Need for Speed Rivals Review for Xbox One, PS4

Platform: Xbox One
Also on: PS4, PS3, Xbox 360, PC
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: Ghost Games
Medium: Bluray, DVD, Digital
Players: 1-6
Online: Yes
ESRB: E10+ – Everyone 10+

I was twelve, and the only TV in the house was in the living room. It was a 25″ CRT or something, and the only appliance to plug in a game console, VCR, or whatever else you could do with a TV in whatever year that was. Probably a lot of people remember a childhood like this– waiting for the evening news to be over so you could play games for an hour or two, fighting with siblings about who’s turn it was, and constantly at war with the surrounding distraction of a family environment. Turn down up the volume to compete with kitchen noise, turn volume down when yelled at, controller cable management when someone walks in front of the screen.

God damn when someone would cross in front of the screen. If anything never changed, it’s the eternal battle with people crossing the screen, even in present day. Sometimes it was almost an added challenge, because who actually pauses a game for a couple seconds? What’s the worst that could happen when the experience is interrupted?

NFS14 2013-12-14 13-47-56-07Sometimes it seems like this was the focal point for Need for Speed: Rivals, when at 192mph in the homestretch of a race that you’ve been ripping into for a half hour to clamp down on the gold medal you rightfully deserve after all your– Host Migrating. Just hold on a second, host is being migrated. Where were we? Oh, the event. It’s done, or over, or exited, or something. We can restart the event if you want. Hope this wasn’t inconvenient in any way, it’s just our netcode taking care of business.

This issue is absolved when playing offline, but at what cost? Need for Speed: Rivals wants us to be socialites in a game built around the idea of always being connected to half a dozen people in the same open world as you. It’s the big reason we can’t pause in single-player, which is only a technical gameplay mode since Rivals is experimenting with the hybrid model of combining multiplayer and single-player challenges into one big happy family.

When Rivals’ gameplay works, it works swimmingly, but God help you if someone disconnects, or your network connection drops and dumps you back into the Garage to re-assess your car, goals, or patience. Frankly, I’m not sure if it’s worth the tradeoff, but rather than make a larger mountain out of a– well you know what, it’s currently a mountain of an issue. I haven’t yet successfully played a full session online where there wasn’t some network issue, so maybe by the time you’re reading this review there will be a better or more stable solution for maintaining persistence in Rivals’ online world.

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Note: Screenshots are from the PC version.

Let’s pretend instead of a simulated home environment where gameplay is continuously broken up by a connection to Origin, that we live in an isolated apartment with a wired Google fiber connection or whatever it would take to create a reliable online experience. Turns out, there’s this kind of cool Need for Speed game hidden beneath a variety of issues, some of which have nothing at all to do with the internet.

Players are given two full “campaigns” to rummage through as either a Racer or a Cop, fulfilling tasks as they progress through a variety of missions, most of which are based on the handful of activities the game accommodates (ie. grab two gold medals, finish any Hot Pursuit event, slam into cops). Open world games can really fall apart with the slot machine style of mechanic mixing that they relax into, and while Rivals isn’t without casualties to this typical approach, there are individual events that shine more than others, and the occasional blooming of a rampant chase halfway across the map without wrecking. Unfortunately, the high points of Rivals rely on happy coincidences, and while these have greater lasting power as dynamic situations, there’s an amount of orchestration on Ghost’s part that is lacking in the overall experience.

NFS14 2013-12-14 14-08-14-01When combining campaign assignments with the regular instance of encountering a Racer, there seems to always be something to do. Jumping into a Head-to-Head or Pursuit is encouragingly easy to do, which serves as the game’s instant gratification button, next to the D-pad’s Easydrive menu system for navigating events and GPS points. Confusingly, it seems that events take time to leave, and the Easydrive menu lacks transparency in what it’s going to allow players to do in a given moment. At one point you may decide to leave a Head-to-Head challenge, and after doing so in Easydrive, may want to navigate to an event, but the only options in Easydrive are GPS and Players.

