Need for Speed Rivals features superb racing mechanics but is let down by a somewhat characterless and empty world. The twentieth Need for Speed game and first since Ghost Games took the driver’s seat for the franchise, Rivals has players progress through two distinct careers – one as a cop and one as a racer – which may be switched between at any time. The two sides tangle in the forests, deserts, snow-capped hills, highways, and villages of Redview County, whose 160 kilometres of road make it larger than last year’s excellent Most Wanted, and about the size of 2010’s Hot Pursuit.

Barring some over-the-top borderline non-sequiturs from faceless representatives of the cops and racers there isn’t much of a plot, and it certainly doesn’t tie directly into the gameplay. Instead, players simply complete a “Speed List” made up of specific races, pursuits, and other objectives in order to unlock cars and trigger the next brief story sequence. Alternatively, they can just do as they please, as any event type is available at any time.

All in-game actions but particularly event completions grant the player Speed Points, which police use to buy gadgets, and which racers may spend on cars, upgrades, gadgets, and customisations. Autolog returns, tracking average and top speeds at specific points on the map and popping them on in-game leaderboards.

Need for Speed Rivals review

It is in a racer’s best interest to head to a hideout and bank any Speed Points earned as soon as possible, as wrecking a car or being caught by the fuzz gifts said Speed Points to the police. This creates a nice gambling dynamic where racers can stay out longer to acquire points multipliers (and attract more heat), but do so at the risk of their current total. It makes racer a much more enjoyable campaign overall.

Race, time trial, and pursuit events are kicked off by driving to the requisite in-world icon and pressing a button, but players can also challenge others to a one-on-one duel as a racer or start a chase as a cop at any time by driving near another racer and pressing a button. This is a great system made better by the ability to stack events; a race can be turned into a hot pursuit event if it catches the attention of the police. Some cool event mash-ups occur, and at its best Rivals is a chaotic cascade of unscripted mayhem and terrific emergent gameplay.

Need for Speed Rivals review
Need for Speed Rivals review
Need for Speed Rivals review

However, despite an excellent map, finding a specific event or repair shop amongst the carnage can be a challenge as even in singleplayer there is no pause function. This makes racers particularly vulnerable when browsing the map or delving into the franchise’s Easy Drive menu system with the d-pad. A dedicated button for "nearest safe house" would have been a great addition. Fortunately Kinect voice commands largely solve this problem, allowing the nearest event, repair shop, hideout, and more to be dialled into the GPS while one's eyes stay firmly on the road.

It doesn't solve the problem of staying on a race route without glancing at the minimap every few seconds though. Sharp turn-offs from high-speed straights arrive abruptly and aren't signposted, and obviously missing one can be the difference between first and last place, or escaping and being busted. Some pop-in is present too, but is only really a minor problem when barrelling down a straight at terminal velocity.

The game's two adversarial groups have pretty distinct progression trees, with each side’s available vehicles, gadgets, and customisation options reflecting their goals. The police have access to things like spike strips, roadblocks, and car-disabling EMPs, but while their vehicles are able to inflict and withstand much more damage, they cannot be upgraded (although each comes in patrol, enforcer, and undercover varieties).

On the other hand, racers can upgrade each vehicle’s durability, ram strength, control, acceleration, and top speed. There are some nice visual paint and decal customisation options here too. Their gadgets are of a much more defensive nature: shields, radar jammers, stun mines, and a turbo boost that's like engaging warp speed on the Enterprise, for example. With the exception of the Aston Martin Vanquish, all 47 cars are unique to one side or the other, and designs from Porsche, Mclaren, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Maserati and other high-profile manufacturers are unlockable. Notably, Ferrari is included in the core game for the first time since 2002’s Hot Pursuit 2.

