And frankly, that's okay. In a world where the video game racing genre is dominated by Forza Motorsports and Gran Turismo, Rivals is a breath of fresh air. It doesn't take itself too seriously, and while this is both to its gain and detriment, it's this characteristic that I was reminded of each time I began to get angry over a gameplay fault. It was also this frustration that ended up ruining what, at first, looked like a solid title.
As the Need For Speed series seems to be constantly evolving with new set pieces and perspectives in each title, it's important to point out what Rivals is - namely, it feels like a spiritual successor to Need For Speed 3: Hot Pursuit, allowing gamers to take on the role of either a police officer or a street racer. That's really all you need to know, as the few, limited elements of Rivals' story have all the depth and gravitas of Steven Seagal doing Hamlet.
If you're a racer, you just want your freedom, which consists of driving a supercar like a clown. If you're a cop, you want to make the average citizen feel safe, which is done by attempting to wreck other drivers. There's no real extrapolation of these two ideas throughout the title, so it's best just to forget about them completely and focus on the game itself.
And what a pretty game it is. I tested it on the Xbox 360, and even on 'obsolete' technology, Rivals is visually striking. Based on reviews I've read from other, video-game specific publications, those who pick up NFSR for a Playstation 4 or Xbox One are in for a real treat. On the 360, vehicle modeling was slightly under par relative to Forza 4 and GT5, but it made up for this with beautiful, dynamic vistas that were easily the equal of (or better than) Forza Horizon. The mist from waterfalls, the omnipresent swirling of leaves (really, it's cool at first but feels overdone after a few hours of gameplay) and the sheer variety of locales made for a vibrant and entertaining world to look at while traveling at 120 miles per hour (or more).
The mist from waterfalls, the omnipresent swirling of leaves and the sheer variety of locales made for a vibrant and entertaining world.
But much like that very pretty girl in high school who was a few cards short of a full deck, Rivals' good looks belie a variety of gameplay issues that keep it from being as entertaining as it should be.
A racing game needs to walk a thin line between being accessible for new players, challenging for more advanced gamers and entertaining for all. Rivals suffers from being too accessible. Gameplay features that have been adjustable in racing titles for years, such as the ability to choose between an automatic and manual gearbox or whether to run with stability and traction control on or off are inexplicably unavailable in Rivals. The computer will shift gears at all times - even when it leaves you flat-footed in the middle of a pursuit.
This isn't a bad feature for the seven-year-old gamer who hasn't figured out that the brake pedal is there to make you go faster, not slow you down, but it's a chronically frustrating issue that left me shaking my head on nearly every play-through. The other downside of keeping all the cars hemmed in without tweakable nannies and gearbox choices is that a lot of them feel the same.
In general, the physics are far more Cruisin' USA than iRacing.
I didn't unlock the entire bevy of cars available (the selection is meaty and full of high-dollar entries), but when I went from a BMW M3 GTS racer to a Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 police cruiser and wasn't really able to tell a difference (aside from the sound and appearance), it cheapened the overall experience of the game.
Handling is largely predictable, with an elementary approach to understeer and oversteer. Pitch a car into a corner at a reasonable pace, tap the brakes and turn the 'wheel' hard enough, and the car drifts, no questions asked. Understeer doesn't really crop up unless you're going far too fast for a turn. There's no sense of feedback, although as the cars aren't difficult to handle, there doesn't need to be. Sure, you can be a bit of a tool with the gas pedal and get the car to misbehave, but in general, the physics are far more Cruisin' USA than iRacing.
Strike two against Rivals are the events. Set at all corners of the open-world map, the series of pursuits, time trials, races and other events are good for a little while, but grow repetitive rather quickly. A similar argument could be made against any racing game, but many other titles back up repetitive gameplay with other factors like accurate physics and a clever AI that make each race, while mostly identical to the last, challenging in some new and different way. Rivals lacks those factors, and left me feeling a bit bored after running yet another Interceptor or Rapid Response mission.
A big qualm with NFSR is its always-online nature. This seems to be a trend in video games, although this is the first racer I can recall that used it as a major part of the game, although there may be a reason for that. For example, because it's always online, there's no way to pause a game of Rivals unless you make it back to one of the Hideouts or Command Posts scattered across the map. The other thing about always-online games is that you're stuck playing with other gamers. That means there might always be a sociopathic 12-year-old who wants to do nothing more than smash into you. You can go offline and play, but you'll miss out on those times when being online really clicks.
There might always be a sociopathic 12-year-old who wants to do nothing more than smash into you.
For example, I found myself fleeing a rather sizable group of 5-0, when I came upon another racer who laid down some cover with his Pursuit Tech, allowing us both to race off into the distance and escape the pursuing cops. It's even easier when playing as a cop, as you're able to hop into anyone's pursuit and lend a hand in apprehending a suspect. When online play works, it works quite well. There are still issues - we had trouble staying connected - but we suspect it'll be some time before server and host migrations are eradicated from gaming.
The problem with NSFR is that server migrations can really mess things up. If it happens mid-event, you're forced to restart from the beginning. If you're running from the cops with a load of Speedpoints (the in-game currency) in your possession and end up getting busted because the internet has a hiccup, there's not a lot you can do there, either.
Speaking of those Speedpoints, they're the way racers buy all their shiny new cars, upgrades, decals and Pursuit Techs. Racers acquire them by generally being a maniac on the roads - drifting, driving too close to other cars and what not. Cops, meanwhile, earn Speedpoints by busting racers. And by "busting," we mean viciously running into them until their car's health gauge runs dry, at which point the cop snags all the racer's cash. And while it seems easier to earn Speedpoints as a cop, they're far less useful. All the cop cars are provided once you've completed the requisite Speedboard, leaving a heaping helping of currency that can only buy Pursuit Tech.
Pursuit Techs are one of the highlights to Rivals incessant game of cat and mouse.
Those Pursuit Techs are one of the highlights to Rivals incessant game of cat and mouse, allowing both cops and racers to mess with their opponents with things like EMPs and tire spikes. There's few things as satisfying as playing as a cop and using the game's Shock Ram to run a racer off the road or to use an EMP on a cop. It feels a lot like calling in an air strike in Call of Duty, giving you that feeling that you're winning.
Put simply, there are other racing titles we'd pick up before buying Need For Speed Rivals. While it is a graphically beautiful game, its gameplay issues and repetitive nature make it a difficult game to burn hours playing.
When Seyth Miersma reviewed Forza Motorsport 5, he remarked that, "I've had it for two weeks and I can't stop playing it." While playing Rivals, I never had that feeling. I found myself playing in spurts rather than binges, and it's that fact alone that makes this a difficult game to recommend.