good arcade racer should. Two, in many racing games the only relevant cars are the ones unlocked last as the early ones are inferior in practically every category. While that’s true here, even a starter car can hang with the supercars and reach speeds of over 200 mph when fully upgraded.
Events include Races, Time Trials and Hot Pursuits for racers, and Rapid Responses, Hot Pursuits and Interceptors for cops. Hot Pursuits are races where cops are in pursuit, Rapid Responses are a take on Time Trials where cops have to go through multiple checkpoints as quickly as possible, while Interceptor missions task cops with bringing down racers. This can be done by either destroying the racer’s car or pinning and disabling them from moving for a few seconds. Racers can escape cops by either outmaneuvering them and getting out of view or by taking down the cops. Although there’s only a handful of event types, each is expertly tuned to offer a maximum amount of speed and most importantly fun, so it comes with relief that there aren’t rushed modes that you have to muster through. More still, there are nearly 150 events in all, ensuring that there will plenty to do even when playing offline.
Besides events, there are Speed Cameras, Speed Zones and Jumps to find and master. This is where the addictiveness of the online functionality comes full circle as players continually get updates on if their friends beat their times thanks to Autolog, inspiring them to do the same. Autolog has been indeed retuned this year to work simultaneously with Need for Speed Network, which is an app and website designed to keep track of the game anywhere you go. Unfortunately, it doesn’t activate for a few days, so we were unable to test the promising functionality. Online play is seamless in that while you can create rooms, you’re always assigned to a group of six players online in the same world. If friends are playing, you’re typically automatically dropped into their game and can bust or race them as you please. Dubbed “Alldrive,” the world is dynamic meaning that it’s not uncommon to be driving down the road when another player blasts pasts you with five cop cars hot on their tail, possibly dragging you into it. This lends a level of realism to the multiplayer that makes it a persistent online world, yet at the same time doesn’t ever feel unwelcome. Racers and events are started simply by coming close to other players and hitting a button, getting rid of lobbies and other nonsense.
Who would have thought that the latest entry in a near-twenty-year-old franchise would be the best original PS4 launch title? While Shadow Fall may be best representation of the PS4’s visuals, Need for Speed Rivals is the best representation of its power. It’s blisteringly fast, not batting an eye at speeds over two-hundred miles per hour for a sustained period of time. Cars look realistic, environments are highly-detailed and the dynamic HUDs and interface are the best the series has seen. It’s raw, visceral, intense and boasts a ton of replay value thanks to over one hundred events and seamless online multiplayer. Need for Speed Rivals proves how impressive a PS4 racing game can be by offering a fully realized product that blows past conceptions of what a launch title can offer.
Version Reviewed: PlayStation 4