Two years ago, the Need For Speed series underwent a major change when Criterion took over development in Black Box’s stead. Having been a huge fan of racing games since PSX, I wasn’t too thrilled to see the creators of Burnout taking over the Need For Speed series because I was afraid of one of my favorite racing series’ losing its identity. When I did finally pick up Most Wanted, I was left unimpressed by the less than stellar gameplay, and frightened by the realization that Criterion’s takeover meant a fundamental shift in everything in upcoming NFS titles, from driving mechanics to story. It was with cynicism and a little bit of hope that I entered Need For Speed: Rivals, wanting to see something different -- something better.
There is something titillating about Rivals that makes its first impression the most immersive. The graphics are crisp with an uncanny commitment to detail, from the sleek bodywork of your starting Porsche 911 to the sunlight gleaming off its rounded edges. You can see the grainy texture of the pavement illuminated under the glare of the sun, and the engine sounds are so realistic that they blare through the TV as if you were sitting behind the wheel instead. The compelling visuals make you want to experience this game, especially after you’ve heard the dicey opening monologue and undergone the short tutorial. Rivals sets you free early, letting you wreak vehicular havoc throughout Redview County.
Right away, it’s clear that Need For Speed abandoned its former focus on storylines, as each monologue feels more pointless and does less to advance the plot other than hyping up the next “chapter.” Rivals is designed as a (somewhat) open-world, multiplayer attraction that relies on its gameplay as a selling point. The offline of Rivals basically replaces would-be online players with AIs, so the experience is essentially the same except the offline is less chaotic because people are terrible at driving in video games. Seriously, no one knows how the brake works. And while wall-riding and ramming are hallmarks of regular online gameplay, it becomes a problem when a racing series starts to appeal to the casual players who make these mistakes
Whether you choose to be a cop or a racer, driving in this game is artless. Need For Speed: Rivals and Most Wanted play like upscale versions of the Ridge Racer series, which functions around a basic arcade driving style that is predicated on the player’s ability to tap or hold the brake button to “drift.” Rivals fails to adequately punish you for slamming into walls, and unless you tap the brake for another one of the game's forced drifts, you’re constantly understeering along straightaways. The “open world” of Need For Speed is designed as one huge track with varying environmental conditions and few intersections, kind of like an MMO with different PVE zones. Rivals’ advertised non-linearity offers you about as much freedom as the average FPS campaign: The only difference is that you decide the difficulty of the game by choosing what set of objectives you wish to complete to move on to the next chapter.
One of the many problems with Rivals is that it possesses no challenge. Failure is impossible in this game. Success is based on when you complete objectives, and when you take too much damage and basically crash out for good, your progress is tracked so that the only punishment you suffer is progressing without new cars and upgrades. On one level, I understand why progression is forced – in a strictly online-only setting, you’re going to encounter players who set out to troll other players or basically just crash into them (which is now encouraged in the Need For Speed series like in a certain racing game Criterion developed prior). At the same time, this is the risk you take by centering your game on its multiplayer, and if you can’t find a way to actually reward progression then what’s the point of even including the story? Again, completion is only a matter of time and focus, not capability.
Rivals doesn’t have a pause feature that stops the game – a decision that is a source of controversy for many players. Even the offline play forces you to continue until you reach a safehouse, which basically allows you to void entire police chases (even in their duration) and enter the garage with money and progress/complete objectives. The nitrous in this game functions similarly to the “boost” in Burnout, where you’re awarded more fuel for reckless driving (though, to its credit, Need For Speed has been doing this since Underground). Players, rather racer or cop, can choose two gadgets that are dedicated to either boosting them ahead or damaging others. This brings to mind games such as Mario Kart or Blur, except instead of picking up your boosts, you equip your cars with two of them before hand and get two or three uses of each that are replenished with each drive through of a repair shop.
It’s worth mentioning that you can pay in-game currency to upgrade the efficiency of these gadgets, and they go on a cooldown after each use, much like skills in MMOs.
Burnout: Ri – er, Need For Speed: Rivals is a game that employs realism where it chooses, and I don’t mind that. A lot of the fun features in the series’ predecessors have been streamlined – rather than upgrading ECUs, exhausts and engine packages, the categorization of performance upgrades has been simplified to things like durability, acceleration, top speed, and handling. Rather than body kits, Rivals would rather have you customize your paint job, change around your rims and select from an assortment of premade vinyl designs. The old “street racing” atmosphere of Underground has been replaced with one that focuses more on mindlessly crashing into things and using cool gadgets to blow stuff up every so often. Some people will enjoy these new challenges and a lot of others, presumably less than before given the game’s success, won’t. I count myself as the latter.
That is why, in my opinion, Need For Speed: Rivals is a hit-and-miss for the series. I don’t feel like Criterion is doing NFS the justice it deserves, and, quite frankly, I wouldn’t mind if Black Box or the Underground dev. team reclaimed control of future titles.