Need for Speed Rivals PC Review
As arcade racers go, there aren't many developers left making them. Sadly, big publishers have squeezed out many of the good developers from doing what they want or just closed their doors altogether, and what we're left with is games like Need for Speed: Rivals which seems to me like yet another game that the creators and publisher tried make everyone equally happy with - which, when it comes to mainstream racing games, means that nearly everyone's pretty unhappy with the result.
I'm reviewing the PC version of Rivals, which starts off on all platforms with one of the worst, most overbearing introductions I've seen in a racing game. Over the years I've harped on at the racing game studios who insist on putting in long, unskippable cutscenes and voiced descriptions of how their games work (drive fast with right trigger, steer with stick - is that so hard?), and Rivals is one of the most maddening. Twenty-plus minutes of introduction will have you driving for less than half of it as you get stuck in drawn-out descriptions of every goofy little system that EA felt the need to name through some likely-overstaffed, under-worked marketing team.
Eventually you get to the meat of the game: EA does its best to dump you into an online game (whether you asked for it or not) and six players all just sort of co-exist in the open world. Racers can find and enter challenges in static spots on the map, find AI-powered racers to challenge out in the world, or try to get with the other players to race together (with more points coming as you participate with more players). Cops are trying to shut that down entirely by smashing racer cars, and players can switch between being a cop and racer at their headquarters. At times, this system is brilliant and fun with just the right amount of unscripted chaos, but often, I instead found that everyone avoided each other - which defeats the purpose of doing this whole thing online in the first place.
When it works, though, Rivals can be a blast. The presentation is fantastic, which you could probably already guess, as this is rarely a thing EA screws up, and I did wind up in a few events that were exciting, challenging, had something surprising happen (which I'd say is a must if we're going to do this thing in an open world) and in the end, turned out to be satisfying. The problem was that came up only a few times over hours and hours of play, with many other attempts being ruined by something small that the developers could have avoided. Whether it was a network issue, a random bust from the cops out of nowhere, or completely strange AI quirks, it was exceedingly difficult to get in one good session with races and pursuits going on at once with some kind of squeaker success story. Most attempts just resulted in either a technical crash and burn or a literal one, and to me, especially early on in the career, it's the fault of the developers if they can't make that magic happen.
One glaring issue with the game is that I found it tough to get anyone to actually participate with me, and I think at least some of that comes by EA's heavy-handed attempts to dump people unwilling to play together into online games upon startup. (Yes, you can quit out and just play offline, but it's buried in a menu, and that's more than most people can be bothered to do.) What's worse is that even here on PC, Rivals has players' own machines hosting games, so everyone has to deal with publishers' cheap, lazy online gaming solutions like host migration, rubber banding in movement, unsynced car movement, and more that just suck the fun out of what should be a seamless, constant open-world racing experience.
But that's not the only thing that undermines the fun of the open world racing that Ghost Games so carefully built: racers must drive to their hideout to "bank" any points they've gained, and their Heat Level (™?) goes up with each completed event until they either get busted by the cops or drive to and enter a hideout to store their points and reset their multiplier back to 1. This was probably a good idea in theory, where you risk it all to stay out there for one more race. But if you get busted, you lose everything - points and multiplier - since the last time you were at your hideout. This is a brutal and unforgiving system, especially in a game where one collision can come abruptly and end everything, online players glitch and disappear or reappear all over the roads, and where you can get busted without even a single cop in sight anywhere if you take too much damage.
As a sim racing fan at heart, I do enjoy a solid arcade racing game once in a while, one where I can just refuse to care about properly handling a car and just go hooning around like an idiot and not constantly crash. Need for Speed has filled that role for me with mixed success over the last several years, but this yearly cycle of games is killing the franchise and turning what could have been a really good game like Rivals into a chore. On top of this, EA simply does not care about the special demands of PC gamers, and so we get limited detail options, a cap of 30fps (which is completely insane, especially considering we all know that the Frostbite engine Rivals runs on is perfectly capable of more), and a rigid structure along with all of the evil-empire stuff EA's so often guilty of. Simply put, while Rivals can be fun with the right people and in the right doses on the right platforms, it is very poorly suited to PC gaming.
What I was surprised to learn is that Ghost Games, the developer behind Rivals, is made up of about four-fifths of the Criterion Games staff. I assumed that it was some third-party studio cobbled together from the ashes of other UK-based racing studios that have closed over the years, but nope, it's mostly Criterion. Now I'm at a loss, because I figured Criterion's next game would have been much better than Rivals. I don't know what EA and Ghost Games need to do now, because it's clear to me that this ain't it, especially not if they want to keep making PC games. I'm kind of sad now. Big-budget arcade racing might be deader than it's been in a decade.
Disclaimer: This review is based on a final downloadable copy provided by the publisher on Origin.