If I were Need For Speed: Rivals right now, I’d be having a serious attack of stage fright.

The arcade racer has frequently served as a benchmark for a new console generation’s launch. Granted, we often forget these launch arcade racers less than a year into the new cycle (hell, we tend to forget most products earlier than that) — but their usually easy-to-understand control schemes, tied to seeing cars flying through highly detailed areas at ridiculously unrealistic speeds, has helped us set our expectations during the debut of past gaming generations.

This generation, however, Criterion Games and Ghost Games are responsible for providing our launch arcade racer by default, being that Need For Speed: Rivals is the only one to arrive to the rodeo on day 1 on PlayStation 4’s launch (and same with the Xbox One). It’s not that Forza 5 doesn’t count or anything, but it’s more of a simulator than an arcade racer that is traditionally in the launch lineup. Bucking one more tradition, it is also the launch arcade racer on a Sony flagship machine, a job usually reserved for Namco’s Ridge Racer series!

So the genre’s traditional launch prom king has decided to stay home to eat a tub of ice cream by itself, and Need For Speed: Rivals is at the dance filling in the vacant slot, but is this game good enough to wear the crown? Can it even live up to the heritage of its developer’s long line of quality arcade racing work?

What you’ll like

Everything happens in one place

In Need For Speed: Rivals, single-player and multiplayer modes are no longer options separated by a menu tree; they coexist inside the active game. Anything related to starting a driving event takes place on the road among the living, breathing, driving ecosystem, and anyone driving by can join almost every mode that involves multiple vehicles.

This sort of on-the-road system of starting modes, challenging human players, and completing single-player objectives in one active environment makes Rivals progression feel much more lively. The pace always flows from one event or objective to the next without interruption. The only time it pulls you into a menu is when you enter your garage to make upgrades or bank rewards.

Rivals isn’t the first game to utilize a free-roaming concept, but it’s the first one I’ve played where single-player and multiplayer are integrated so that they aren’t distinct modes. My single-player experience isn’t interrupted just because someone happened to connect to the session. Even when the All Drive alert system tells me a player is nearby, it isn’t a jarring event that changes my experience. I appreciate that when a human player happens to be near me, the only choice that requires my input is if I want to change direction to break off from what I am doing to chase them.

Need for Speed Rivals

Constant chasing and evading

Driving is a mix of concepts from both the series’ many prequels as well as some of Criterion’s previous games. The risk-and-reward mechanic of Burnout is definitely present: Pulling certain maneuvers or putting yourself in dangerous situations earns you more nitrous for boost and cash to bank later on in the garage.

Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit-based gameplay is obviously a big part as well, and it’s as enjoyable as it has ever been. If you’re not a fan of the cops-‘n’-robbers-inspired mode, consider this a warning: You’re going to be doing a lot of Hot Pursuit in this game.

Playing as a racer, you should expect to get lit up by the cops about every quarter mile. When I would successfully escape one group of cops, after about a 10-second break of zooming at top speed, another cop would spot me, and we were back in the chase. It’s great in one way, because you are rarely left cruising the map without purpose. You’re forced to stay on your toes, and if you’re in one of the few dead spots where you’re not racing or evading, you’re at least formulating an exit plan in your head for when the next Cop chase fires up.

Where this can get a tad annoying, however, is when you’ve decided you want to drive to the starting line of another event and just before you get there, you hear the “whoop whoop!” of a police siren. You can either decide to skip the event and blow by it to evade the cops or start the event during the pursuit. While it is possible to do both at the same time, starting something like a Race will stop your car dead at the starting line for a few seconds, but not the cops. This leaves your car open to being slammed and possibly busted.

Although I found the racers to be the more entertaining than the cops, sometimes being a jerk can be fun as well. Playing as a cop is a lot less about out driving other cars and more about harassing any racer you can find. The cop vehicles are much more “hog-ish” in nature compared to the Racer’s lineup, acting more like quick, armored vehicles than something that was built to finesse corners. These machines are a tad slower, and you can really feel the weight creaking on some of them as the car leans and falls into the forces of inertia into the turns. Using these beasts to slam a racer’s car into submission isn’t difficult if you drive intelligently and utilize your helicopter and roadblock accessories to their fullest. Capturing a Racer means claiming all of the cash they’ve earned out on the road during that session, making this mode of play a griefer’s dream.

