Over the past few years, the Need for Speed franchise has found itself torn in all sorts of directions. When Criterion first picked up the series, they brought to it their open world expertise from Burnout Paradise, the Cop and Racer divide and, perhaps more influentially, Autolog.
However, this was amidst the two Shift games, focussing more on track racing, and the widely panned The Run, before they could follow up with 2012’s Most Wanted. This time around, they focussed on the more open world aspects, with a huge array of collectables such as playable cars, billboards and so on.
Ghost Games’ Need for Speed: Rivals sits somewhere much closer to Hot Pursuit than it does Most Wanted. There’s much more structure to the game than in Most Wanted, for one thing, returning to a clear progression through ranks, levels and missions, so that you unlock new cars and abilities as you go. There’s quite a neat divide between the two sides of this high speed war, with you able to switch from your career as a Cop to that of a Racer whenever you’re in the garage.
It’s at these safe houses and command posts that you can switch up your car, customise liveries, add pursuit tech and pick your next Speedlist and Assignment challenges to progress your career. They bundle objectives together for the next time you head out on the road, so that instead of just clearing the board of races, time trials, pursuits and so on, you’re also aiming to hit a Racer with three pursuit tech powers, for example.
The kinds of objective you’re given depends on which path you take through a career. Both sides of the law let you pick between three styles of gameplay, and have objectives and cars with specs and looks tailored to them. On the Cop side, the Patrol path and cars are your middle of the road fare, whilst Enforcer cars are about head to head dealing of damage and takedowns. Finally, Undercover cars are unmarked and able to blend in with Racers before going live with lights and pursuit tech for takedowns. The racers have Race, Pursuit and Drive classes as their loose equivalents.
So when you hit the road, you will often have a clear idea of what you want to do out there. You can initially spawn wherever there’s a safe house, command post or event, or even set waypoints with the simple Easy Drive menu system on the D-pad.
However, you won’t even need Easy Drive to get online and play with other humans. In fact, you’re always online through AllDrive, barring an internet outage, or you opting out of online play. It is a technology designed to artfully weave players into each other’s games, for moments of immersive gameplay and general online tomfoolery.
The delightful thing about it is that your paths might cross at any time. I was midway through a Pursuit mission with a fellow Cop when, out of nowhere, the other two players in our session rounded a corner on their own race and caused a massive head-on crash.
Playing with friends should be easy, as you’ll pop up on one another’s maps when picking a spawn point. You can’t spawn directly on another player, but with a little thought, you can meet up along the way, and set way points. Getting an event to start is as simple as everyone stopping in the right place, and one person hitting the L1 button. The only problem is that the world is huge and filled with enough distractions to cause difficulty when rallying other players.
The cars are a pleasure to drive along the windy roads of Redview County, and the game is certainly quite a looker. Frostbite 3 is a very good looking piece of technology, and here is was running at 1080p30 on next-gen hardware, for something quite visually stunning. The landscape and scenery sees you able to drive from the snowy mountains down to the coast, with waves crashing against the rocks and spraying up into the air.
The handling is certainly quite arcade-like, letting you put the car into a drift around some of the many long corners with ease, and is fun to just pick up and play. Though Redview was actually quite sparse with the amount of traffic that I saw, it is with quite regularity that I saw AI Cops and AI Racers getting involved with chases.
You can easily join in with or start your own pursuit, by flicking on your lights as a Cop, and giving chase. As a Racer, on the other hand, you might be the target of Cops who are slightly harder to ignore, especially whilst hounding you across Redview. Getting back to your nearest safe house in order to bank Speed points and save your completed Speedlist objectives will be a priority, so you can then buy more unlocks, whilst as a Copper you want to be taking down as many cars as possible to steal away their Speed points for yourself.
Helping you take down and evade will be the pursuit tech, items which you have to buy on a car-by-car basis, and which will handily deal damage to enemies. Popular items like the spike strip return, and you can call in for a roadblock too, whilst they go up to the more exotic side with the air blast shock ram – SHRAM – and an AI Racer I was pursuing unleashed an electrically charged hull, to deal a lot of damage to all the Cops surrounding it.
I can’t quite put my finger on why, but Rivals already has that feeling of a “Best of” compilation, revisiting the divided paths of Cops and Racers from Hot Pursuit, crafting another grand open world and taking so much of the infrastructure that Criterion pioneered to the next logical step. It’s with AllDrive that this game is really pushing the franchise to new heights, and along with much of the gaming industry, it’s helping to make this ever-connected future actually sound quite appealing.