I have grown up most of my life playing Need for Speed games. I started way back in my youth by playing Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit (a copy that my dad had) and really came into my own with the release of Need for Speed: Underground. I LOVED Need for Speed: Underground and thought it was the coolest thing ever to trick out your cars with neon, spinner rims, and outrageous spoilers all while racing at ludicrous speeds through a crowded city grid. However, slowly but surely, the Need for Speed series has lost that unique style and feeling that made the original games so great- and I believe Need for Speed: Rivals marks the death throes of a racing game giant. Rivals does a couple unique and interesting things, but almost everything is a replica of the re-release of Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit that came before it.
Before we get into Need for Speed: Rivals we need to revisit Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit, specifically the one released in 2010. In 2010, Need for Speed (NFS) was losing its touch on their games and their popularity was waning. With a bunch of new racing simulation games being released in and around 2010 (like Gran Turismo 5 for the PlayStation 3), NFS decided it needed to change its image and become something closer to those realistic simulation style games that were becoming so popular. Gran Turismo 5 got a huge amount of attention because it was Polyphony Digital’s (Gran Turismo‘s developer company) jump into the modern age of gaming after roughly 5 or more years of video game creation. This attention intimidated the NFS brand into creating a new B-Side version of their game that featured legitimate track racing as opposed to the illegitimate street racing that made the series so popular. The first NFS games to feature track racing were NFS: ProStreet in 2007, and later on NFS: Shift in 2009, both of which mark the beginning of the end for NFS as a whole. All too often in video game development, a brand will attempt to cash into the latest trend and completely lose sight of what made the brand great in the first-place, and why people played their games. Video game developers and their publishers are under constant strain to evolve their series into something new and different every time the player gets their hands on a new game. In this way, NFS was almost completely alone in the street-racing genre excepting games like Midnight Club 3, Midnight Club: Los Angeles, and Driver 3 which it crushed underneath of the popularity that was Need for Speed. This brings us into the age of NFS: ProStreet, NFS: Shift, and eventually NFS: Hot Pursuit.
Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit was, for all intents and purposes, a successful NFS game and had some of the best reviews of the franchise. However, it became a strange hybrid of the arcade racing that players had come to expect and a slower and heavier realism to the cars that called back to the ProStreet and Shift games. One of my favorite things about the old NFS games, specifically NFS: Undercover, was if you got one of the end-game cars and drove as fast as you could, you would actually outrun the loading zone of the game world. This essentially turned the ground and surrounding area into a smooth and un-textured blob that would only load after you hit an invisible car that had failed to load in quickly enough. While I understand that this is a severe gameplay issue for a racing game, it illustrates perfectly just how fast you were going in the early games. Instead of the blistering speed that was a hallmark of the series, NFS: Hot Pursuit and Rivals opted for a more tame and heavy version of driving that was more based on wrecking other players and using power-ups to get ahead. Inadvertently, this ended up creating a blindingly brusque rubber-banding of the other racers, meaning that you could no longer win due to having better gear (like in an RPG) but had to drive more violently and use power-ups to get ahead of your opponents. For those who haven’t played racing games before, Rubber-Banding is when you get extremely far ahead of the other racers and instead of letting it stay that way, the game will teleport the other racers out of view behind you and catch them up in an attempt to create constant tension. Early NFS games were similar to an RPG by letting you equip different gear and upgrades to your car to let even a humble Nissan or Toyota go against some of the best cars, up to a certain point. However, later games went the way of the shooter and created a dumbed-down version that rewards recklessness and not driving skill.
All of this brings us to NFS: Rivals, a fairly fun game to play, but a skeletal experience compared to the games of old. Customization is thin, to say the least, the most you can customize is the paint color and a choice of 4 vinyl wraps that have their own built-in and unalterable color schemes. The upgrading system boils down to get money and shove that money into the upgrade machine to make the car go ‘vroom.’ You play as either a cop, who earns experience and money by wrecking racers and gets free cars every rank and racers, who get to pay credits to customize their car and also pay more credits to unlock the different cars after earning them. The police cars have a huge amount of health that can only be taken down by the late-game racer powers or going light-speed and ramming into their side (just make sure not to hit the front of the cop car, because the cop car will always win). The driving is the same heavy and slow system that they used in NFS: Hot Pursuit before it. Even in a McLaren P1, the final car in the game, you never feel as though you’re going 200 mph (or like 8 billion kph if you aren’t from the United States) and flying through various gorgeous biomes. More often than not, you feel as though you can’t ever escape the car behind you and you are always lagging behind the car in front of you, which creates tension, but also made me feel like my upgrades were never worth it. No matter what car I had (even the final one) I never felt as though I had the upper hand, even in a race with similar, but worse, cars. Which I suppose speaks something of the balancing for the seamless multiplayer components, but that means that almost any car can beat almost any other car- so why upgrade at all? That question illustrates exactly what is wrong with this game and the recent iterations, earning enough money to FINALLY buy a new car was one of the most exhilarating parts of Need for Speed but it wasn’t what you played for. It wasn’t so much that buying the car was the cool part, it was more the anticipation of what you could turn the car into that made the car great. You could take a stock, boring car and turn it into something incredibly fast and outrageously garish if you felt like it, or you could keep it boring on the outside and make it uncompromisingly fast on the inside. Rivals just feels numb. It feels as though it was created simply to put out another NFS game and not to actually innovate anything at all or learn any of the lessons from the old games. The main draw of Rivals lies in the multiplayer component and racing with your friends. But after playing for a few hours you will realize that the multiplayer is weirdly dead without being dead. You are placed into an open-world environment with roughly 5-6 other players who can either be cops or robbers (the split is usually 2 cops and 5 racers), and you all drive around while largely ignoring each other. Rivals forces you to play with other players in the open-world, but they don’t have to be present in each and every race which forms a weird kind of mutual respect between players. I was only engaged with another player once, maybe twice, throughout my entire time as a Racer even though I saw or drove past upwards of 50 other players. As a racer, you avoid actual player cops like the plague, as they are generally MUCH stronger than you and have devastating attacks that can take you out in only a few hits. I think this disparity is why everyone generally avoids each other in the over-world, the normal game is hard enough by itself without adding in actual people who have skill and can think outside the box.
Even though my tone suggests otherwise, Need for Speed: Rivals isn’t a horrible game. You will have fun playing through the story and perhaps racing with your friends, but the annoyances of playing against the computer racers and the game blatantly cheating will test your patience more often than not. If you have liked the past NFS games and like the Hot Pursuit style, then by all means, give it a try- it’s basically the same game. But, if you grew up with Need for Speed: Underground, Carbon, and Most Wanted, do yourself a favor and pass it by.