With the lack of a first-party racing title arriving at launch for the PlayStation 4, EA jumped on the chance to have the only game in town, and released Need for Speed: Rivals a few days early for Sony's next-gen console. Criterion has stepped to the side for Ghost Games, which delivers an adrenaline-fueled racer that makes the series as competitive as it's ever been, and truly delivers on the Rivals namesake.
The fictional landscape of Redview County has a problem. Illegal street racing has driven almost all of the normal population from the humble mountain locale. The local government, obviously fed up with the many fast cars, dropped a boat load of money on the floor at the police precinct, and ordered up the largest contingent of law enforcement vehicles we've ever seen. While there are a few citizens occupying the roadways, almost every foot of asphalt is being battled over by the racers and cops. It's a lot like West Side Story, only there are way fewer knife fights and elaborate dance numbers. When it comes to plot, Need for Speed titles have never been the most engaging, but that's perfectly okay. In Need for Speed: Rivals, racing is your business, and business is booming.
When you first start up, you'll have to play through two tutorials (one each for cops and racers). You'll get a lay of the land, and learn the immediate differences between the two career paths. It should come as no surprise that as a racer, you'll have to... wait for it... race other cars around Redview. Each chapter of Rivals has you completing various Speedlists in order to progress. Early on, the Speedlist challenges ease you into the many ways you can earn Speed Points (Rivals' version of experience), but as you progress further into Rivals' missions, things become a bit more complex. You might find yourself having to earn first place in a number of races and successfully use pursuit tech on multiple opponents.
You can also choose to ignore your Speedlist entirely, and just roam the countryside picking up races with the touch of a button. Some races or challenges will be locked behind Rivals' leveling system, but there are always going to be at least a dozen races out in the open, not to mention Hot Pursuits initiated by cops looking to take you down at every turn. Everything you do out in the world builds up your multiplier/heat level. The higher your heat level, the more effort the police will put into taking you out. Of course, the higher your multiplier, the more Speed Points you'll earn for completing tasks in the game world. The catch is, if you get busted or wreck your vehicle, everything resets, and you lose all the accumulated Speed Points you've earned. You can return to any hideout in the game world at any time to bank your points, but once you do, the multiplier resets. It's a dangerous game to play with so much experience on the line, but it can be extremely satisfying to wrack up tens of thousands of points, escape the cops, and bank a nice haul of Speed Points.
As a racer, Speed Points are important in upgrading your car and unlocking faster, stronger rides. However, as a cop, Speed Points are infinitely more useful in unlocking new Pursuit Tech. Racers can use Pursuit Tech, too, but for the cops, it's as crucial as a highly-tuned, infinitely fast ride. Dropping things like spike traps in the road, or using EMPs to shut down elusive drivers before they get away can make all the difference in a hot pursuit. In the cop career, you don't have multipliers or have to buy cars or upgrades. Completing Speed Lists earns you new vehicles for the car pool, and all of your Points can be saved for purchasing the better Tech you'll need as you level up against better racers. The cop career isn't as engaging as that of a racer, but it is incredibly fun to hunt down speedsters with high heat levels, and ruin their day. Playing as a cop may not be as glamorous, but if you're the spiteful type, taking people out all day long should be right up your alley.
Now, what truly makes Need for Speed: Rivals stand out is its approach to online play. When you're online, there is no different multiplayer mode. Redview County is a persistent online world, and you'll be dropped into a map with up to five other players. You can be either a cop or racer, but where once you were only taking on AI opponents, now you'll have some actual people out there to push you to your limits. If you thought playing as a cop was fun against the computer, just wait until you bust or wreck an actual human who's got a decently high multiplier. The euphoric feeling of causing someone to lose hours of work can't be matched. The same could be said of being a racer. Building up a huge stash of Speed Points in a play session won't be hard, but keeping them with real players acting as Five-O breathing down your neck at every turn is a challenge. Escaping a massive police chase with your car intact (and more importantly, your accumulated Points) provides a feeling of invincibility and pride that can't be matched. That is, until you do it again.
Of course, playing online does have some disadvantages. Whenever the host drops, Rivals instantly tries to migrate to the next available player server. This however causes a break in the action, which could result in you not only losing a race, but also any momentum you had in evading the cops. You see, only human players are affected, but the computer keeps driving even when the servers are being swapped. It doesn't happen often, but it happens enough to be annoying. It's yet another reason why banking your points, either as a cop or racer, is important.
On next-gen consoles, Rivals looks stunningly impressive. While it doesn't quite match the highs of something like Forza 5, the car modeling, lighting and reflections all appear sharper and more detailed than the current generation counterparts. The full day/night cycle, particularly blinding sunrises in the mountains, looks great, and the added random weather effects bring a bit of personality to Redview's landscape. That said, the car damage modeling isn't that impressive, and for a county filled with trees of all shapes and sizes, they sure do look rather last-gen. Part of that has to do with Rivals being a current-gen game co-developed for next-gen at the same time. Obviously some assets got better treatment than others, but it really stands out upon closer inspection.
Need for Speed: Rivals is one of the series' most enjoyable entries in the last few years. There's a great multiplayer component built right into the core game, and the racing and cop careers are both enjoyable for different reasons. You shouldn't feel obligated to pick up Rivals since it's the first (and only) racing game available for the PlayStation 4 at launch. You should pick it up because it's a lot of fun, and it takes the series in a new direction we can't wait to see explored further.
This review was completed using a retail copy of Need for Speed: Rivals on the PlayStation 4.