The core of Need for Speed: Rivals's action is held together by ambitious ideas, many of which don't work as intended.
The driving game genre has seen quite a bit of interesting multiplayer mechanics being implemented over the generations. There was Burnout Paradise with its focus on seamless open world multiplayer lobbies and cooperative challenges, and future racing games like The Crew hope to ignite the same fire for the new current generation of video games. Hell, it's not only racing games doing that now. The trending topic of the previous E3 has been a focus on games that either blur or eliminate the lines between single and multiplayer to create fresh experiences for a new generation, and Need for Speed: Rivals attempts to provide that same concept during the console launch.
After the disaster that was Need for Speed: The Run, Criterion was basically given full control over the direction of the Need for Speed franchise, but after the less than stellar reception of Most Wanted (and I don't mean that Most Wanted) they've recently been downsized into a much smaller team which now no longer focuses on driving games. Rivals was instead developed by a new studio by the name of Ghost Games, with a large portion of the team consisting of the greater chunk of Criterion developers. So, by all accounts, this game is essentially a Criterion project. We've come to expect over the years that Criterion makes exciting racing games with inventive multiplayer systems, and Rivals certainly looks like it continues that tradition. Unlike Criterion's previous offerings, however, the ambitious nature of Rivals doesn't pan out into an amazing experience.
A lot of comparisons have been made between Rivals and Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit, Criterion's racing game that came out in 2010. If you've played that game in the past, many aspects of Rivals will immediately feel familiar. Like Hot Pursuit, Rivals is a video game where you play as either cops or racers in a large world filled with beaches, forests, snowy mountains, and deserts. The handling is also oddly similar. The first time I was able to commandeer a vehicle and drift it around a hairpin turn, I knew exactly how this game treated the handling of its cars. Your car can be equipped with power ups that Rivals calls Pursuit Tech, such as spike strips and EMPs, and the core cops and racers action remains intact. The similarities with Hot Pursuit end there, however, as the game also borrows aspects from other previous Criterion games. Like in Burnout Paradise and Most Wanted, Rivals takes place in an open world with a map filled with several locations and challenges. We see the return of Easy Drive, the d-pad-controlled menu that allows you to select events, locations, and even other racers without interrupting the game, and I don't think its a terrible surprise that it's as functional as ever.
This latest Need for Speed game isn't just a hodgepodge of previous racing games, however. The new hook that seems to define the entire game is the apparent destruction of the line between single player and multiplayer. This is a very untraditional game in general, let alone in the driving game genre. There is no main menu where you either select "Campaign" or "Multiplayer," and the multiplayer does not consist of menus and lobbies where maps and events are decided beforehand. Rather, immediately after the title screen the game searches for a lobby of players and dumps you into the world with five other human drivers. Much like in Paradise, the world is the lobby, and you can either complete objectives on your own or with a group of people. The Autolog system of previous Need for Speed games has been replaced with a newly-named system called AllDrive, which is basically exactly like Autolog but with the additions of handling player interactions in the world. AllDrive lets you know when you're close by to other human players, and it also handles events when multiple people enter the same event. You can decide afterward whether or not you want human drivers roaming your world if you want your game to be completely "singleplayer," but there really isn't much of a functional difference between having and not having humans enter the equation.
You know what? That's a problem, actually. The world, which is at least the size of Hot Pursuit, contains only 6 human drivers, including you. Compare that to Burnout Paradise, which contained as many as 8 players in a much smaller space. The ratio between the amount of human players and the size of the world is going to impact how much interaction you will have with other players, and in Rivals that ratio is pretty low. You can go for long stretches of time without seeing another human being. You can fast travel to a safe house or a command post nearby some humans in hopes of racing or busting them, depending on whether you are a racer or a cop, (Hell, the game pretty much gives you the option to stalk them, if you so please.) but I shouldn't have to make such an effort to play multiplayer.
But I do want to make such an effort, because interacting with humans is the best part of the game. You can play against bots, of course. Bots have been a required feature of racing games since time immemorial, but when AllDrive lets you know of a human nearby, you know serious business is going to happen, but you don't know how that business is going to end up. In the dullest of situations, they'll drive by you with no event or consequence, but other times it can be exciting. You can be in a race event, for example, and a human in their own race event will whiz by you in the opposite direction and create a bunch of chaos, or maybe that other person is a cop and is going to ruin your race and hunt you down. Maybe you're the cop, and when you see a human racer with a high heat level you decide to drop what you're doing to bust them and take a huge amount of points. It's this kind of unpredictability that creates the highest of highs in Rivals, but it happens all too infrequently, and what the multiplayer boils down to is a single-player game with some occasional brief multiplayer instances in the midst of it all.
