It seems as if the Need for Speed franchise has always struggled to find an identity of its own. It started with the simple notion of letting people floor it with all the cars they couldn't afford to drive in real life. Since then there has been illegal "Underground" racing, simulation and everything in between. But in the last few years it has established itself as an arcade racer with focus on freedom and online.
Freedom is in taking on the game as you wish, whether you're a speeding outlaw or cop dedicated to chasing down and taking out criminals. It's one of the best design decisions that's introduced in Rivals early on, but you can shift careers at any time. The differences in playing the two sides make for an attractive proposition.
If you opt to side with the law, you won't have to spend your resources on buying new cars. Instead these are delivered to you after a completed missions and your money can instead be used on gadgets such as spikes and EMPs, which improve your odds of catching the racers.
If a life of crime is more your thing, then all of your cash will be spent on new cars, upgrades and customisation - something that will take a big chunk out of your budget. Thankfully the money's easier to gain, as the game's cash multiplier is tied to your Wanted level - the higher it is, the more cash you'll bring in, but only if you're successful. So there's a risk/reward play here; if you're captured or if you smash you car, you won't see any cash - so it takes both racing skills and strategic planning to reach a hiding place after your race and cash in.
Missions on both sides typically consist of races against other cars, time trials, and naturally all kinds of destructive confrontation with the opposition. As a cop you don't have to anything more than turn on the siren as you're close to a racer to initiate a race. The same goes for the racers, who can jump into a race without hitting any menus. It's an easy system that works well, and it adds an organic feel to the game world as you rarely know where the next challenge will begin.
Most of all it's the smooth online integration that breathes life into the experience. Without asking anything from the user, the game simply fills the world with up to six other human players that can choose to play any way they want. The idea is for chases and races to appear organically, and for those players who choose to co-operate, there are extra rewards waiting in the wings.
Unfortunately the game doesn't offer any tools to coordinate races or challenges with other human players, and therefore it becomes a surprisingly tedious task of trying to set up something as simple as a race. Instead you're expected to drive around and do your own thing and - perhaps - happen upon another player in the game world. It works great with strangers, but it's not really optimal if you wish to engage in an online battle with your friends.
On the technical side of things there has been a lot of talk about EA's use of the Frostbite 3 engine, and it's easy to see why when you look at Rivals. No matter where you're at, you won't have to witness any problematic issues with draw distance. It's impressive stuff. even the simple things. Like when there's rain lashing the car, the wind sending leaves whipping around, and there's only a couple of light sources to guide you on your way, you still take a moment to take stock. The car models are also full of detail, but surprisingly there's not an option to choose an interior car view.
With all these positives accounted for there are some small blemishes to consider, most of which are caused with the legacy of franchise. While the studio is brand new (even if most of the development team are former Criterion employees), there is no doubt that this is a game that borrows most of its elements from the predecessor Need for Speed: Most Wanted. In turn Most Wanted borrowed from Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit that in turn took a lot from Burnout Paradise. All in all it's hard to shake the feeling of déjà vu. And the technical leap would probably have been even more apparent had it not been for the fact that Most Wanted was a technical marvel at its release.
While veterans of the franchise won't find much that is new underneath the hood, Need for Speed: Rivals remains one of the best games you can get at the launch of PlayStation 4. This top-quality arcade racing that offers immediate fun for everyone and it's visual quality will impress.
The next time EA feels the urge to push the pedal to the metal it would be nice with perhaps a few more fresh ideas built in, and the online options streamlined. But this is a good start for the franchise, and for the genre, on the next-gen.