Strange engine limitations and design decisions mean that Rivals fails at almost all of the changes it tries to bring to the series.
By Alex Walker on November 26, 2013 at 12:42 pm
Ten years on, the Need for Speed franchise is still one of the most stable and recognisable franchises in gaming. But for all the bluster, the annual releases and the repeated changing of hands between developers, the formula is largely untouched since Underground’s success.
It’s not for a lack of trying. SHIFT gave the franchise a GRiD-like appeal. World tried to inject a modicum of World of Warcraft into the series. Undercover failed miserably with full-motion video, former Jackie Chan protege Maggie Q and one god-awful story.
I don’t envy EA’s position. Gamers expect cops and racers in a Need for Speed game, casting a frown upon any iteration that fails to fulfil that fantasy: SHIFT was critically acclaimed, but sold poorly and led Slightly Mad Studios to walk away from the franchise altogether.
Understandably, the series has remained within safe territory ever since. Most Wanted and Hot Pursuit double-downed on the cops/racers theme, while The Run channeled the spirit of Underground and Most Wanted with its 3000-mile jaunt across the United States.
Rivals is an equally safe gamble, combining the worlds of Most Wanted and Hot Pursuit into the fictitious Redview County. The events are pretty much the same as Hot Pursuit’s — Interceptor, Hot Pursuit, Races, Time Trials (Rapid Responses for cops). Events are strewn throughout the open-world in the same fashion as Most Wanted: pull up the to requisite spot, slow down, hit a button and off you go.
Head-to-head and random pursuits are more satisfying, since they can be triggered at 20 or 200 kilometres an hour. Rivals feels its most natural when you’re scouring the world, running into an opponent, hitting the sirens and then spending the next 10km weaving in and out of traffic while you dodge EMPs, spike strips and the odd hairpin.
But the Alldrive system, which allows you to connect to a lobby of five other cops or racers (which can be changed just by parking in a garage), isn’t complete. For a start, 100km spread among six cars is a lot of ground. It’s entirely possible to purposely avoid the other humans, but equally bizarre is that it’s equally possible to unintentionally avoid the rest of the lobby.
Six racers just isn’t enough. I found myself having to deliberately hunt down players, as the races and pursuits naturally tend to lead you away from the pack. Some might opt to avoid the multiplayer lobbies altogether though, sacrificing the benefits of Alldrive to avoid the significant frustration that follows when the lobby host disconnects. When a host drops, the game immediately halts while it migrates to another host in a fashion not too dissimilar from Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. I played that game intensely for years and never got accustomed to the shock; it wasn’t any more enjoyable here.
That aside, Alldrive is pretty seamless. Initiating head-to-head events with fellow racers are no less smooth than rolling up next to the AI. The AI doesn’t rubber-band around the highway with the same degree of volatility as a real human opponent, but I suppose that would ruin the fun of it all.
Since most of my experience was a solitary affair, despite being regularly connected to five other players, it’s worth reflecting on the campaign. Cops and racers have 20 rungs in the ladder to climb, with three separate footholds. The various Speedwalls (sets of objectives) reflect different driving styles, depending on whether you prefer direct confrontations with the police, racers or putting down the foot as hard as humanly possible.
I’m a pragmatist, so I floated between the three. For racers, the difference is immaterial; you unlock the same car no matter your poison. Cops unlock three versions of the same car, although once a car’s unlocked, you can drive it for free.
While racers sound like they get a bad rap, the system plays out well in practice. Racers’ cars can be upgraded, shoring up their weaknesses or making them far superior to the equivalent branded Blue Heelers on wheels. This, of course, requires a trunkload of cash, so racers’ points are tied to a multiplier. The braver and more brazen the driver, the higher the multiplier. There’s just one catch: get busted and you lose it all. If you’re busted by a human racer, they steal all your points.
It’s a simple risk-reward mechanic, one that works with devastating effectiveness. It’s not immediately apparent. You’ll attract one, maybe two, cop at most, boost by, siphon some nitrous with a drift or two before sailing away to victory. Eventually you’ll attract some more attention, a roadblock or two, maybe even an annoying helicopter. The points start to rack up, first in the low tens of thousands before reaching the low hundreds of thousands. Repair garages seemed like a luxury before: now they’re a lifeline. Living dangerously has its rewards.
