Need for Speed Rivals Preview

Start your next generation engines.

When it comes to the cars-go-fast genre, sim racers have their niche and I have a finely worn groove entirely established by Criterion’s historically spot-on sense of speed. When I pick up a Criterion racing game, I can tell it’s from the British developer instantly. Random crud from the road flies up at the camera, the car seems to lean back as the center of the screen sucks inward, and the digital speedometer in the corner never drops below 100 miles per hour. It’s for that reason that I was a little apprehensive about Need For Speed: Rivals from franchise newcomers Ghost Games.

Sim racers focus in on so many technical details and precisely learned skills, but Need For Speed, Burnout, and this new game focus on entertaining the attention deficit racer more than anyone else. Last year’s Most Wanted pushed the franchise forward by maintaining the always-connected Autolog service that compares player against player and littering the landscape with leaderboards in Fairview. Rivals continues these mechanics in its new open world dubbed Redview County, but the always-connected experience will further engross fans by way of persistent multiplayer lobbies dubbed All-Drive and new second-screen experiences for the non-gamers or those just looking for a break from the action.

And believe me when I say I needed to rest my eyes and my thumbs every so often throughout my four hours of hands-on time. So much of Need For Speed: Rivals keeps the player in a state of white-knuckled stress and any inopportune nitrous boost or stray nudge of the analog stick could send a cop or racer flying off a cliff or into oncoming traffic. Listening to the interview I recorded at the event, words like “racing tension” (more from Executive Producer Marcus Nilsson here) get punctuated by shouts and protests from my peers. No matter which side of the law players are on, the objective is to go faster than you thought possible while keeping rivals at bay.

A tutorial sequence will introduce players to the different mechanics for Cops and Racers. Police can roam the countryside looking for any random racer to bring to justice while Racers can group up, challenge each other on the fly, and generally set land speed records in unheard of environments. Both cops and racers can set high scores on speed cameras or speed sections (where an average speed for the chunk of road ahead sets the player’s rank on the leaderboard). Cops and racers can look around for jumps and set distance records off of them, but choosing a side really comes down to preference.

Don’t take your choice to mean you need to play through the campaign of objectives strictly as either a cop or a racer before trying life on the other side. Players can switch between the two at will by pulling into a base of operations, either mobile command for cops or a shady garage for racers, and navigating the menus. While the pause menu in-game provides a map and several other options, it was more satisfying to try and focus my preview time. I eventually preferred exploring the world more leisurely as a police officer and I even allowed opposing players to escape my tremendous ramming capability in order to see more of the game’s environments.

As a racer, NPC cop pursuits ramp up in difficulty and danger extremely quickly. If you go out, win a few races, pull up to another racer and initiate a head-to-head challenge with a tap of the L1 button, and generally set awesome records, get ready for a chase. Computer cops, as in Need For Speed Most Wanted, become absolutely relentless at any heat level above 4. Using Autolog, racers can tap the D-pad a few times and get a quick GPS route to the nearest hideout. Pulling in even with cops all around, will “bank” your earned Speed Points and unlock cars, progress the story, and let you check out where other players are at. Get busted and you'll lose all the Speed Points you've racked up in a session.

While many racers and cops around the world will be piloted by NPCs, up to six real people can play in Redview at the same time with All-Drive. That means a race could get interrupted by a pack of human police officers or that a Time Trial cop challenge could get sidetracked by a high-scoring racer on the road ahead. It might prove impossible to maintain focus on one objective or another, but that’s the nature of open-world racing. A constant stream of distractions will pull you by the nose off course, up a big ramp for big air, or into a battle with another player.

Gran Turismo and core Forza games lock players to a race track and tell them to drive loops, but engaging or abandoning objectives freely makes Rivals a more open-ended racing game, a more distracted racing game, a more hectic and frantic experience where a sense of control can be fleeting. On PlayStation 4, the framerate and speed of the game reminds me of burning my eyes out with a CRT TV while playing SSX 3 nonstop. In long sessions tallying hours of intense action, you might want to hop on Need For Speed Network and use your tablet to play. Ghost Games calls this secondary interaction with lobbies full of console players “Overwatch."

The iPad player sees Redview’s map in real time and can watch over both racers and cops. It’s a bit like playing God, choosing who will receive good will and bad will from moment to moment. An Overwatch player could heal a racer or refill his or her Nitrous tank for a speedy escape, or Overwatch could EMP the racer and turn the speed demon over to the cops. Seeing a message pop up on screen that an Overwatch player had fixed my cop car or refilled by pursuit technology EMP and deployable spike strip felt really cool. It could be used to completely break online multiplayer, if one player gets constant aid from Overwatch, or it could be an amazing way to enjoy Rivals without ever picking up the control. Troll entire lobbies of people racing their hearts out or help people excel at the chase.

Even if a player isn’t motivated to hop on his or her iPad in light of a new next-generation console, handing the second-screen device off to a non-gamer can give him or her a unique and entertaining way of interacting with the game. It’s something nearly every major game publisher wants to pull off, but I haven’t seen it work as well as it did during my preview session with Rivals. (More on Overwatch and second screen experiences here.)

Between the five different platforms Need For Speed: Rivals is launching on in November, I was only able to play the PlayStation 4 version of the game. Some of my peers were playing on Xbox One and I heard no complaints from them. From my experience, the PS4 version throws a ton of effects and particles at the player which contribute to the sense of speed, but there were a few times where this early code stuttered with a lot of other cops and racers on screen. The developers promised that the code has seen further improvements since this batch of demo discs were printed. These issues were few and far between anyway but every console launch game is bound to have its own share of problems.

As we’ve gotten closer to PS4 and Xbox One launches, Need For Speed: Rivals seems to fill a very necessary hole in launch software lineups. It’s an arcade racer so it stands apart from Forza, but it’s also the only racing game launching alongside PlayStation 4 following DriveClub’s delay. We’ll have to wait and see how well Ghost Games can capitalize on this opening and whether Rivals lives up to the work Criterion has done on the franchise. For what it’s worth, my hands-on time painted an extremely fast and diverse picture of Need For Speed’s future.