It's all such a shame, because Rivals gets a lot of their ambition right too. The game does an admirable job of keeping you busy at all times. In a typical racing game, you select an event from a menu, do the event, and repeat. In Rivals, your options are much more open-ended. The way you progress in the game is by completing a series of challenges in what are called Speedlists. These challenges include winning a type or race, using a kind of pursuit tech a number of times, and racking up a certain number of points, to name a few. The game gives you three Speedlists to choose from, so you can adapt the game's progression to your preferred playing style. In times where you don't feel like progressing, there are still the myriad events in the world that Easy Drive will painlessly and efficiently direct you to. If you decide to bust a racer or interact with a human on the way to an event, well, you can drop what you're doing to take part in that instead, and all the while you're earning speed points to buy cars, customization options, and Pursuit Tech.
Choosing to be either a racer or a cop has much more implications than in previous games in the series, as both factions play much more differently. As a racer, you come with a heat level that essentially acts as your multiplier. As you earn more points and pull off more driving stunts, your multiplier goes up, and you earn more speed points faster. Be careful, however, as the higher the multiplier, the more likely the cops (as well as human cops) will pursue you, and if you lose all or health or get busted before making it to a safe house, you will lose all of your points for that session. It creates a lot of exciting tension when you have tens of thousands of points on the line that give you enough to buy those upgrades you couldn't purchase before. The cops, on the other hand, have a job to bust racers, and after busting the racer you will earn speed points on a level similar to their heat level. Add some bonus points if the racer you bust is human. Human players are much more exciting to pursue than bots because, for one, they're human, and for another, humans have the chance to escape the pursuit by driving into a safe house, no matter how many cops are pursuing them, so there's extra tension for a cop to bust the racer as quickly as possible. As for bot racers, they are pretty much free points as long as you persist in following them, and as a cop you don't lose points for losing all your health. Unfortunately, I found one faction, the racers, to be much more fun to play, as the sources to derive tension from were much easier and more frequent to obtain than playing as a cop. In all my time playing Rivals, I never found a lobby in which cops formed a majority.
Another disappointment in the game is the Pursuit Tech system. Hot Pursuit had a similar system where the cops and racers got a fixed number of four power ups for each event, but here in Rivals you only get two slots to apply your powers. There are several more powers to choose from than in Hot Pursuit, each with their own strategic advantages and disadvantages. Just a couple of the new weapons at your disposal are the Shock Hammer, which is basically a shotgun of energy waves that damages anyone in front of you, and the Electrostatic Field, which protects you from EMPs and mines and also damages any unfortunate car that comes into physical contact with you. You can't have all the upgrades, so you have to figure out which two powers you want to apply to your car in order to get the most effectiveness out of a situation. Again, you only get to choose two. This wouldn't be much of a problem if there were more humans roaming the world with their specific loadouts, but there aren't, and the AI doesn't make liberal use of their powers as they did in Hot Pursuit. In any case, you're the only one with all the toys, all two of them, and it's not near as much fun as in the past.
On a visual and auditory level, Need for Speed: Rivals looks and sounds wonderful. The Frostbite 3 engine seems to impress no matter the game and genre, and Rivals is no exception. The improved lighting, the sea of leaves blowing in the wind, and the way water looks while running off the sides of your car are just a few of the details that will amaze your eyes. The sound design is no slouch either. The cars, cops, and the ambiance of the world come with a quality that is comparable with what the Need for Speed franchise has offered before. The same can be said of the soundtrack as well, which is mainly hit or miss. You'll likely latch onto the few songs in the game that make you feel like a speed king and then skip the rest.
Server performance, however, doesn't hold up well at all. There are no dedicated servers in Rivals, so a person at random is chosen to be the host of a world. The quality of the connections between other humans and the time it takes for textures and polygons to update depends on whoever the host is, but what's the worst is whenever the host leaves, an arduous server host migration interrupts everything and takes a minute or two to bring everything back online. This is especially aggravating when you are in an event, and at the end of the process the game seems to randomly decide how the event was proceeding. You could find yourself in first place where you weren't before, or you could find yourself on the other edge of the sword when the game comes back and you're surrounded by cops everywhere. It's out of your control, and it sucks.
If you're in need of help in deciding which version of Rivals to choose in order for the most visually impressive experience, the PS4, Xbox One, and the PC offer virtually identical graphics, so much so that even the PC version is locked at 30 frames per second, the same frame rate used on the console versions. This has been a heated point of contention throughout the Internet leading up to Rivals's release, and the fact that the developers cite the nature of AllDrive to justify the frame rate cap is absolutely unacceptable, especially given that PC machines of the future will be able to run the game at 60 frames with no problems or hitches. (It has been tested that when you mod the game to run at 60 frames, it simply doubles the speed of the game, as if it were on an emulator.) While this is a bummer for the PC version, however, it must be stressed that this isn't the end of the world.
But let's not focus on the visual similarities of versions of the same game, but rather the game itself, which merits much more discussion. A lot of the game falls apart simply because there aren't enough humans in the world to take advantage of all the benefits this kind of multiplayer system is expected to give, and even if there were enough humans the game still wouldn't be the best Need for Speed game made to date with many of the more curious design choices. The sum of its parts simply doesn't add up into an amazing package. At its core, Rivals is still an exciting game that mechanically looks and feels like an arcade racer should, but given that the game doesn't always live up to its ambitions, do know that previous games in the series have done it better.