The Burnout games were always among the fastest, most exciting edge-of-your-seat racers available on the market. For a time, they co-existed side-by-side with the Need for Speed franchise, with the former focusing on ballsy, death defying adrenaline rushes, whereas the latter was always more of a racing specialist, with the series’ signature cop pursuits a staple of the fun.
Now, with the Burnout series seemingly (sadly) in remission, EA seems to have been steadily been integrating its DNA into the Need for Speed franchise with successful results. Need for Speed: Rivals is no different, and feels like a beautiful marriage between the two games, ingraining the classic Need for Speed ‘cops vs. racers’ gameplay with open-world freedom that lets you play the way you want without giving too much of a helping hand.
We sat down at a preview event for some lengthy hands-on time with the brand new Need for Speed: Rivals, and also had a brief chat with James Mouat, lead designer on the project at Ghost Games (formerly EA Gothenburg), which has been handed the NFS reins for the first time.
We were fortunate enough to experience Need for Speed: Rivals on a PlayStation 4, and the extra grunt that only the next-gen consoles can offer, not to mention the new adoption of DICE’s ‘Frostbite 3’ engine (now playing at a Battlefield 4 near you), makes for a striking first impression. Simply put, you’ve never seen Need for Speed look this good. From the rain teeming down and pattering against your cars’ windscreens, to the gorgeous lighting effects as the sun cracks through the cloud cover, the decision to move to the Frostbite 3 engine is undeniably a smart one.
Mouat pointed out that certain techniques were much more easily made available to them using the new engine, such as a crack of lightning, or other streaming-related techniques which may have eaten up a lot of development time for Ghost Games, but which Frostbite 3 made simple. Of course, having DICE essentially down the road in Stockholm doesn’t hurt when you need a hand, either!
Whilst the game purrs on next-gen, Rivals is also releasing on current-gen platforms, and as Mourat explains, it isn’t an area where any corners are being cut.
“When we were designing the game we made a conscious choice to make sure that regardless of which console you own or which version of the game you bought, you’re going to get the complete feature set. The main emphasis we put on the next-gen consoles was to use the extra horsepower to make the game look even more spectacular.”
Need for Speed: Rivals isn’t one for hand-holding. As Mouat points out, Ghost Games’ intention wasn’t to force gamers to play in any one specific way, but to drove them to explore and play the way they wanted…and it shows. From the get go, the game allows you to go your own way. The ‘racers vs cops’ premise is one that will feel familiar to Need for Speed stalwarts, and it is one you get thrust into immediately.
Should you choose to head down the rebellious ‘Racer’ career path, your objectives will range from the traditional races, to getting certain times in a point-to-point sprint race, to of course outrunning cops, all on the way to becoming the most notorious racer in the land.
If you opt to continue the aforementioned ‘Cop’ career however, you will find an entirely juxtaposed experience to greet you. Whilst traditional time trial races still exist under a guise (being a first responder to an area), your primary goal as a cop is to hunt down, and inevitably take down, the rival racers.
Wanting to keep things fresh, Mouat explained that liberties were taken so as to make both career paths feel exhilarating and unique. “I didn’t want the same experience with just different paint jobs essentially, but two different styles of play. We’ve definitely played up on that, and hopefully people come away from it thinking ‘wow, there’s actually two games here in one box’.”
Both sides come with their own risks and rewards as you rank up, but fret not — players can handily switch career paths at any time via a safehouse (or station if playing as the boys in blue), so you aren’t forced to live life fighting the law, nor are you forced to live the straight and narrow should you choose.
Unlike other Need for Speed titles, new vehicles are unlocked as players rank up in each of the two career modes. Instead, any racer points you accumulate through completed objectives can be spent on upgrades, rims and paint jobs. You also unlock pursuit tech — EMPs, spike strips and the like — which are necessary for both racers and cops alike if they’re to take down their foes (or execute a timely escape), especially as the game progresses and the difficulty ramps up.
Perhaps the biggest single change in this iteration is the always-on gameplay. The game is embracing this industry trend, which was imminently apparent early on in our play session. I was cruising down a highway on my way to a point I had set on my GPS, when suddenly I saw a fellow (human) racer tearing down the opposite side of the road with two cops (also human) following madly in his wake. I immediately pulled the handbrake and took off in pursuit of the group, hoping to aid my fellow racer however I could — and therein lies one of Rivals’ biggest draws on paper. The group dynamic adds an almost gang mentality to the experience, and could potentially add hours of gameplay as you help out your fellow racers or cops in your own little running battles. There’s no sense of ‘experience stealing’ either, as anything you accomplish as a group, you accomplish as an individual, and get an equal amount of racer points.
Another interesting first for the series is the ‘Overwatch’ app. It iis very much NFS: Rivals’ version of Battlefield 4’s ‘Commander’ mode. You can monitor your friends via any Android or iOS device, or even just a web browser, and decide to either help or hinder them, by throwing obstacles their way, or perhaps sending backup. There are certain unlocks which may only be obtained via Overwatch, so there is certainly incentive to use it. While it doesn’t seem like a game changer by any means, it certainly seems like a fun addition to the series.
Need for Speed: Rivals is on-track to be the most ambitious title in the iconic series to date, and is certainly the most connected version of Need For Speed, as it pertains to the always-on gameplay and Overwatch mechanics. The future of the franchise appears to be in safe, nurturing hands of Ghost Games.
If anything, this game certainly has this writer feeling the need, the need for… well, you know.