A Fast, Furious Rivalry
In the end, what distinguishes one racing game from another? The actual mechanics of racing seem fairly static: accelerate forward until you’ve passed your opponents, hopefully in such a manner that you maintain the lead up to the point where the race ends. To simplify it like that, though, doesn’t really do the genre justice. Besides the truly out-there titles, such as kart racers and car combat games based more on destruction derbies than on the Indy 500 and the ardent simulations–generally featuring lovingly rendered vehicles from the most run-of-the-mill to unique concept cars the likes of which have never actually driven down a city street–there is something of a middle ground.
These middle-ground titles that fall somewhere between Forza and Mario Kart are the evolution of the classic “arcade racer.” These games put the tenets of accessibility and fun above realism, featuring abstracted and simplified car physics that allow for a more intuitive play than their simulation brethren. That said, they tend to be grounded in the real world, with cars that could believably (or actually do) populate the streets. These are Midnight Club, Test Drive, and Need for Speed. Need For Speed, particularly, has long embodied this subset of the racing genre.
The latest outing in the series was featured during the EA Download, Electronic Arts’ pre-E3 press conference on Monday afternoon. Beyond the EA Sports presentations and the piddling Star Wars Battlefront teaser, we were shown a brief glimpse of Need for Speed: Rivals, and how it aims to redefine our expectations of single-player and multiplayer.
Set in an open world, players of the game can engage in races they stumble across at any time. These are ostensibly solo endeavors, unless one of your friends also has a hankering to play the game and, by way of the title’s online integration, can see that you’ve entered a race. If this friend so chooses, they can then enter your game as a cop, at which point they are able to break into your race and attempt to bust you, suddenly converting a single-player experience into competitive multiplayer.
This is pertinent because, at EA’s booth, they were demoing the Rivals element of the game. I was able to partake in a three-on-three contest, cops versus racers, in which I fell on the cop side. Whereas racers would gain points by completing objectives listed down the right side of their screen or by driving in creative ways, cops could additionally earn points by crashing into racers until they had successfully “busted” them. Busting a racer turned over the points they had collected to the cop.
I was aided in my endeavors by a pair of gadgets designed to make the racers’ lives difficult: an EMP device and some spike strips. The latter is fairly basic, dropping behind you and deflating the tires of anyone who drives over it, but the EMP device was an interesting way to get closer to a skilled and evasive driver. A countdown begins when the device activates. If a foe is in range and within the generous reticle when the countdown ends, they are blasted with an EMP burst that slows them down; this allows the cop to tear into them and do some serious damage. A constantly recharging nitro boost rounds out one’s toolset, adding another strategic element to the driving.
It isn’t just a team competition, either. Within each team, players are competing for the highest point totals, knowing that everything they’ve earned can be stolen from them at any time by an unscrupulous and skilled opponent.
These battles are fast-paced, with smooth controls that strike a comfortable balance between providing a sense of inertia and allowing for cinematic drifts that enable one to either smoothly turn a corner or pull an instant U-turn mid-chase.
The controls are accompanied by gorgeous graphics (we were using PlayStation 4 controllers to play, but the game appeared to be running on a Windows-based development kit), which do the next generation of games justice. Lighting effects are smooth and sleek, cars spark and deform in engaging ways (though this is no Burnout), and environments feel like actual locations instead of just simulated, rural roadways. They, too, break apart with a compelling sense of weight when one crashes into fences and shrubs, ripping them from the ground.
The cops and racers style of gameplay is a terrific twist on the standard racing formula, freely mixing the traditional position-based racing of yore with a destruction derby sensibility that allows gamers less enthused by jockeying for position to have some fun intentionally ramming destructible vehicles into one another until one of them gives out. It will be particularly interesting to see how well this mayhem gels with the multiplayer integration into single-player, and whether or not griefing becomes a significant issue down the line. For now, though, Need For Speed: Rivals is an exciting and enjoyable arcade racer. Hopefully it will expand upon the potential it has already demonstrated.