STAFF REVIEW of Need for Speed: Rivals (Xbox 360)

Wednesday, December 4, 2013.
by Khari Taylor

Need for Speed: Rivals Box art Need for Speed: Rivals is the latest in a line of EA titles that is available for both next-generation consoles (Xbox One and PS4) as well as current gen-platforms (Xbox 360 and PS3), which puts this game and its intended market in a curious position. As an Xbox One title, Rivals offers an immediate, open-world arcade-thrill alternative to the hardcore simulation experience that is Forza Motorsport 5, and seems like an easy choice for racing fans to make, given the limited launch lineup currently available on Xbox One. On Xbox 360 however, fans of arcade racing shenanigans have many more recent options to choose from to get their thrills, from Turn 10's Forza Horizon to EA's own Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit and Need for Speed: Most Wanted; the latter two games in particular sharing not only many of the same development team members but also several of the same themes, gameplay mechanics and concepts. So assuming that it's all been done before, should players bother taking Rivals for a test drive on current-gen?

Like 2010's Hot Pursuit, Need for Speed: Rivals revisits the cat-and-mouse, Cop versus Racer dynamic that has become synonymous with the Hot Pursuit moniker. While the setting has moved from the fictional American northwest county of Seacrest to the equally scenic (and imaginary) Redview County, the deadly rivalry between the thrill-seekers and the law remains the same. Players can choose to play as either a street racer or a highway patrol cop and can switch between careers at any time from one of their chosen faction's garages, which also serve as car customization hubs, fast travel waypoints and mission control centers. Regardless of which side they play on, players will ultimately need to purchase new vehicles, Pursuit Tech weaponry and performance upgrades with Speed Points (SP) in order to progress, and just as one would come to expect, this in-game currency is earned by completing missions, performing dangerous stunts and traffic maneuvers, damaging or wrecking other cars, and meeting certain criteria in multiplayer situations. As players complete objectives they will move up in rank, unlocking faster vehicles and more powerful Pursuit Tech. There's a specific storyline for each faction as well, in which a self-important, off-screen narrator tries to justify with increasing rhetoric the reckless driving and blatant disregard for human life each side displays in their war to shut down the other party. Both yarns are ludicrous, paper-thin and highly implausible, but they are still entertaining and effective in establishing just how different the Cops and Racers are from one another.

And it is this difference that will keep players engaged long after they've dismissed the plot, as developer Ghost Games has added a bit of Dark Souls' secret sauce to Criterion's Need for Speed Formula to make playing both Cop and Racer equally addictive and enjoyable. Wait...Dark Souls? How could that Japanese fantasy roguelike and a Need for Speed game have anything in common, you ask? Just read on.

Keeping in theme with the dangerous lifestyle of illegal street racers, the Racer Career in Need for Speed: Rivals has been altered heavily from earlier games to operate on a risk-reward system, where Speed Points earned on the road can only be saved to a Racer's account by safely making it back to a hideout. If a Cop wrecks a Racer's car before they can reach a garage and bank the collected points, all the SP accumulated during that outing is lost to the Cop that busted him or her. Naturally, the longer a Racer is out on the road and the more objectives, missions or stunts that Racer completes during that time will result in more SP earned, which in turn will raise the Racer's "Heat Level", making that player a bigger target for the police. While this might seem like a bum deal for Racers at first, this mechanic actually helps to create the high-stakes, high-challenge scenario that a Racer would crave, and reminds players that every drive they take out on the road as a Racer is a serious gamble.

Of course, with high risk comes high reward. As mentioned earlier, Racers can use their SP to purchase vehicles from a wide selection of real-life sports cars and super cars once they have been unlocked, as well as Pursuit Tech such as Shockwave bombs and EMP blasts to thwart the police and other Racers, but they are also the only faction capable of purchasing performance upgrades for each and every vehicle that they own. As a result, Racers must be careful in how they spend their hard-fought SP. Do they stick with the cars that they've currently unlocked and upgrade their tech and performance to the maximum, or splurge on that fancy new Lamborghini or McLaren that just rolled into the shop? While it won't take long to start unlocking a decent selection of rides, players will likely find themselves forming personal attachments to their favorite cars as they invest more money in them and use them repeatedly on multiple missions. Naturally, they can also personalize each car even further with new paint jobs, liveries and even custom license plates.

