It’s slightly confusing to be told that a game doesn’t have a single-player or multiplayer mode – could Need For Speed: Rivals be the first ‘menus only’ racing game? But as confident as Ghost Games seems to be about its revamp of the longest-running driving series around, it’s not quite that bold. The reality is that the game is both things at all times: one of those ‘shared world’ experiences that’s suddenly as popular as videos of cats riding vacuum cleaners.
This stems from Rivals’ Alldrive system: as one player progresses, they can cross paths with others doing the same. Each is attempting to complete a specific set of objectives depending on how far through the narrative(s) they are, but they can do so while inhabiting the same map as one another.
For example, Bill is playing as a law enforcer (the game has two full career paths, one for cops and one for racers), attempting to successfully pursue a fleeing felon. Ben has gone full Fast & Furious, and is trying to complete a ‘Drive 190mph for ten seconds’ objective. The two are progressing in their own single-player campaigns, but – what’s this? – Ben’s top speed cruise is taking him right into the path of Bill’s high-octane chase. Flowerpot Man down!
What these intersecting game worlds mean is unpredictability, with Ghost Games hoping that each player will have a markedly different experience, depending on what overlaps Alldrive provides for them. And these needn’t just be disastrous: two friends playing as cops could team up for a triumphant pursuit, or one racer could run interference to help the other escape.
Whether you’re alone in your world or it’s as crowded as a Rolling Stones gig on a rush hour Tube, you’ll be working towards completing the various goals the game sets. For cops, these are split into assignments. For racers, they’re called Speedlists. Either way, the principle is the same: a to-do list of five or six objectives, chosen from a selection of three at the beginning of your play session. These can be completed in any order and as quickly or slowly as you wish/can manage. Finish one and you’ll move on to the next set of three, and so on and so forth.
“We are trying to draw on that DNA from previous Need For Speed titles, to make
sure we’re doing something people recognise
as a Need For Speed experience”
You can dip into each career as you wish, transferring your allegiance from cop to bad guy more often than during a slightly sauced-up viewing of Heat. And each side has its own narrative, delivered via cutscenes that kick in at points as you travel up the assignment/speedlist ladder. The similarity to Hot Pursuit is intentional, says producer Jamie Keen: “We are trying to draw on that DNA from previous Need For Speed titles, to make sure we’re doing something people recognise as a Need For Speed experience and bringing through the franchise strengths.”
Going hands-on with Rivals also brings to mind the previous titles, despite the overhaul that the driving model has undergone: “We have rewritten the handling from the ground up for Frostbite,” adds Keen. “We draw from real-world stats but we don’t want to go too far into ‘sim’ territory – we want a hallmark of authenticity, but something you can just pick up and play.” And you can. Having grasped Rivals’ drifting system, we thrash around the winding highways with gay abandon, through an analogous version of the western United States that takes in a wide spread of desert, mountain, forest and seaside environments. All in all, it feels lovely to drive. Cornering is mainly a drifty case of using the e-brake, and liberal application of boost means consistently high speeds: you’re always in that sweet spot of being right on the cusp of losing control.
One of Rivals’ strengths is that its structure provides pulse-pounding excitement alongside more tranquil pleasures. The open world and lack of a time limit when completing objectives means you can explore at your leisure… but as soon as you become engaged in a race or chase the sense of speed is exhilarating, and there’s no let-up. You’re driving some of the world’s most expensive supercars (think Lamborghinis and Astons) down roads that would have Jeremy Clarkson dumbstruck for hyperbole – fail to have fun here and you really are dead inside.
As well as feeling great, the game looks gorgeous on PS4 – and the team insists the PS3 version will push technical boundaries, too. Keen reveals both will also reintroduce customisation: “Personalisation is a big thing for us: you can modify the visuals of the car, and also the tuning and upgrading of the performance. It’s not super detailed, but it’s the right level where you can customise cars for yourself.” We see different paint jobs, decals and wraps, and some basic but meaningful tweaks under the bonnet, with more on the way. While Rivals is unlikely to bother GT6 in the tinkering stakes, it’s a welcome return.
Combine all this with a time of day system, dynamic weather, including things like oilfield fires and sandstorms, plus trackpad integration (“There’s more to come on that”) and the kind of freeform carnage that the shared-world system presents, and there’s much to be excited about. With Driveclub and The Crew also coming, next-gen racing looks in a healthy position – but as it stands the genre’s godfather is starting on pole.
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