Need for Speed Rivals Review – PC/Origin

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I’ve been a huge fan of the Need for Speed franchise ever since I played the original on my 3DO in 1994, and while there have been a few less-than-stellar installments over the past 20 years, for the most part I’ve enjoyed all sorts of incredible racing action on both consoles and PC.   As we enter a new generation of console EA takes the series back to its roots with some classic “cops vs. speeders” action we all loved in titles like Hot Pursuit and Most Wanted.  In fact it was just over a year ago that I reviewed the new 2012 version of Most Wanted for PC.  I was eager to get behind that wheel once again.

Last year the PC clearly offered the better alternative when it came to presentation and overall gameplay quality compared to the aging consoles, but for their new release, Need for Speed Rivals, the playing field has been leveled and choices are not nearly as clear, at least if you are comparing the PC game to the new Xbox One or PlayStation 4 versions.  Obviously, last-gen versions, while still quite nice, can’t generate the same level of WOW factor that the PC and new consoles can muster.   If you have a powerful PC capable of DX11, this game will dazzle you running in Ultra mode, and the sound effects and music won’t disappoint either with a great selection of songs, powerful engine noises, and cringe-worthy crash effects complemented by endless police radio banter.

Need for Speed Rivals innovates on the somewhat stale racing genre with an original presentation that divides the game into two very unique campaigns; the cops and the racers, and you are introduced to both opposing worlds in a mandatory tutorial sequence regardless of which career you choose first.   Once your lessons are finished you will be briefed on the new All-drive system and then you are finally free to pick a faction and begin your journey.

Rivals is packed with a massive amount of content that is slowly trickled out via the classic method of earning SP to level up your cop or racer, which in turns unlocks new cars, events, and all sorts of customizations options and pursuit gadgetry.  Despite some heavy handed cutscenes evenly dispersed throughout the game, there is no real story other than the ongoing rivalry between cops and racers.  By foregoing the story Rivals gives you the freedom to switch between cops and racers at any time and further personalize that choice by pursuing one of three paths through that career.  For instance, if you are playing the cops you can pick from Patrol, Undercover, or Enforcer at the beginning of each new rank.  Racers have their own three variations, and your choice will not only determine the list of objectives required to rank up but also the car you will be unlocking for doing so.  There is a clever visual flowchart of your career that shows your branching path through each faction mode, so you know where you have been and where you want to go on future replays if you plan on unlocking all 60 variations per career.

For me, the car unlock was never the determining factor in my next branch, but rather the list of objectives.  If I wasn’t in the mood to race through a dozen speed zones or cameras in one path there were almost certainly better objectives in another.   Race cars can be customized and personalized with vanity plates, custom paint, stripes, and skins, all of which unlock as you progress through the game yet still need to be purchased with SP earned while playing it.    Racers also have the ability to install up to two pieces of Pursuit tech; stuff like jammers and EMP pulse bombs or shockwave blasts and turbo boost to help them escape the cops, although turbo is a good way to win races too.

Cops, on the other hand, don’t have the ability to customize their car outside of the license plate, but they don’t have to pay for new cars either; just unlock them and you are ready to roll.  You can install all sorts of clever pursuit tech including a few fun toys that racers don’t have access to like roadblocks and helicopter assistance.   The balance of toys is pretty good with ranged tech like a lock-on EMP or more personal up-close tech like spike strips, mines, and an electro-static field (ESF) that can screw up the electronics of any car you hit.  Tech is attached to each vehicle, so you need to purchase and reequip with each new car addition.

Once you have your car selected and prepared it’s time to exit the garage and venture into the high speed mayhem taking place in Redview County.   The world map is impressively large and contains just about every type of climate and geography you can imagine where going from forest to desert to coastal highway to frozen mountaintop highways is only a few minutes of driving away.   Rivals does a fantastic job of transitioning between these distinct locales so it all seems quite natural.  There is also an accelerated night and day cycle and random weather, and yes, wet and icy roads do affect your driving.

Even before entering the world you can view the map and use the various filtering options to find and mark the event or location you want to do next.   If you are in the garage you can spawn at the location otherwise you’ll set a waypoint for your GPS to track.   The GPS does a great job of showing you where to go without being annoying, as the chevrons only appear on the road during intersections then quickly fade away.   EasyDrive makes it easy to navigate to key destinations without having to bring up the map.  Just a few clicks of the D-pad and you can set waypoints for the nearest base, repair shop, event, or even another human driver.

