Need For Speed: Rivals is hoping to capture the thrill of the chase and the buzz of illicit street racing. Stace Harman goes along for the ride and speaks to creative director Craig Sullivan.
Whether or not you’re a real life petrol-head, there are few experiences in gaming to match the raw thrill of a near miss at high speed. By stringing together a few of these daredevil manoeuvres and throwing in a beguiling drift it’s possible to attain a near Zen-like state of reflex and reaction. Add suitably evocative music and recompense for your faultless driving and you have a recipe for a deliciously gratifying gaming moment; one that you needn’t have a love of real-world automobiles to appreciate, nor elite-level skills to execute.
The problem is that this describes almost every video game driving experience out there. The search for a unique hook has seen numerous racing franchises come and go over the years and now only a relative few remain omnipresent. Established in 1994, Need For Speed is one such, but over the course of its 19 year history the road hasn’t always been smooth.
To help recapture some of its past glory, Need For Speed: Rivals is attempting to emulate the critical and commercial reception of its 2010 counterpart – and one of the standout NFS titles of the last few years – 2010’s Hot Pursuit.
Complementing the simple thrill of driving fast is a host of features that EA hopes will build upon the appeal of Hot Pursuit while expanding the scope of the franchise. Rivals’ boasts an improved and expanded version of Hot Pursuit’s lauded Autolog feature, a range of customisation options, over 100 miles of road, the return of Ferrari and, of course, a two-pronged and distinctly tailored driving experience from the perspective of both cops and racers.
“In Hot Pursuit the cop and racer split was 50/50 and so we know that works,” reflects creative director Craig Sullivan. “We tried to look at this from the perspective of what if the street racer was real; what would his motivations for this be, why would he go out and do this?
“It’s the same with cops ... [we’re] exploring those motivations in a way that doesn’t feel too tagged-on but still feels light enough that it’s not a huge distraction from what is ultimately a game about driving.”
This narrative distinction between the two experiences is highlighted in typically exaggerated fashion in the Cops vs Racers trailer; fortunately it appears to be a little more subtle in game. News reports talk of illegal street racers uploading clips of their antics to the web, spawning a host of copycat stunts and the rise of a group of illicit thrill-seekers, while in gameplay terms the two roles present a number of different play styles and activities.
These activities are organised into high-speed to-do lists called Assignments for the cops and Speedlists for the racers, which help differentiate game play from a thematic perspective. However, one of the most fundamental differences between the opposing sides is in their approach to Speed Points. This currency is used to purchase Pursuit Tech, higher level customisation options and, as a racer, purchase new cars. As a cop you earn Speed Points by completing Assignments and achieving impressive driving feats throughout the world but as racer there’s a competitive risk/reward system at play that will result in huge wins and losses for those of a gambling disposition.
NFS: Rivals packs in what made Hot Pursuit a success. While concerns about it being handed to Ghost Games are understandable, the majority of Criterion are staying on, so it looks to be in good hands.
Completing successive tasks increases the Speed Point multiplier, which in turn increases the number of Speed Points earned for any given task. Both multiplier and points continue to rise until you either return to a hideout to bank the points you’ve accrued or crash ‘n’ burn and lose them all. To further up the ante, if it’s a cop player that’s responsible for a racer’s trip into oblivion, they are awarded the racer’s lost points. It has the potential to be regarded as both the best and worst experience system ever featured in a Need For Speed title by players who will shift back and forth between the jubilant winner/raging loser divide.
Tying together the antics of player controlled cops and racers are the AllDrive and Need For Speed Network features. The former is, quite simply, the framework that facilitates player’s co-existing in the world, whether they are pursuing single-player objectives, teaming-up in co-op or going head-to-head.
“We went for the solution that is the most flexible and gives players the most choice,” explains Sullivan. “We got to a point where we realised that what we were making was a single-player and a multiplayer experience, so how about we merge them to create something that is like a shallow-end for people that aren’t traditionally that excited by multiplayer.”
Rivals’ real-time map helps keep track of friends, with the option to jump to where they are in the world to trigger an activity from any cops’ command point or racers’ hideout. The visual GPS can also be used to plot a course to their location or other nearby points of interest. AllDrive makes sense as part of our increasingly connected gaming experiences and could have been a neat hook for Microsoft’s doomed “always online” policy, but of course it can also be turned-off by those who truly wish to play alone.
For those willing and able to embrace the online experience, the Need For Speed Network offers a host of ways to interact with the world of NFS: Rivals by way of an improved Autolog feature and a mobile app to do so on the move. Aside from the expected stat-tracking and second-screen map, there’s also the ability to compile a to-do list of challenges that can be sent from the app to your game, as well as a diversionary mini-game experience for bored sofa-sitters and spectators.
Need For Speed: Rivals is packing in everything that made Hot Pursuit a success and more besides. There are understandable concerns about the franchise being handed to new developer Ghost Games, but with the majority of Criterion staff moving over to stay with the franchise it looks to be in good hands. What’s more, Ghost is set to work on NFS titles for the foreseeable future and for Sullivan, who served as creative director on both Hot Pursuit and Most Wanted, it’s a point of pride that the franchise move onwards and upwards starting with Rivals.
“I’m in it for the long haul and I have a lot of unfinished business with Need For Speed,” says Sullivan. “I think having that consistency of creative director, exec producer Marcus Nilsson and Jamie Keen, our senior designer, is important. By keeping these core people we want to bring NFS back to where it belongs with a consistency of vision and execution.”
Need for Speed: Rivals is due on PC, PlayStation 3, and Xbox 360 November 19 in North America and November 22 in the UK, and is also coming to next-gen when the PS4 and Xbox One launch.