Want an audio version of this blog post? Click here.
“Are you a cop? Or a racer?” This is the choice that’s presented to me shortly after a cutscene in which two equally edgy drivers bump their egos against each other for two minutes. The basic premise is that the cops enjoy the thrill of going fast in their cars, and they’re tough guys because they’re the law, whereas the racers enjoy the thrill of going fast in their cars, and they’re tough guys because they break the law. With little to differentiate them, then, I choose racer, a choice which is quickly rendered meaningless ten minutes later when the game forces me to also learn how to race as a cop.
The more I think about what I’m going to put into this review, the more I realise how scathing it’s going to come across. I have some gripes. I have a lot of gripes! So I think it’s important to first of all mention that the game is fun. It’s solid. It’s a good racer, and a decent Need for Speed game. I do not regret my purchase. I am, in fact, considering aiming for the Platinum trophy, which looks to be a bit of a grind. I want to pursue as much gameplay as Rivals has to offer. I’m just not a huge advocate for how that gameplay is delivered to you.
When you begin your career as either a cop or a racer, you’re thrust into the open world of Redview County, a name so generic I had to look it up before finishing this sentence. Redview County is a fairly island-shaped map with four distinct biomes – town, forest, desert, and snow – with very little space to transition between them. There’s literally an area on the map where you drive from snow to desert in about twenty seconds. The visuals also leave something to be desired, but given that this is a game from 2013, I can forgive it a little for being a product of its time; it’s dark, gritty, and grainy, clearly an outlier from the PS3/Xbox 360 era where this aesthetic was commonplace. That being said, I didn’t like the aesthetic any more in 2010 than I do in 2020.
Redview County is not Paradise City. Sure, it has jumps, and speed cameras, and an autolog system which pits your score against your friends and those in your lobby, but they’re almost an afterthought. Jumps are clustered together in areas like the city or the airport, and nowhere to be found on the longer stretches of road between. This can make certain objectives a pain in that you have to seek out these locations, rather than achieve them as you make your way around the island. These objectives are grouped together and presented to you by way of “speedlists”, and each one you complete nets you a level, and a new car unlock. As a racer, you can personalise them (though that system is somewhat limited), upgrade their performance and outfit them with pursuit tech; as a cop, you’re limited to choosing your pursuit tech only.
The pursuit tech, while not new to the Need for Speed series, is a welcome inclusion. There have been countless occasions where I’ve been surrounded by cops, at risk of losing my session’s SpeedPoints – this game’s currency – and let off a shockwave that propelled my pursuers into barriers, trees, and other unfortunate passersby. Racers have access to Turbo boosts, stun mines and more, while the police are offered more traditional spike strips, road blocks and helicopter backup. I’ve not played around with all of these, but I’m yet to find one I don’t like, as utilising them effectively almost always yields satisfying results. Interestingly, I’ve also found that using a shockwave on a racer who’s ahead of me is often to my own detriment, as it boosts their speed, or laying a mine when a car is directly behind me will catch me in the stun range too. All this adds an additional layer of tactical thinking to your races.
It must be said, though, this game feels disjointed, and not just because I’ve been skipping the awful cutscenes. You level up by completing arbitrary sets of objectives, some of which don’t even include races, and there’s very little to persuade you to try one of your new car unlocks. There’s not much discernible difference between the performance of a Ford Mustang and a Lamborghini Gallardo; the latter is obviously faster and more agile, but you’d expect the difference between the two to be much more extreme than it actually is. The only time I felt like I had to think about which car I brought to an event was the very last Racer speedlist, a 15-minute Hot Pursuit race around the island, which my Gallardo wasn’t durable enough to survive.
So, is this the best Need for Speed? Of course not. And yet, there’s a reason I’ve been playing it for hours at a time. The structure may be awkward, the story virtually nonexistent, and the progression unsatisfying, but the moment-to-moment racing sells it all the same. If I’d read the review I just gave this I’d be inclined to give Rivals a pass, but at the end of the day, I’m happy I didn’t. Not every Need for Speed game has to be on par with Underground or Most Wanted, and while I’d not recommend picking this up for £30, acquiring it as a bundle of three with the reboot and Payback for £15 is more than good enough value for me.