Speaking of other racers, Need for Speed Rival blurs the lines of single and multiplayer by allowing you to play your game publicly and bringing up to six real drivers into your AI populated world.  You will be able to chat and engage with these players in a variety of ways.   Upon entering the game you’ll see who is playing a cop or racer and then you can form teams, etc.   By working together you will earn extra bonus SP as determined by the number of real players engaged in the current event.  While playing with live humans can be fun, it is sadly just as forgettable since the game has no easy way to get your “friends” into the same game short of setting up a private friends match.   This works just fine, but if you only have one or two friends playing the game that is the limit of your human interaction in All-drive.

Once you are out on the open road you’ll find so many things to do whether you are a cop or a racer.  Cops have Rapid Response missions that require you to race to a destination in a certain time with limited wrecks or property damage, or you can engage in a Hot Pursuit and try to take down a group of racers before they reach the finish line.  Racers can find and trigger their own time trials and races with AI and human opponents.   Everything you do earns SP and may or may not check off a mission objective.   When your objectives are complete you can return to base and bank your SP and rank up for new objectives to stay out on the road and earn extra credits while you explore the massive map.

There are all sorts of sideline activities like speed cameras and speed zones, and ramps to catch maximum air distance, and all of these are synced with the Need for Speed Network Leaderboards that will show the current record and the person who set it.  These distractions are extremely addictive, and I find it almost unbearable to pass by a camera or through a zone that I don’t have the top score.

Another brilliant feature of the game is that both factions have home bases.  For cops, this means a place to swap cars or change out pursuit tech, or just vanish from the map and possibly pick a new spawn point.  Racers have their own base which plays a much more critical role since they must return to a base to bank their earned SP.  This system will certainly appeal to the gambler side of gamers in that the longer you stay out on the road your multipliers and earnings will increase, but if you get busted all that hard-earned SP goes to the cops.  Nothing is more exhilarating than having over 140,000 SP and level 5 heat and being chased by five cop cars and a chopper and you’re 2.3 miles from your nearest hideout.

Playing the cops is by far the easier of the two career paths since the only thing you have to worry about is totaling your car, and drive-through repair shops are generously scattered about the map so that is unlikely.  Racers, on the other hand, are in a constant state of persecution the moment they gain some heat, and even if you do manage to “escape” the cops, all it takes is to get spotted by another or drive past a speed camera and the pursuit is back on.   Racing is almost like a survival mode where you get out there and earn as much SP as you can while checking off your goals and trying to get back to your hideout before you get busted.  That’s where using your Pursuit Tech and learning shortcuts and evasion tactics comes into play.

Need for Speed Rivals is more of a pastime than an actual game.   With no real story or mission structure outside the parameters of the level and asset grinding you can just jump into the game and experience it for the sheer joy of driving.   You can be tooling down the coastal highway watching the surf crash on the cliffs at sunset then spot another racer (human or AI) and with a tap of a button you are now in a head-to-head sprint race, or you can be out on patrol duty busting racers and pass by a Hot Pursuit or Rapid Response trigger, tap a button and you are off.  And regardless of where that mission might take you there is always something cool to do when you get there.   There is always an event, camera, speed zone, or other racer within a hundred yards of you at any time during the game, so you will never be bored.

You can even play the game when you aren’t playing the game thanks to the excellent implementation of second screen support and the new Overwatch mode.   After downloading the Need for Speed Network Autolog app to my iPad I was able to have a world map complete with filters open on my tablet at all times, but even away from the PC there is still plenty to do in Overwatch.     Everything you do in Overwatch costs Fuel that is earned by playing Rivals.   You can use abilities to help people who are playing the game in real-time; things like repairing their damage or refilling their nitro, or hinder them by stealing their nitro or pursuit tech.  Everything you do in Overwatch earns Speedpoints (SP) that will increase your Overwatch level and your abilities.  You can also send out your Network Driver on their own missions.  Missions vary in length and reward and cost Fuel to trigger, but it’s a great way to let the game play itself when you can’t.

Need for Speed Rivals has evolved the franchise from a mere game to an open-world and never-ending experience that can be played and shared with others directly and through one of the best second screen experiences in this new generation.   Despite having no story or motivation beyond simply “unlocking it all”, I was amazed at how addicting this game truly is.  I would actively make time to play it almost every day and when I did I would play for hours – the curse of having no logical exit points short of fatigue.    If you are looking for a wide-open world featuring a wonderful assortment of gorgeous cars, realistic geography, visually stunning scenery, and packed full of racer vs. cop content then look no further than Need for Speed Rivals.

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