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‘Need for Speed: Rivals’ lends more structure to the series’ emergent worlds

The promise in Need for Speed: Rivals is miles-high, even if it’s tough to really get a sense of that in a preview setting. This first series effort for Ghost Games – and first project overall for the relatively young studio formerly known as EA Gothenburg – appears to fit the mold of past games in the series while reinventing a few ideas, with the aim of delivering a more structured racing experience that still has the breathing room to allow for emergent excitement. The preview setting is less-than-ideal for showcasing Rivals due to the game’s focus on incidental multiplayer showdowns, but the promise of what’s in place here is impossible to overlook.

Story/Concept

Cops and crooks. The Rivals in the title refers to the principle push and pull between speedsters and the long arm of the law. Players follow a path of their own choosing through the game, whether you hit the road as a cop or a law-breaking street racer. There isn’t a traditional narrative like there was in Need for Speed: Undercover, but your progress through the game is marked by chapters, and you choose between three branching upgrade paths with each new step you take.

Cops, for example, must consider whether to go with Patrol, Undercover, or Enforcer. Your choice influences how your selection of cars develops (chapters can also be replayed, for those that want to unlock all the cars). The Patrol path strikes a balance between speed and strength; you don’t have quite as much zip as the fastest rides out there, but you can absorb more damage than those turbocharged speed demons as well. Undercover sacrifices toughness for speed, the po-po version of a proper sports car. And Enforcer… well… take a guess. Ramming speed, go.

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An emergent world. Sitting alongside the chapter-driven structure in Need for Speed: Rivals is a wide open world that populates with fellow human players. While you have the option of turning all of that off if all you want to do is cruise through the campaign, doing so threatens to cut out roughly half the experience. In our increasingly always-connected gaming world, the presence of other humans in your game world – whether they’re helping or hindering you – works to lend fresh wrinkles to long-familiar play.

This is where the preview session has difficulty capturing what the post-release game will feel like, but if our limited time on the map in a LAN party with three other players is any indication, the most enjoyable stories that you walk away from Rivals with will be the ones that other players help you write. Even the spectacular failures, such as one moment during our demo when, after pursuing a speedster for a good five minutes, another cop player came barreling through an intersection in a completely different pursuit… and immediately T-boned our own ride. Frustrating? Perhaps. But the ever-present drip-feed of Speed Points, a holdover from 2012’s NFS: Most Wanted, helps to stem the disappointment.

Gameplay

Car on a mission. Each chapter presents players with a new series of objectives that need to be completed out in the open world. So an early cop chapter, for example, might ask you to earn 5,000 Speed Points (SP) in one session, score a bronze medal on a Rapid Response (an A-to-B pursuit of a scofflaw street racer), and pay a visit to a repair shop. Complete the objectives in a chapter and return to your faction hub – Command Post for cops and Hideout for crooks – and you get to move on to the next chapter.

Of course, while you’re in pursuit of specific objectives in the open world, any number of other things could happen. You might be drawn into a race with another player. Or you’ll spot a nearby event that has nothing to do with current objectives, but seems worth trying. There’s an element of risk/reward in this. The longer you stay away from your Command Post/Hideout, the more SP you accrue. Earned SP isn’t “banked” until you return to one of your faction hubs, but the longer you stay out on the road, the more unfriendly attention you attract (much like the wanted levels of the Grand Theft Auto games). If your car is wrecked before you can get back to a hub with your precious SP, those earned points are lost forever.

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Eye in the sky. Need for Speed: Rivals‘ launch will be accompanied by a second screen app called Overwatch. This tool is helpful for solo players, but the real intent is to bring a second human participant into the game in a sort of couch co-op arrangement. Overwatch presents the user with a top-down map of the world – the same one that players see in the pause menu – that is updated in real time. You can use it to track where a car is at any given moment, and then directly interact with the world in a number of ways.

This might involve giving your friend (or your own car, in solo situations) a nitro or health boost, or it might involve laying down a spike strip ahead of whichever car you may be pursuing as a cop. We didn’t get to try the app ourselves, but we did enjoy the benefit of having someone else use it as we raced. The potential seems high for Rivals to offer a new take on our traditional notion of couch co-op play.

Presentation

Frostbitten. That Frostbite 3 engine, amirite? Need for Speed: Rivals is a sharp-looking game, just like Need for Speed: Most Wanted before it. We sampled it on both a PlayStation 4 and a PC, and it delivered an admirable picture of the world on both platforms. The fantastic sense of speed that comes from the world blurring out around you keeps your attention locked on the stretch of road right in front of you and the ridiculously detailed cars gleam from every angle as the sun brushes across their gloss-painted bodies. There’s an added layer of sharpness in the next-gen version of the game that was only evident in the PC version of Most Wanted. In the early days of the new consoles, expect Rivals to be one of those singled out for its exceptionally delicious eye candy.

Takeaway

Where Criterion Games leaned toward its roots with the Burnout series in 2012’s NFS: Most Wanted, newcomer Ghost Games pushes outward with some fresh ideas in Rivals. There’s no way to be sure of how successful the central online-connected mode will play out post-release, but the promise is certainly there. Look for Need for Speed: Rivals in stores for PC, PlayStation 3, and Xbox 360 on November 19 and for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One on November 22.