Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit’s greatest contribution to seamless play was Autolog; for follow-up Most Wanted, it was EasyDrive. Rivals’ intended equivalent is AllDrive, a system that transplants players into other drivers’ games in service of Ghost Games’ goal of “destroying the boundary between single- and multiplayer”. It might have worked, too, if the challenges of developing a next- and cross-gen game hadn’t so sorely hobbled Rivals’ potential.
The payoff is that Rivals is beautiful on PS4, Xbox One and PC – all three versions were tested for this review – taking full advantage of DICE’s Frostbite 3 tech. Redview County combines elements of California and Europe, resulting in a diverse environment that even occasionally recalls OutRun. Expansive dust-blown desert tracks, tightly wound snow-covered tarmac and bucolic vineyards all sit within a few miles of each other, but somehow cohere into a naturalistic world. Cars shimmer with surface moisture as the space around them fills with leaves, snow, rain or whichever other particle effect is being shown off. And the day/night cycle and dynamic weather system transform the world to such an extent that you’ll trek back to some places just to see them under new conditions.
Ghost Games’ debut feels like an amalgamation of Criterion’s previous two Need For Speeds – and no wonder, given that 80 per cent of Criterion joined Ghost earlier this year – though Hot Pursuit’s influence is more keenly felt. Rivals has brought Most Wanted’s open-world design and EasyDrive into the mix, but its urban sprawl has been abandoned in favour of Hot Pursuit’s sinuous country roads and weighty handling model. You can choose between Cop and Racer careers, too, switching allegiances whenever you want, your progress dictated by the completion of Speedlists, a selection of tasks themed around three driving styles.
Whichever faction you pick, the map is bristling with challenges, triggered by pulling up to the relevant junction or roadway and tapping a button. Hot Pursuit, Interceptor and Time Trial events are shared by both sides, while bespoke events are limited to one. Racers can trigger head-to-heads with AI or human drivers, while Cops can begin ad-hoc pursuits by simply switching on their sirens near a Racer, or take on Rapid Response missions, which require quick, clean drives.
A new risk-reward mechanic makes the Racer career the more exciting of the two. You still amass Speed Points (SP) for racing, bombing through speed cameras and terrorising other drivers with near misses, but now you must bank them at Hideouts dotted across the map. The longer you stay on the road, the higher your Heat level (and multiplier, up to a maximum of 10x) gets, and the more SP you’ll earn for feats of wheelmanship. The problem is, you’ll also become a more valuable target, and if you’re busted, you’ll lose the lot. It’s an excellent system, one that adds to the irresistible sense of misbehaviour while you’re on the road.
The Cop career is more pedestrian, since you’re never in jeopardy of losing SP, nor is there ever any risk that your events will be interrupted – whereas a Racer’s time trial could spontaneously become a car chase, too, if you’re unfortunate enough to attract the attention of a patrol car en route. As well as SP gained from events, you’ll also confiscate it from Racers, those with higher Heat levels yielding greater hauls. But there’s something inherently less satisfying about chasing down AI Racers when compared with escaping AI Cops.
Somewhere in among all this, buried beneath the obligatory particle effects and a bundle of frustratingly underpolished systems, there’s a classic racing game. But you’ll have to wade through so many annoyances to get to it that its pleasures erode quickly. It starts with the small niggles, such as the fact that the GPS system doesn’t reroute if you move closer to, say, another Repair Shop than the one you initially set. But there are more fundamental problems in play.
Rivals’ fictional Redview County is both beautiful and expansive, but AllDrive limits you to the company of just five other players at a time. The result is that, on a server populated by strangers at least, you’ll rarely cross paths with a human driver. You can set a GPS route to someone, but the EasyDrive drop-down menu doesn’t give any clue as to who’s nearest, or whether they’re playing as a Cop or a Racer. Unless you’re using the second-screen Need For Speed Network app, this means you have to dip into the main map; the game can’t be paused, so this leaves you unable to steer your car, putting your precious SP at risk. And once you’ve hared along the roadway to try to meet up, you might find they’ve already entered a Hideout to bank their SP.
Playing with friends improves things significantly; a little communication lets you take advantage of the fact that every event in the game can be undertaken cooperatively. But this rather undermines the promise of AllDrive. Autolog seamlessly delivers new challenges and maintains an atmosphere of social competition, but AllDrive’s limitations force you to seek out your own fun. Ghost has tried to compensate by filling Redview’s roads with AI drivers, but they only serve to highlight how rarely you’ll interact with other players.
These all-too-rare occasions spent enjoying Rivals’ skillfully engineered handling alongside someone else offer confirmation of Ghost’s ambitious vision for a new Need For Speed. But outside of them, dazzling 1080p visuals, astonishing weather effects and a sense of competition feel like too high a price to pay for such a profound dip in the series’ mechanical polish. Rivals’ systems show potential, but it is considerably less than the game it might have been.
Need For Speed Rivals is out now on 360, PC, PS3, PS4 and Xbox One.