Conversely, the Cops of NFS: Rivals are agents of the law and funded by the local and federal governments, so they do not have to purchase any of their vehicles. In fact, their “free” fleet of high-performance cars is almost as varied and exotic as that of the Racers, with many of the cars having up to two additional variants that will gradually unlock depending upon what style of law enforcement that the player chooses to drive: Patrol (The fastest but least rugged variant), Undercover (unmarked and thus easier to get the jump on Racers with) or Enforcer (built for punishment and ramming perpetrators off the road). Best of all, in addition to confiscating all the unbanked SP of each Racer that they bust, Cops retain all of their SP, even if they wreck. There is a small downside, however; apart from their license plates, the look and performance of Cop vehicles are "as-is" and cannot be upgraded. Consequently, players in the Cop Career will be spending their SP exclusively on Pursuit Tech upgrades for their favorite vehicles, which include several tools not available to Racers, such as the ability to set up roadblocks, call in helicopters, or drop spike traps to blow out the tires of other cars. Essentially, Cop vehicles are meant to be used a means to an end, with the emphasis on getting the player out on the road and hunting down Racers as quickly as possible. After all, every great anti-hero needs an equally dangerous and cunning arch-enemy.

The career mode of both Cop and Racer are further differentiated by the variety of missions available to them, otherwise known as Speedlists. Each chapter of the game is composed of one or more of these, each one containing a checklist of objectives to complete before a player can move on to the next, with a new unlocked car as a reward. In addition, each Speedlist is always offered in the form of three different themes around which the lists of objectives are focused. In the Racer Career, these themes are Race, Pursuit and Drive, while in the Cop Career the themes are Patrol, Undercover and Enforcer. In most cases, each theme offers the player a different approach to completing the mission. A Race Speedlist for example, might require a player to get a second-place finish in two separate races, wreck a fellow Racer's car, and score a hit on another Racer with an EMP weapon. Meanwhile, a Pursuit Speedlist may ask a player to start a chase with the Cops and then lose them before a timer runs out, and then deliberately sideswipe or rear-end 3 police cars. The benefit of having themes is that players can complete most missions via the Speedlist that best compliments their preferred play style, and while the Speedlists naturally will get longer and more difficult, players are free to "tick off" as many of the objectives as they like per session as long as they stick with the same Speedlist until it is completed. This means that the aforementioned Racer could earn his two second place finishes, return to a garage to bank his accumulated SP (which automatically autosaves the player's progress regardless of career), then go back out on the road and complete another one or both of the remaining Race objectives. Or they could risk losing all SP to the law in exchange for the thrill of attempting to complete all objectives in one outing. While the latter choice may seem foolhardy, the drive back to the nearest hideout or outpost can be long and perilous for Racer and Cop alike, while the opportunities to participate in additional events and activities are plentiful.

This brings us to the second key feature of Need for Speed: Rivals that not only sets the game apart from both its predecessors and competition, but also ties all the above discussed elements together into a killer, must-play title: Online. Note that I did not say "multiplayer". This is because much like the aforementioned Dark Souls, Need for Speed: Rivals effectively destroys the line between single-player and multiplayer by making them one and the same. Once players have connected to the internet and created an EA Origin account, Rivals immediately logs in to EA's servers and connects the player's game with that of up to six other players via its seamless multiplayer matchmaking service called "AllDrive". There are no lobbies, no chat rooms. It’s your game; all the other players just happen to be playing and causing havoc in it (and vice versa). While this means that players can (and will) attempt to impede your progress (especially Cops), live players can assist you directly or indirectly in just as many ways, if not more.

Fellow nearby Racers for example can draw some police attention off of you if they have a higher heat level, or use their Pursuit Tech to help take down a common enemy. Likewise, when playing as a Cop, other live Cops may jump in along with the Cop AI to assist in a pursuit not only to help you but to complete their own Speedlist objectives. Obviously, players can choose to interact directly as well. Pressing LB while driving in close proximity to a Racer will issue a head-to-head race challenge (as a Racer) or a high-speed pursuit (as a Cop), and a minor collision (accidental or deliberate) with said vehicle will also have the same effect. Players can pull up the Redview County map at any time to locate where other live players are and set a waypoint directly to them in order to join them, or track and hunt them down to settle a personal score.

