Everyone in this year's Need For Speed — racers and cops both — is an arsehole. Neither side is likable. Thank God. It's incredibly freeing to be a total, speed-obsessed jerk, especially when it's accompanied by amazing visuals and intense velocity. Way to welcome us to next-gen, Need For Speed Rivals.
Viewed on PlayStation 4, Rivals will make your eyes pop out. The streaks of rain on your car's back window, the swirling leaves as you blaze through a forest road and a rock-solid framerate all combine into an experience that feels cutting edge. Piloting a Bugatti Veyron cop car into a rowdy scrum of illegal street racers during a thunderstorm through canyon roads feels like a collective fever dream that Ghost Games decided to make a reality. All of it happens with an amazing sense of speed, too. This game is the enemy of blinking. One distraction and you're screwed.
Players will control both a racer and a cop during their time on Redview City's streets. Rapid Response/Time Trials are point-to-point races, Hot Pursuit has cops trying to shut down a whole competition while racers try to finish and Interceptor makes players chase down or run away from a single car. There are standard-style races, too. All of the action lets you treat the world's most exotic cars in completely outlandish ways.
The game's Pursuit Tech gadgets get equipped in one of two slots. These items can send out shock waves, generate electromagnetic interference or call in helicopters to drop spike strips along a race route. They all have cooldown periods so you won't be able to spam them one right after the other on opponents.
Almost every action in the game earns Speed Points, which you use to upgrade your fleet of cars. If you get busted by the cops as a racer, you lose all Speed Points. It really sucks to build up a nice cache of Speed Points during a session playing as a racer, only to lose them when you get busted. So it pays to bank them at a Hideout when you can. The campaign's broken into chapters that will require you to do things like wreck a certain number of racers, get a Silver finish in a race event or exceed a requested speed for a couple of seconds. Events come in either Race, Pursuit or Drive categories (Patrol, Undercover or Enforcer for Cops) and you'll need to do at least one type to complete a chapter and unlock more cars and gadgets. It's a branching structure that lets you sample and eventually play to your strengths. For example, I'm not a precision racer but was still able to progress by choosing missions that let me bust racers as a cop.
As far as story, it's what you expect. Racers want to race. Cops don't want them to race. There are some horrible videos about police going over the line and drivers just wanting to, like, be free, man. The Cops campaign endgame is a call-up to the Vehicle Response Team, the FBI's special anti-street-racing team. Yeah, I don't know. Just go with it. Or not. Short as they are, the interstitials aren't worth watching. The dialogue is terrible, like daily affirmations for dudebros or, I don't know, CrossFit for gearheads. Do yourself a favour and use those moments to answer nature's call, especially since there's no pause functionality in Rivals.
That's right. When you press the Options button, all that does is bring up a map overlay so you can pick the next thing you want to do. The only way to suspend the racing — must… race… more! Why aren't I racing right now?! — is to head to a Hideout or Command Post. These spots are where you'll do grades or switch back and forth from racer to cop.
You need to have your console connected to the internet to play Rivals. There's no offline mode. The networked nature of Rivals' AllDrive design is simultaneously its biggest strength and greatest liability. It means that you can be in the middle of a Time Trial and see another bunch of folks tearing arse at the intersection right in front of you, with all the jerky control of real-life humans.
The best thing about Rivals is how its various elements can interlock with each other, creating a crazy minute-by-minute escalation of tension. If you thought trying to catch up to the guy in first place on a winding stretch of road was hard, try doing it with a pack of rabid cops swarming all over you. But then a friend or random stranger can speed into the next lane and get the pigs off your tail. Awesome. Or that same person can try and bust you. Also awesome, just in a different way.
But when online hiccups happen, everything about the game is affected. Watching one of the terrible cutscenes that make up the game's anaemic story? Not anymore you're not! "You have disconnected from the current game."
Inexplicably dropped sessions are a major pain in the arse with Rivals. Sure, host migration happens quickly enough when a connection is lost. But I lost progress two times after the action started back up. One of those instances was during a challenge that required me to rack up 100,000 Speed Points during one session. After about an hour of play, I got up to 50,000 some-odd points before a broken connection killed my progress. After host migration, I was slammed back to a big fat zero.
Why did this happen? Was no part of my data being saved locally? Was a running total not tacked to my profile? Was it lost in host migration? I have no idea and therein lie the perils of an always-online game. While the appeal of AllDrive is apparent, cracks like the one above make me wonder why the developers didn't make the feature something that runs in the background. Even the worst punk in the world doesn't deserve to have their session scuttled by network woes.
When it's working as intended, Rivals presents a strong case for games that intentionally blur the line between playing by your lonesome and being part of a virtual community. All the game design chops in the world can't hold a candle to the elation of winning out over another person in competition, or helping a buddy complete a tough pursuit. But the best iteration of that impending future is still a ways away and Rivals also illustrates going to be a turbulent journey to smooth, reliably connected always-online console experiences. But Rivals looks good enough and plays sharply enough to make me want to stick around and watch how the kinks get ironed out.
Update: A previous version of this review said that there is no offline mode in Need For Speed Rivals. That was incorrect. It's a better experience with an online connection but can be played without one. We regret the error.