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I haven’t played a Need For Speed game since Criterion’s 2010 release, Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit. Prior to that, I’d skipped pretty much all of them following Underground, and prior to Underground I’d played pretty much every single one of them. Some of my fondest racing game memories are tied up with 1998’s Need For Speed III: Hot Pursuit. I sank a lot of time into that game when I was in high school. I’ve always kind of had a soft spot for the franchise, but realised that I was no longer fitting the demographic of EA’s target market when the series got stuck in its what I like to call, “Pimp my Ride phase”. Then there was that bizarre Need For Speed: The Run, which tried to do “bold” things with storyline and shoehorned characters. This franchise has had a chequered past, there’s no denying that.

2010’s Hot Pursuit was a blast, so I was rather keen to dive back into the franchise after an almost four year hiatus, especially considering that Criterion was still involved in the game in some minor way.

It turns out that I was to be disappointed.

Rivals on PS4 tries nothing new. If you’d sat me down in front of a TV and told me that I was playing 2010’s Hot Pursuit, there’s a very strong possibility that I would have believed you. I’ll admit that the more recent licensed soundtrack may have given things away, but on the surface I was pretty disappointed to see that there has been very, very little change and evolution in four years.

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Arguably the biggest addition to the game is the definite blurring of the line between single and multiplayer. If you’re online, and if you select “Yes” to the plethora of agreements prior to playing the game, then you’ll find yourself sharing the open game world with seven other players. This means that you can be flying down a mountain pass and suddenly come face-to-face with another human player, whereby head-to-head challenges can be issued or chases can instantly ensue if one of you is a cop and the other is a racer. It all sounds rather lovely in theory, but in my many hours with the game, I never really had that impromptu experience. There were always other players in my game world, but the game world is so large and spread out that unless you purposefully head out to encounter other players, the likelihood of an ad-hoc multiplayer session starting is disappointingly slim.

Furthermore: disconnects. I lost count of the number of times I was disconnected from a game, and every time the game would politely inform me that a “host migration” was in progress. Often this would take two to three minutes, and it would also nearly always happen in the middle of a race. That race would then suddenly resume without any warning once a connection had been re-established. That is less than ideal for a racing game – at a minimum, all race events should be restarted once a new game world is hosted. It’s just an odd design decision.

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Speaking of strange design decisions: you cannot pause the game – ever. Even if you’re playing in an offline and private game world, you can’t pause the game. You can pull over to the side of a road and bring up the map, but then you run the risk of a cop driving past and arresting you simply for being inside an exotic car. The moment you’re arrested or you total your car, you’re dumped back into your nearest safehouse/garage and you lose any accumulated Speed Points – the currency required to upgrade vehicles and purchase new cars. Obviously this lack of a pause option is because of the game’s inherent multiplayer structure, but to have this carry across into an offline private game seems like an oversight.

Rivals is a game about cops chasing racers. You cannot drive for more than 100m before law enforcement descends on you with the ferocity of a shaved cat in a bramble patch. Every event type (be it a time trial, race or casual meander) is guaranteed to turn into a chase at some point, and I found it really frustrating how tenacious the cops are in this game. Whereas Criterion seemed to strike a decent balance in 2010’s Hot Pursuit, developer Ghost Games misses the mark somewhat, and the result is cop encounters that are always predictable and border on tedious. It also makes accumulating Speed Points a particularly frustrating affair. The obvious solution is to play as the cops, but I’ve never really found that side of the Need For Speed franchise remotely appealing.

This isn’t the first time that a Need For Speed game has eschewed a conventional racetrack list for an open world. The problem with Rivals’ open world is that there’s all too often more than one road in front of you during a race. This means you’re constantly shifting your focus from watching the road to the bottom left mini map to see which turn to take. All too often I’d take my eyes off the road for a second, only to have a head-on collision with a suspiciously convenient civilian vehicle. Yes, there are superimposed green arrows on the road to lead you on the right path, but they’re very often too faint (especially if that gorgeous next-gen lighting is glinting off the surface of a wet road) or they appear too late for you to make any course corrections. On more than one occasion, the green arrows had already compensated for a wrong turn before I’d even reached the intersection, which meant that I’d be “guided” into taking the wrong turn anyway. This was particularly noticeable at highway on-ramps and off-ramps.

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That wasn’t the only recurring bug I experienced. During races, I lost count of the amount of times a cop car would spawn (literally plopping out of the air) right in front of me, causing me to plough into the back of it. There’s also this bizarre phenomenon whereby very obvious shortcuts in race courses result in you missing checkpoints, which means you have to do a U-turn and drive back down the road to pass the supposedly missed checkpoint. Attempting to continue without doing so means that your superimposed guidance markers and mini map trail become completely confused, rendering your only two means of navigating the oft-times convoluted courses completely useless.

The most annoying thing is that there’s a great racing game hidden in there somewhere. Rivals is at its absolute best when there isn’t a cop in sight; when you’re able to trigger an impromptu head-to-head challenge with another AI racer and actually finish the race. I lost myself in a moment when I was careening down a desert interstate and the engine in my Ferrari was roaring loud enough to drown out the insipid wailings of a remixed Bastille song; the sun was coming up and as the light hit that sandy horizon and the road glinted in front of me, I got a feel for what it might be like to adore Rivals.

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Because there is actually a lot of stuff to enjoy. The open world is very varied in its locations and seamless in its transitioning from one biome to another. It also looks fantastic, especially running on PlayStation 4. The cars handle well and Criterion’s crash physics DNA can be seen all over. Upgrades also make a palpable difference rather than just inflating your vehicle’s stats; pay for a handling upgrade and you’ll feel the difference straight away. Sound design is great with each manufacturer having a distinct engine tone. At odds with this is the uninspired licensed soundtrack that has become the Need For Speed norm; I found myself muting the music 90% of the time and letting the vastly superior sound design blow my surround sound setup instead.

If you have a group of friends and you all want to inhabit the same mass of raceways and mountain passes as you try your collective damndest to escape overzealous law enforcement, then Rivals is definitely worth looking at. Aside from that, the overall experience really just stands as evidence that Electronic Arts needs to do something drastic with this franchise. That or just get it over with and start releasing annual versions ala FIFA and Madden.

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