Additionally, there’s a NFS app on PC, iOS, and Android, which can be used to set waypoints, create an Autolog Playlist of activities, and of course play in the Overwatch mode where you can grief or assist players in real-time. The only feature that I’ve noticed actually works is Overwatch, as the Autolog playlist and waypoints never managed to appear when set. This seems like something that can be tweaked down the road, but I’m not sure if it’s the app’s fault or simply that Easydrive doesn’t seem to always be in the mood to talk to me about what’s available at times.

NFS14 2013-12-14 14-08-24-01This is also the first racing game to use the Frostbite 3 engine, which I think means it specializes in a lot of visual effects since Rivals is coated in a layer of particles and filters to color each of its environments in a fitting way. Somehow, it almost makes the map seem more claustrophobic in sectioning off regions with a colorset. That said, one of the small rushes I’ve grown fond of was blowing through a cornfield or fence, with a substantial amount of debris and audio crunch to satisfy the feeling of full-on property destruction that we like in racing games. It’s welcome tricks like this that add an attention to detail which prevents a racing game’s environment from feeling sterile– either invincible or unphased by player interaction.

Regular pop-in, on the Xbox One at least, would suggest that there’s still room to grow, as well. At least the framerate doesn’t seem to have any issues.

Rivals continues to be a mixed bag in playing both sides of the campaign. Racer cars offer further customization, but at the cost of having to firstly purchase them outright (unlike the freely distributed Cop cars), and with durability that will make players feel like they’re suffering from an emaciated level of HP when compared to the brutish defense of a Cop. Alternatively, Cops get to have all the aggressive fun, but end up feeling so much more accessible that it’s almost difficult to find the appeal in the Racer’s shoes. Instead of a risk/reward balance, it’s like Rivals offers either full risk as a Racer (all accumulated points can be lost whenever wrecked, in a world where being bullied on the road is a regular occurrence), or total reward as a Cop (where aggression is encouraged and points go largely towards pursuit tech power-ups).

NFS14 2013-12-14 14-01-24-01Deciding on a campaign boils down to whether you’re in the mood for a hard or easy mode of gameplay, since it’s going to take a thicker skin and more skilled driving to get anywhere as a Racer. Maybe it would have been nice if each campaign offered a better balance of difficulty.

The overall design of the world is at once both obnoxious and exhilirating, with wonderfully placed turns capped off with a misplaced jump that will send you into geometry if at any other angle than what was intended, which will result in wrecking and needing to be reset on the course. A map that is fluid throughout is probably the hardest part of an open-world driving game to nail down, and Rivals drops a mix of conducive racing road that happens to be checkered with shortcuts and diversions that probably looked good on paper. Frustratingly, there are inappropriate real-world instances of shoulders, buildings, light poles, and overpasses that lead players into a head-on collision with a wall when other barriers can be smashed through with reckless disregard. Turns out, you should probably take an all-or-nothing approach to avoid pushing players towards the mindset of a trial-and-error-learned “better safe than sorry.”

NFS14 2013-12-14 13-52-44-01I also noticed a few quirks that seem to have gone completely unexplained, where for instance the game will randomly pan the camera around your car as you’re still driving, not entirely sure what it wants to be showing you except probably the wonder of how far automotive geometry has come in games. There still doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason for doing this, although it continues to drag me back into my living room when my brother decided to wrestle the controller out of my hands a key point in Mario Kart, causing me to lose the tournament and resulting in a fight that sent us to bed early.

We’re back in my childhood, apparently. That’s probably a sign to end this review at the summary of “really fun when not annoying” and let you decide where things should go. That’s not to say that the core game is rock-solid, since it seems to have a handful of design issues and various bugs that will (hopefully) be squashed in a future patch. Rivals does a great job of proving its worth when all the gears are turning, but with the rate its gears fall out of sync, it’s tough to call it a solid step forward for NFS. It’s certainly a step forward, albeit one with some lessons for Ghost to learn while they hammer away at the next entry.

I have to go now; my mom says it’s time for dinner.

Grade: C+