Need for Speed: Rivals

What you won’t like

Getting along with strangers

Although the execution of the persistent world design seems really solid, it makes some unfortunate assumptions on both human nature and logistics. The free-roaming system begins to crack when the player wants to move on from racing CPU opponents and begins hunting human prey. Straight up, playing with friends is damned near mandatory for matchmaking to work. Random sessions were usually filled with people who had muted everybody and were ignoring everyone else in the room, leaving only the people who are trolling with racial slurs and yelling at their cousins that are in the same room as them. This leaves only a few options to find a human opponent: Go to the garage and strategically spawn near a human opponent, utilize the GPS to route you to another human being, or hide in some bushes or an underpass and wait for a car controlled by a human to come speeding by.

If you haven’t been as diligent at knocking out the single-player objectives as the person you’re trying to ambush in multiplayer, you both face another problem: You’re not a good match to begin with. This means even if you successfully get them to join you in a multiplayer race, it can get boring quick, as one of you blows the doors off the other in no time at all. This actually becomes a serious motivator for winning the automobile arms race as soon as possible. The threat of being blown out by a stranger, not so much the narrative (which is “enh”), pushed me to blast through the single-player objectives as diligently as possible. If I was going to lose to someone after all that work trying to initiate a race, it would be because they disappeared in my rear view, not so much me scanning the far horizon in front of me for any sign of a floating PSN tag.

Rubber-banding

That good-old taboo A.I. trick is definitely present in Need For Speed: Rivals, where if you’re blowing the CPU opponents out of the water they suddenly become incredibly fast and can successfully perform impossible feats to catch up to you — effectively “rubber-banding” themselves into contention. It also occasionally works the other way around, where the CPU A.I. will suddenly get worse if it is completely destroying you.

I’m sure hardcore fans will find this blasphemous, but I think rubber-band A.I. can be necessary and tastefully done. Playing as a racer, the rubber-banding only became blatantly obvious when it worked for me rather than against me. I’ve had A.I. vehicles feel like they are at least a half a mile ahead of me, and then couple drifts around a handful of corners later, the first- and second-place A.I. vehicles are suddenly in front of me in a slow-moving, two-car funeral procession.

When it worked against me as a racer, I saw it as the game replicating boost and turbo elements in the design. It is always completely believable that these cars could catch up to me given the rules of that design. When being hunted by the cops in a ridiculously heated chase, I’ve caught the game spawning more patrol cars behind me that appear to already be in full speed. Again, the rules of the game dictate that this is supposed to happen. It’s simulating cops driving in from other areas to join the chase.

Some minor weirdness

You also should look out some occasional bugs. Some innocent texture- and material-rendering glitches result in what looks like the normal map popping up in patches in the background, possibly linked to the game updating weather conditions and prerendering the scenes ahead of you. You also may see an occasional weird-ass Head-to-Head startup bug where the car you challenge will suddenly pull a sharp Tron cycle-esque 90-degree turn in an unnatural direction and speed off, where the race had actually started one street over. Car-spawning can also sometimes get a little weird, with one spawn putting me right in the middle of a group of cop cars smashing into me as if they had been chasing me for five minutes.

You can also occasionally drive your car through the crash camera. Although this was also possible in Burnout, it sometimes confuses the game and will keep the camera stuck onto a side view, with the car being in spawn limbo.

These are all minor and weird glitches, but they pop up with some frequency.

Conclusion

Need For Speed: Rivals’ main theme is about blurring the stringent lines between two things we consider to be opposites. Challenging the traditional definitions of two opposing ideals and showing that they are not just more similar than you think — but require each other to exist. It’s all very yin-and-yang, and the theme is implemented in every aspect with varying degrees of success. The mixing of single-player and multiplayer gameplay is the most obvious and calculated element to take on the theme, and is the one thing that really excited me throughout my time with Rivals. It is a fantastic idea that company spokespersons on convention stages have been promising would change the way we game in this next generation.

While I wouldn’t buy into that industry hype quite yet with Need For Speed: Rivals, it’s a promising step toward those good intentions. It just relies a little too much on the “Internet Human Behavior” planets aligning in its favor to make the matchmaking in random sessions work. When you do finally find that perfect match, it’s a great “cat vs. mouse” arcade racing experience for this generation’s launch.

Score: 80/100

Need For Speed Rivals is now available for the PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, and PlayStation 3, and it comes out on the Xbox One on Nov. 22. Electronic Arts provided GamesBeat with a PlayStation 4 copy for the purposes of this review

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