Need for Speed games have generally fallen into two categories over the years; either you play as a racer trying to outrun the cops, or the game was more of a simulation style, which just focused on supercar versus supercar. Interestingly, Rivals takes the best of both worlds and concocts an interesting game that has both positives and negatives, but far more of the former, than the latter.
The first talking point with Rivals is the lack of a campaign story mode. There is a single player campaign to complete, but the story is weak and seems like it may have been an afterthought within the whole package. When you look at the rest of the games' features, it's easy to see why as well. Basically, you either play as a racer or a cop and are either fighting the cops or taking down the racers. There is story based cut scenes that play out, but really it boils down to cops vs. racers and who can win in the end.
However, it is when you look beyond the story that you start to see why some of these decisions were made. When the game begins, you are asked to either take on the racer or cop campaign, after which you can swap between the careers during any moment of the game. Each campaign is quite lengthy, so you will most likely find yourself switching between the two regularly to keep the game fresh.
There are also differences to the way the game progresses in each career. On the racer side, the focus is risk versus reward. As you complete tasks or take on cops as a racer, you gain SP points that are used to buy new cars and other items like the pursuit tech on offer. As a racer, you are constantly gambling those points. If you wreck or the police catch you, you lose all those points and that can be a significant amount at the higher heat levels.
The main aim of the racer is to build heat level which in turn builds up the multiplier applied to each point gain. The flipside is that the higher heat leads to stronger police pursuits and other resources, such as helicopters chasing you down as well. However, there is nothing more thrilling in this game than leading a pack of police cars and choppers back to the hideout to escape with little car damage left.
Once you have gained enough SP and levels, you can upgrade technology to take out cars, which makes the game a bit easier - and this is our main criticism with the racer side of the game. The punishment for failure in the early stages of the game is quite significant, and you can find yourself having to perform tasks over and over again to get enough points to progress. If you find yourself heading back to the hideout after every task, you never really get a roll going to gain the high points required. Aside from that, the racer campaign is enjoyable to race through, but interestingly enough the main fun factor from this game can be found on the cop side of the campaign.
And that is because the police campaign has some significant differences. Instead of gaining cars by buying them, you gain them by completing tasks. Whereas on the racer side, you are outrunning the cops, on the police side you are the hunter and this turns out to be a lot more fun to play. Chasing a car down, using pursuit tech and getting a capture is more interesting and that is potentially because it's something new for the Need for Speed series. You've been able to race and play as cops in the past, but nothing like this.
The campaign offers speed lists which need to be completed before progressing. Each level has three different options on both the racer and cop side and this allows you to play the game how you want.
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For example, as the racer, you can choose a speed list that has you taking down cops, or just racing against other players. This level of choice keeps the game from getting boring over its fairly lengthy campaign.
One of the more interesting features of the game is the multiplayer and the integration of it within the campaign. Termed "All Drive", basically when you are playing on a console that is connected to the internet, the AI cars which feature throughout can be replaced by human players who in the game world. This also throws interesting challenges into the campaign because the difficulty of the campaign can actually be affected by how good the human players you are up against are.
When either playing as the racer or a cop, it can be enjoyable just to cruise around the huge open world that the game takes place in. In a style very similar to Burnout Paradise, the environment is full of tasks to complete that you can find just by driving around, and repairing the car is as easy as driving through a service station. This works incredibly well and really the only time you will want to stop driving is when either upgrading or buying new cars. Other than that, you are generally always-on the move. The environment the game takes place in is also impressive with a day night and weather cycle offering different challenges.
In terms of licensed cars, there is something here for everyone including Porsche, Ford, McLaren and for the first time in over a decade, Ferrari returns to the series proper. The cars can be upgraded and each handles and performs significantly different to the others. One area which disappointed us was that the game adjusts the AI difficulty based on the car you are using, so this actually has led to the game being significantly easier to complete with the original car that you get, versus that which you are unlock towards the end. There seems to be disincentive to use the more powerful cars and that is frustrating.
The games' graphics are impressive to say the least, especially on the Xbox One, although not as good as one might expect when compared to Forza 5, for example. Where you see improvement versus the previous generation consoles is the draw distance and detail of the lighting. The game runs at a very fast pace and almost never misses a beat. We did notice that every so often the frame rate took a noticeable dip, but it never got to the point where gameplay felt affected by it. Another quirk is that the rear view mirror only shows outlines of cars, rather than the actual environment. Given this is on a brand new powerful console, this seems quite strange, and potentially something that could have been changed when compared to the old-generation consoles.
Need for Speed Rivals is an impressive first hit out for the series on the new Microsoft Xbox One system. The series has now been going for over 20 years and for EA to come up with something new again is not only impressive, but surprising. All Drive is a fantastic idea that adds even more incentive to either outrun the police or shutdown the racers, and the open world lends itself to exploration and just driving about. It's not without its problems, but Need for Speed Rivals is a pretty good arcade racing game.