Need for Speed is back, and with this version probably being the last we’ll see on the outgoing generation of consoles it was difficult to know what to expect. The current crop of titles which are available for both sets of consoles have generally suffered on the lesser machines, so it’s both surprising and impressive that this Burnout/Hot Pursuit hybrid pulls plenty of punches and can happily claim to be one of the better entries in the Need for Speed series.
Recent Need for Speed games have managed to dance around the features wanted by fans, without ever pinning them all down into a single game. Need for Speed brought along the chance to play as either racers or cops, which brought about some great racing action and brilliant online options but lost the open world setting that made Burnout Paradise so fun with friends. This was fixed in Most Wanted which brought back the huge city to drive around in, but dropped the ability to control the police with more of a focus on the racing and all of the cars associated with that.
Image if, by some miracle, a developer decided to combine the two and give us an open city to drive around however we want while giving us the choice of which side of the law to sit. That’s exactly where Need for Speed Rivals comes in to play, and it’s everything we’ve been hoping a Need for Speed game would be.
There are a few different sides to Rivals, and it’s not just a case of choosing whether you want to race or chase. Scattered around the map are various events which, for those who spent time with Hot Pursuit, will be instantly recognisable. For the racers you have a range of time trial and race based events, as well as those which need you to escape from an ever-increasingly irritated police force. Youâ€™ll find these at various intersections and locations around the map, and the more you do in succession without ducking back into one of the various hideouts the more points youâ€™ll get. Itâ€™s a mix of a wanted level and multiplier, which rewards you for being brave and staying out for longer but at a greater risk – get rumbled by the police and you lose everything youâ€™ve accumulated since you were last in the hideout. Itâ€™s a neat risk/reward system, and the attention youâ€™ll get from the police once you reach the higher multipliers is pretty intense.
Itâ€™s a system not really in place for the police side of things, which instead focuses more on the events themselves and more spontaneous events which weâ€™ll come to in a moment. While racers earn cash to buy new cars, upgrade them and paint them pretty colours, the police career unlocks new cars automatically as you rank up, and your hard earned credits can be spent on new technology to add to the cars such as spike strips and other fun toys. Both sides of the fence will need to select their driving style for the upcoming session though, which then dishes out some objectives to meet depending on whether you want to be a slightly more subtle driver or if you just want to make yourself known and go toe to toe with the enemy.
But where Rivals shines is how it interacts with others online – each time you start the game up youâ€™re dropped into a map populated with other gamers (and often a few bots to fill things up) already driving round as cops and racers. If a police chase whizzes past you, and you fancy being part of it, just hit L1 and your sirens will fire up and you can join the pursuit for as long as it takes to bring the pesky racers down to earth. Racers can have similar fun too by inviting other racers to impromptu 1-on-1 sprints through the streets (generally accompanied by a speedy police presence) – they donâ€™t have to accept the challenge, but theyâ€™re tense and close races more often than not and give you something else to do between events. Itâ€™s very easy, in fact, to get carried away and ignore the main events in favour of long strings of races and pursuits, and once you start getting to grips with the numerous jumps, average speed runs and speed cameras around the place you could quite easily go several hours without ever touching one of the pre-made events.
Unusually for a mixed-gen title Rivals doesnâ€™t seem to buckle under the strain of older hardware either. While the handling has all the weight and finesse weâ€™ve come to love from recent NFS titles, the visuals themselves are pretty impressive. Gone are the cityscapes from Most Wanted, replaced instead by the open deserts that made the Hot Pursuit races so fast and driveable, and that change is enough to presumably free up a bit of muscle power to deal with other nice touches; leaves drop from the trees and tumble past you as you Â drift round that nasty hairpin, feeble fences smash satisfyingly as you get your shortcut wrong and take out half of someoneâ€™s garden, and crunching yourself into another car gives that same wonderful smash that have become trademarks of the series since Criterion dropped it into Hot Pursuit – hardly a surprise considering Ghost Games consists largely of ex-Criterion developers. Itâ€™s presentation which bucks the current trend of PS3 and 360 games suffering from poor versions on the back of development being pushed towards the PS4 and One, and those who are sticking with their existing consoles a bit more will enjoy the fact they have something worthy of the back-end of a consoleâ€™s life span.
The always-online nature of things does make Rivals far more enjoyable if your friends have it too – speedwalls and fastest time tables just donâ€™t have the same impact if youâ€™re the only person on there, and a lack of cross-platform comparisons means itâ€™s even less likely that youâ€™ll be able to pad out the PS3 or 360 version with plenty of others times and scores to do battle with. Completing online events is enjoyable enough with random online folk, and the game does a good job of mixing humans and bots convincingly, but these things are always better with friends. On the whole though, Rivals is a mightily impressive title. If you found Burnout Paradise and Hot Pursuit enjoyable, and spend much of Most Wanted swearing at the tight roads and lack of police action then this will land squarely in your court. Itâ€™s fast, itâ€™s fun, and exactly what Need for Speed should be.
Reviewed on PS3