Though it’s a far less technical and therefore more arcade feeling racer than Forza, Need for Speed: Rivals isn’t something you want to miss as part of the Xbox One launch offering. Its schizophrenic identity of law breaker versus law maker, provides a dual experience of fast cars, dangerous pursuits and intense road battles that trigger adrenaline and joy like seldom few racing titles do. It struggles to cement itself as a different beast to its two predecessors, but like them it’s a pick up and play racer with heart and style, that’s hard to put down.
Indeed Need for Speed Rivals is very much a mixture of last year’s Most Wanted and the previous year’s Hot Pursuit. The returning theme of cops versus racers is present, this time set up as two careers following a flimsy narrative told though live action footage of news reports and social feeds about the struggle between authority and freedom: the law and the racers. You can switch freely between the two careers and experience each side’s different mind-set, roster of cars, equipment, and overall objective. It very successfully shakes up the feel of hitting the road, keeping you entertained with its variety as some events aren’t available to the other side. Meanwhile the open-world sandbox returns. Rivals puts aside the urban sprawl in favour of large stretches of countryside - woodland, coastal roads, snowy mountains and dusty deserts - with small built-up areas. You can freely drive through the large map, enjoying the transitions between the distinct areas whilst jumping into events you find scattered around, or engaging in head-to-heads and pursuits with racers you come in contact with.
Interestingly, Rivals has blurred the distinction between single and multiplayer even further than previous iterations. Autolog still continues throwing up comparisons between your in-game accomplishments and those of your friends, which encourages competition, but it’s the new AllDrive system behind the online world you now inhabit that makes the most difference. Once the tutorial is over you’re thrust into Redview County with up to five other players, alongside AI. Whether you’re interested in competing against fellow humans or you’re progressing through the story, the map is being shared. It prioritises putting you amongst friends, but in their absence you can be sharing the road with anyone. You can opt to jump into offline or private sessions if you prefer, but encountering another player boosts your score - or Speed Points, as it’s referred to - discouraging going it alone. It certainly makes for a more dynamic racing environment. Player controlled cops and racers are far more formidable opponents than the AI, although the AI does have a few tricks up its sleeve, doubling back if you’re chasing them and taking shortcuts that aren’t marked on the mini-map. Also witnessing or joining a pursuit amongst players is an exciting and intense experience.
Progression through the story is dictated by a set of objectives called Speed Lists, which you need to complete each time you jump into a session. From the menu you can select which group of objectives you want to take on. These are separated into different play-styles and task you with beating events such as races and time trials, or taking on other tasks, such as arresting a set amount of racers. These all earn you Speed Points which can then be cashed in at several racer hideouts or police HQs spread around the map. As a racer, however, you need to be ever mindful that your Speed Points can be lost if a cop busts you, and as a cop you can take points off anyone you bust. It makes playing as a racer a bit more difficult and exciting. However, to compensate you for this, racers can gain a score multiplier - up to x10 - the longer they stay in the session, offering up a compelling risk/reward decision and a tempting target.
Completing the Speed Lists for the story as well as just jumping in and taking part in events and spontaneous racing and exploration rack up the Speed Points, which you can use to customise and upgrade your cars. Offensive and defensive weapons in the form of EMPs, ramming bumpers and spike stripes can be purchased and equipped to your vehicles, although you’ll unlock new cars so frequently you’ll want to restrict what you buy until further along in your career. Additionally, rather than joining the fray competitively, with the companion app you can take on a more cooperative role, remotely repairing player’s cars and refilling their boost - which can be saving graces for the drivers. Especially when you consider that there’s some rubber banding going on with the AI that can steal a win from you as you approach the finish line that a boost refill can save you from, and the cops gets so ferocious that it can be a struggle to get to a repair station at times.
Need for Speed: Rivals is a terrific entry in the series, taking the strongest elements of its predecessors to build something familiar but with its sights clearly on the future with regards to online integration. The lighting and weather effects look fantastic thanks to the next generation hardware and the sense of speed is as exhilarating as ever. The six player restriction is a tad disappointing, and minor issues such as the uninspired narrative and the frequent disorientation after resetting from a crash eat away at the experience slightly, but otherwise Rivals is a top notch racer you really shouldn’t let pass you by.