The most fun to be had in Rivals however is the kind that happens organically, and AllDrive is designed on purpose to encourage these sorts of interactions. Players that drive close and/or participate in events together earn RP multipliers, and any Racer that happens to be in close vicinity to another Racer who starts a race event will automatically be included in that race (which one can then choose to decline via the game's Easy Drive quick-navigation system should he or she not wish to participate). The only real negative is that without a clear lobby interface, players who specifically want to play with a group of their friends may have to do a bit of server hopping before they are all able to wind up in the same online instance of Redview County, and with room only for six players in server, not everyone in your group may be able to play at once.

Having recently played a next-gen version of Rivals, I can attest that from a graphics and audio standpoint, Need for Speed: Rivals for Xbox 360 loses very little in comparison to its prettier sibling on Xbox One. All the notable effects are there, including the drifting Autumn leaves, particles and debris that float and brush past as your car hurtles down the interstate; the crazy bloom effects and dynamic lighting as helicopter spotlights and police flashers bathe both hunter and prey on rain-slicked, mountain roads; and the gorgeous, accelerated 24-hour weather changes and environments capable of changing from one season to the next in the time it takes to pass through a highway tunnel.

As with past Need for Speed games, the audio is at the top of its game. The individual sound of each car engine will make your surround sound system purr, and every crash, rollover and bass beat will give your subwoofer a workout. The police radio chatter is dynamic and informative, keeping both Racers and Cops informed of what's happening in the chase, like if a roadblock has been set further up the road, whether the barricade succeeded or failed in slowing down the target, or if a Cop or Racer has joined or left the chase or been taken out. There are few criticisms that can be leveled at Rivals' presentation if any. When the action gets heavy, details on the cars and environments tends to blur and pixelate slightly, but at worst this degradation comes off as a special effect of the high rates of speed players experience in the game -- a very small concession.

Ironically, Rival's main problem is that the game often becomes a victim of its own ambitions. Simply put, there are just far too many icons on screen. HUD elements. Heat Level icons. Curved trajectory lines that draw themselves on screen whenever players race past a potential jump. All sorts of triangles, circles, arrows, symbols and colors in combination on the mini-map. The screen is almost always busy and full of distractions, which can get in the way of enjoying all the beautiful details and scenery. Nonetheless, it goes without saying that the driving in Need for Speed: Rivals is sublime, a refinement of what we’ve come to expect from the franchise since Hot Pursuit. Powerdrifting around a turn and hitting nitrous to shoot out of it hasn’t felt this natural since Burnout Revenge, and crashing authentic, real-life, multi-million dollar cars at high speeds has never looked or felt sexier.

Rivals is without a doubt a game that anyone with even a passing interest in arcade racers should take for a $60 spin. Not just because it refines, distills and purifies the elements that made Criterion Games' Hot Pursuit, Most Wanted and Burnout: Paradise great games, though normally that would be enough. Not because it's easily one of the best looking and playing Need for Speed games of the entire franchise, though normally that would be enough as well. The reason why Rivals is worth your $60 is because its AllDrive system has raised the bar for how smooth, painless and organic multiplayer can be in an online racing game. While certainly not the first game to attempt to meld solo and multiplayer into one complete experience, Rivals nails the execution of this goal better than any racing game that has come before it. In this regard, it has already beaten next generation titles with similar ambitions to market by several months (e.g. The Crew, Titanfall), and while its scope is much smaller with only six players, when you’re playing Rivals with a complete group of strangers and having just as much fun as you would have with your actual friends, there is no doubt that “smultiplayer” (single-player + multiplayer) is the future of racing games. Yep. You heard me. Smultiplayer. Take that, Drivatars!

Bottom line: Need for Speed: Rivals for Xbox 360 is a next-generation game that you don’t even need to buy a next-gen console to play. It just doesn't get better than that.

1) Simplify the on-screen clutter, when the action gets heated there's simply just too much going on. 2) Expand the number of players in a server to at least 10 players, six is too small (the same limit is true for the next-gen version).

Overall: 9.0 / 10
Gameplay: 9.0 / 10
Visuals: 9.0 / 10
Sound: 9.0 / 10


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