*Note: This review is based on my experience with the Xbox 360 version of the game. I felt I should put this in because I experienced a number of technical issues with the game and it is possible that the next-gen version isn’t as buggy.
I’m not a big fan of racing games. It is rather rare that I actually decide to play one, but on the occasions that I do I always go for arcade racers over simulation ones. I enjoy going insanely fast and being on the verge of losing control while also slamming into the guy beside me in the hopes that he will wipe out. My two favorite racing games are Burnout 3 and the original Need for Speed: Most Wanted. Ever since Criterion (the studio that made Burnout) took over Need for Speed I have been meaning to try and get back into the series. In a show of how rare I play racing games, I am only now getting around to seeing what they have done with it. Ironically, I was a bit late as Need for Speed Rivals was handled primarily by Ghost Games, with some assistance from Criterion.
The thing that made me choose Rivals when I held off on Hot Pursuit and the new Most Wanted was the connected world that this game was offering. The idea of doing a race in an open world that just happens to take you by another player who is playing as a cop and then having to pass the computer racers while evading the player controlled cop was really cool. Another interesting possibility brought about by this connected world was two races intersecting and, at least for a time, doubling in size. I really thought that the connected world would lead to higher highs in the game, but instead it simply lead to more frequent lows. If you are playing on a system connected to the internet you have no choice, but to join a connected world (once there you can go into the settings and create a private lobby so you are alone) that can take up to a few minutes to find or create if no one is found. The world holds up to six players, all of which are focused on completing their own individual objectives. I found that being in a world with other players led to some degree of lag about half of the time and being near them often made it much worse. On multiple occasions I tried to bust a player controlled racer and found myself incapable of doing so. The lag made me miss all of my attempts to ram, side-swipe or even land a Pursuit Tech hit because the player had already moved far away from the position I was seeing him in on my screen. I had to disconnect my ethernet cable from my 360 in order to complete the game, since on top of the lag ruining the moment to moment gameplay experience frequent host-migration would screw up the events I was participating in.
Even when playing offline, NFS: Rivals has its share of technical problems. There are a large number of glitches in the game; such as one area I found (and by found I mean crashed and went flying into) that kills you because it is out of bounds, yet is also a part of the spawning area resulting in an endless cycle of life and death. Other glitches include: the inability to start an event when you drive up to it, starting an event without all of the event vehicles spawning (in a Hot Pursuit as a cop this means the event is unwinnable as you are tasked with busting more racers than are present), the map not providing details on events, the Pursuit Tech ammo counter not dropping or showing that it is reloading even though it is done and lastly, losing control over your vehicle. You read that last one correctly, there have been points where the car won’t start when I press RT and others where the controls stop working while I am driving and strangely even moving in different directions from where I have my analog stick positioned.
When the game is working and you are racing against the AI or trying to bust them there is fun to be had. The cars control well and have a nice weight to them making the impacts satisfying, but the game isn’t exceptional in either of these regards (or any other really). There are abilities called Pursuit Tech that you can use, which adds some variety from the Kart Racing genre to the experience, but they are not as creative or fun as what you would find in something like Mario Kart. Unfortunately I feel like open world racing games suffer from feeling too repetitive as you are going through the same environment over and over again and the events would be more enjoyable if they were on specifically tailored tracks as opposed to sections of a larger area. This would also allow for new places to open up and excite the player later on in the game.
Another thing that usually excites the player as they progress is the new cars that they unlock. Rivals has a lot of cars, but unfortunately the game basically discourages you from trying them all out. Every time you unlock a new car as a racer you not only have to pay for the car, you have to pay for all the stat and even Pursuit Tech upgrades that go with it. Your fully upgraded starting car is better than the majority of unlockable cars’ starting stats making the investment necessary to put them above your starting car seem like a waste. I kept my starting car until I was a few events from the end because I figured I would need a better car and had unlocked one of the best in the game at this point. Unfortunately, I was wrong because the enemy cars are determined by the vehicle you drive. This means that picking a faster car made my opponents get faster cars, thus eliminating any sort of edge I hoped to gain. This also means that it is a totally viable option to stick with your starting vehicle forever. The only problem is that certain Hard level events will be more challenging because better cars also have better levels of Pursuit Tech. Like I said though, I was able to get near the end before deciding I wanted a better car, as opposed to finding I needed it.
At its core Need For Speed: Rivals is a good racing game, but not a great one. Unfortunately, that core experience is hampered by a variety of technical and design issues. It is a real shame that the connected world, which what was supposed to be Rival’s biggest asset, not only failed to offer anything of value, but managed to hold back and disrupt the experience of playing it. Even if you are a fan of racing games I think it would be best to just pass this one by.