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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?


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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.

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.