Representing the rozzers, conversely, is decidedly dull. Cops don’t earn points any faster, although they pay the same for pursuit tech — boosts, shockwaves, EMP blasts and so on. You can progress through the campaign, and all of the soporific cut-scenes that it entails, with roughly the same efficiency as racers.
The sad thing is, it’s not as fun. Rivals is structured so that racers live and die on their own steam. Cops require teamwork, which works far better with humans than it does with the AI. Even then you have the rubber-banding and the sheer likelihood of not encountering another human, unless you deliberately set a path on the map to do so.
Six players isn’t enough. A world the size of Redview County should have at least 16 players roaming its lands. I lost count the amount of times my lobbies were host to a horrendous imbalance. You can, of course, change your career on the fly, but that only makes sense if both campaigns are leveled up to the same amount. It also doesn’t make sense for those with strong allegiances to suddenly revert from a jaunt in a taxpayer-funded Lamborghini simply because five other humans liked free Lamborghini’s too. Humans don’t function that way.
For an engine that, at least on my machine, supports 64 players in tanks, jets, helicopters, APCs, jetskis, parachutes and two legs on a wide space, it seems utterly astonishing that the most Rivals could accomplish is a mere six players for 100 square kilometres. It’s not like I can hit a button, evolve into Optimus Prime and start climbing the mountain. But those are the limits Ghost Games and EA deem best. That boggling logic applies to the frame rate as well: how and why they deemed it acceptable to lock any game on PC using the Frostbite 3 engine to 30 FPS is nothing short of criminal.
Most PC gamers fortunate enough to be furnished with a semi-decent rig will probably share my experience. The first few nights felt wrong, like an unnecessary struggle. Perhaps the thought that Battlefield 4 comfortably sits on 60 FPS — an unfair thought to harbour against an arcade racer I’ll admit — was clouding my judgement. But the subsequent realisation that Battlefield 4 also hits 60 FPS on the Playstation 4 and Xbox One — and NFS Rivals is locked to 30 FPS on those consoles as well — failed to improve my outlook.
(Side note: I tried this 60 FPS command-line hack unveiled by the smarter inhabitants of the internet. It works, but there’s a few caveats. While I opted to review the game on 30 FPS, largely because that reflects the experience EA and Ghost Games want the consumer to have, it’s worth noting you’ll need a beefy PC to actually maintain that frame rate. Any drop in FPS will cause the game speed to fall out of sync with the frame rate, which raises all sorts of programming questions that I don’t want to get into. Nevertheless, you can play on 60 FPS if you choose to, although I’d recommend a top-end i5/i7 CPU paired with a GTX 570/660 Ti/670 or higher.)
Still, there are worse things. Rivals isn’t a sim racer. Send enough racers flying and you’ll forget the preceding problems. The very forgiving helping model helps in that regard; it’s harder to screw up a corner. The deep and deliciously sexy roster of Ferrari’s, BMW’s, Dodge Charger’s, McLaren’s and Pagani’s in every colour under the sun, along with more useless decals and stripes you can poke a stick at, is fun to toy with. Side-swiping a cop, or anyone else, before letting off a shockwave, rifling them into the air, is just as satisfying.
Rivals, then, is a disposable pleasure. The Alldrive system is a good and logical step: but it’s an obvious one. Need For Speed needs fresh ideas, not gradual advancements. And that’s the rub. Everyone will have some fun with Rivals — but how much fun depends on your exposure to the last two games. Gamers should demand more of a revolution than the incremental steps forward the series has taken over the last four years. Here’s hoping the next Underground is just around the corner.
- Cops and robbers, just the way you like it
- Alldrive system works seamlessly, ping permitting
- Driving model perfectly suited for a casual hour or two
- Rivals is the game Most Wanted and Hot Pursuit should have been
- High-risk racer model creates genuine tension
- The teamwork-oriented gameplay as a cop works much better with friends than it does alone
- Six players per lobby simply isn’t enough
- Frostbite 3 on 30 FPS: no, no, by God no
- Rubber-banding ruins the experience
- Gameplay is fundamentally unchanged
- Driving doesn’t really take any skill whatsoever
Need for Speed Rivals is available for $79.99 through EA’s Origin service.
This review copy provided by EA. Screenshots used in this review also provided by EA.