THE concept of risk and reward is one of gaming’s staunch mechanics, a staple of the earliest platformers through to the fighting titles and turn-based role playing games of the modern era, where shrewd speculation often results in a seamless combo or a hastily dispatched enemy. By contrast, the driving game, concerned solely with breakneck speed and faithful physics, is a genre apparently without need for any great incentivisation to improve upon the core experience. At long last, there is a game to shatter this consensus.
Available on: Xbox 360 (reviewed) / Playstation 3 / Xbox One / Playstation 4 / PC
Score: 8.6 / 10
The latest instalment of Need for Speed has performed some conscientious work under the bonnet to imbue the series with bona fide tension. Revisiting the cops versus racers dynamic from the franchise’s previous two incarnations, Hot Pursuit and Most Wanted, its masterly twist is to borrow the idea that any points or prizes amassed are in jeopardy unless they are squirrelled away, a strategy put to good use in Grand Theft Auto V Online, where a player’s ill-gotten gains can only be safeguarded by visiting an online bank or an ATM.
In Rivals, the legal tender is the Speed Point, accumulated by performing high-octane races and pursuits across Redview County, an expanse of meandering highways, mountainous trails and pinched forest tracks. As a racer, the duration and liveliness of any one session determines the extent of the prize. Perform event after event without seeking refuge in a hideout and a series of kindly multipliers will increase your bounty. Stay on the open road too long, however, and the law will redouble its efforts to bring you to heel and see you walk away with nothing.
Striking a balance which allows you to escape the police and make off with a healthy haul is a thrilling if at times infuriating challenge. The temptation to exploit a generous multiplier is at times impossible to resist, yet equally common is a pang of regret when, mere moments later, a particularly pugnacious fleet of Redview’s finest ram intensify their pursuit before smashing your vehicle into a crumpled tangle of metal and petrol fumes. One mistimed corner can easily undo a half-hour’s work, lending the game a sense of danger that can become overwhelming as you hurtle towards a safe haven, a sea of blue lights in your rear view mirror.
Proficient handling is the best way to escape, but so too a cluster of futuristic weapons pitched somewhere between Mario Kart and Death Race 2000 can aid your break for freedom. Compared with previous games, the arsenal has been fine tuned. No one weapon is overbearing and although they serve a use, it is wise to gain an appreciation of how and when to use your car as a battering ram as soon as possible.
As in other titles, the cops are not only foes. It is possible to commander any number of souped up patrol cars and give chase to the racers. The feature adds a duality to the single player career mode and affords a pleasing change of pace from being the rabbit in every chase. Ultimately, however, there is no corresponding invention to provide the same suspense as when garnering Speed Points as a racer; instead, the reward is an expanded choice of weaponry and a series of staged upgrades unlocking a succession of increasingly powerful vehicles.
The gameplay exists in the kind of probationary open world environment established in Burnout Paradise. In and of itself, it is unremarkable and somewhat conservative in size. This leanness, though, comes into its own during multiplayer play, an undoubted highlight of Rivals. Up to six people can inhabit Redview at any one time, and the modest network of thoroughfares and arteries guarantees that every session will intersect with another at some point. Sometimes this will result in co-operative play, where individual players form an alliance and benefit from enhanced Speed Points.
But the mode truly excels when players from opposing sides clash. Out of nowhere, a carefree drive can be transformed into a frantic battle of wits, as cop and racer collide, bringing about epic pursuits taking in vast swaths of the map. The unpredictability of racing in the same domain as others is a joy, and the only downside is the relatively small number of players who can participate at once.
Indeed, the negative aspects of Rival are mainly trivial and niggling affairs. Those who value being able to pimp out their vehicle will scoff at the lack of any thorough customisation options for police cars, while another curious omission is the lack of a pause button, leaving players especially vulnerable online.
Where Rivals is most culpable is with its insistence upon an altogether unnecessary story to envelop the action. The motives on the part of both the police and the racers to tear around the countryside at mercurial speeds ought to be manifest. Even so, Ghost’s aspirations to flesh out the open world concept at the heart of Rivals means it offers an inducement for the high-octane action. If it was light in tone, such a narrative context might well have been an amusing addition to the game.
Unfortunately, it chooses a po-faced yarn of anti-authoritarianism. The dialogue of the anonymous narrators representing each faction is heavily inspired by the Tyler Durden monologues from Fight Club, a seductive but ultimately inappropriate influence - quite how dissident adrenaline junkies hope to slay the establishment by drifting around corners and bounding over jumps is never explained.
Fortunately, the story is inessential to the enjoyment of the game thanks its intriguing reward system and a first-rate multiplayer mode. The Need for Speed series has endured some difficult times in its long history, with several duds dulling its lustre. Rivals is an undoubted highlight, and its two best elements should be seized upon and expanded in the future. Together, they offer a tantalising glimpse of how a racer can confound the expectations of its genre.