Need for Speed Rivals review
Need for Speed Rivals review
Need for Speed Rivals review

Regardless of which side of the law they are currently on, players will scream down highways, slipstream or hit drifts and jumps to earn nitrous, and blaze through gas station forecourts to repair any damage sustained and replenish any gadgets used. It's arcade-y as all get-out and cars handle fantastically; a quick tap of the brakes while cornering allows for long, satisfying drifts, while sharper turns can be negotiated at speed using just the right amount of handbrake. Regardless of your ride, it's incredible fun.

Billed as “next-gen social play”, All Drive is probably the most-hyped addition to Need for Speed this year. Provided it is set to allow others to join a game, All Drive brings up to five additional players into the world, and it's clear a big part of the game is supposed to be their interplay. That All Drive tries to place players with similar progression levels together is great, but the car performance gap is still often too large for fair one-on-one duels. On top of that, hosts dropping out results in annoying pauses in play for migration, and in two instances I lost completed events.

But the biggest problem is the game's design doesn't push the social aspects hard enough. There generally isn’t a ton of teamwork going on between players, and the map is simply too large and other players too fast for them to be caught one-on-one. It’s difficult to take down a human racer without any assistance, and although AI police are often on hand, a coordinated attack is far preferable. With friends, multiplayer could be fun. With strangers, it relies too heavily on cooperation that doesn’t materialise, and despite the plethora of AI racers and cops, six players total is far too few.

Need for Speed Rivals review
Need for Speed Rivals review

This feeds into another problem: Redview County is varied and well-drawn, but not especially distinctive. This is initially hidden by the constant bombardment of on-screen information including health bars of both AI and human racers and cops, missions and their associated leaderboards, the arcs of jumps players have made, average and top speed records, and more. But eventually completing speed lists feels like crossing off side quests, and the main course of social play never arrives.

There are smaller quibbles. Using gadgets against others is fun, but those aside combat is a bit flaccid, more bumper cars than Burnout Crash. It would be nice if guiding an opponent into a wall or tree did greater damage, for example. Instead, combat is a series of slightly underwhelming car-on-car bumps, with muscularity and danger somewhat absent unless a real head of steam is built up – something particularly obvious when taking down cops as a racer.

There is also an occasional issue with big crashes. These trigger a cinematic mini-cutscene of sorts, but if not completely wrecked a car is sometimes placed back within play facing the wrong way, and the momentary absence of the minimap will see many make some amount of negative progress in a race, which is frustrating. Dampening the glee slightly more are the load times in and out of bases, and some fairly gratuitous examples of rubber-banding AI. The latter can be accepted though, given the arcade nature of the racing and the swings possible with a well-timed mine or turbo boost.

Need for Speed Rivals review

Some may also find the inclusion of a single NZ$19 microtransaction that unlocks all car and tech upgrades somewhat galling. As with EA’s Dead Space 3, nothing is gated behind a paywall, and cars must still be unlocked by levelling up, but the presence of such a mechanic in a full-price game is still troubling, and were social play more prominent it would confer a big advantage to those who pay.

Outside the main game, the game’s second screen app, Need for Speed Network, allows those on a tablet, mobile, or browser to check leaderboards and cue up event playlists. It also allows users to spend Speed Points to place roadblocks or refill the nitrous stores of those currently in-game, which is pretty cool, but hardly scintillating from a gameplay perspective. Unfortunately, the Android version isn’t yet available.

Need for Speed Rivals review

Rivals does many things extraordinarily well. All cars are a joy to drive, and there are plenty of cosmetic customisation options and upgrades. The day/night cycle, dynamic weather, and destructive capabilities of the Frostbite 3 engine are well-implemented, and nothing beats hitting the NOS after smashing a group of opponents with a shock wave and nailing a high-speed drift. The intuitive and smooth stacking objectives mechanic is similarly great, and the game looks fantastic on seventh gen consoles.

So minor gripes aside, its only the small number of players allowed and a lack of incentives for cooperation that leave something of a hole at the heart of Rivals, and downgrade it from "great" to merely "good". All Drive has real potential though, and it'll be exciting to see what Ghost do with it next.