rivalled

There is no multiplayer in Need for Speed Rivals because it’s all multiplayer. That’s why I have to wait for a minute or so whenever I want to play. “Finding game to join” it says. That’s before the game even loads. Then it has to load. Then I’m at a menu and not even in the game yet. I might not have minded all this if the multiplayer was as diverse and creative as the multiplayer in Need for Speed Most Wanted. It’s not. It’s just a modest handful of us doing our own thing on the same map, like an unwitting car club that didn’t tell each other where they were meeting this month. There’s so and so chasing a car. Or running from one. It’s hard to tell. There’s someone’s Xbox Live avatar on the map. And another one. And another one. Such-and-such account name just joined. The announcement appears on the center of my screen, as if it’s something I should really care about. I’m in the middle of finessing a drift around a cliffside bend and now I’m staring at a screen about the host migrating. Waiting for each of the other random yahoos. Waiting. Waiting. And now I’m idling on the side of the road near that cliffside bend.

After the jump, (almost) always online.

To be fair, Electronic Arts lets you opt out. You can dig around in the options menu and find a way to switch to friends-only or even totally offline. This isn’t the sort of mandatory multiplayer-and-you’ll-like-it-dammit of Simcity. The push to online might be an asset if the attempt to drive players into each other wasn’t so hamhanded. As it is, I can’t tell who’s a cop or who’s a robber, which is kind of important. I select someone to chase from the map screen and by the time the world has loaded, my intended opponent is long gone. Or maybe I find someone and I bang into him a few times, but I’m just being a dick because we’re on the same team. Or I try to start an event that we can both do, but he’s going on the other direction so I’m just doing the event by myself now.

Instead of Most Wanted’s sense of exploration and progression, Rivals is based on sloppy car combat. A tired and played-out version of car combat from some of the weaker entries in the Need for Speed series. Even with the weapons system, you’re mainly bumping into another car, which is never easy at these speeds and not the least bit gratifying given the bumping physics. These cars don’t wreck so much as they just bounce. It has all the fury and physics of smacking plastic two-liter bottles against each other. Just add screen shake.

I do appreciate that Electronic Arts attempted different progression models based on whether you’re a cop or a robber. Err, racer. The conceit is some frippery about street racers and social media and, uh, I wasn’t really paying attention because I’ve already seen six Fast & Furious movies. After the seriously stylish sexy of Most Wanted, this is a return to DJ Atomika levels of grating.

At any rate, the overarching idea is that Rivals plays like two separate games, each a separate career, played concurrently, with you bopping back and forth at will. Your career as an illegal street racer is based on a risk/reward concept. The more recklessly you drive, the higher your multiplier, which is also your wanted level. Cops get more aggressive as your multiplier rises. This means you rack up more money to buy upgrades. But the trick is that you don’t actually get the money until you drive back to your hideout. If you get busted before then, you’re reset to zero. There’s a constant tension between pushing for a little more money — after all, you’ve got a healthy multiplier built up! — and calling it quits to bank what you’ve got.

The police play by simply accumulating a pile of money, and they don’t even have to buy their cars. Whatever they unlock, they can drive whenever they want. Their cars come in three flavors: a vanilla variant for vanilla policework, a hefty variant for ramming the dickens out of bad guys, and an unmarked variant for sneaking up on bad guys. I’m not convinced the non-hefty variants are useful — this is mostly a game about cars ramming each other — but it’s nice to have a choice. And the outlandish police fantasies are always amusing. How does this city afford to equip its officers with Lamborghinis and Bugatti Veyrons? I probably should have paid closer attention to the cutscenes.

So this means Rivals basically plays like this: you level up your racer until you get frustrated because you lost those 100,000 points because cops. At which point you blow off some steam ramming things with impunity as a cop. It works pretty well if you accept that you’re playing a less attractive, more constrained, less wanted version of Most Wanted.

Unfortunately, I’m not sold on the MMO quest style of advancement. At any given point, you have a small list of things you have to do in order to level up and unlock the next car. These are things like drift 2500 feet, bust 3 racers, use 5 tech attacks, get a gold medal on an medium difficulty event, and so forth. One of the defining factors of Need for Speed Most Wanted was how many options were available at any given time to advance however you wanted. Whereas Most Wanted felt like an open world spread before you, waiting to be explored, with an exhilarating sense of freedom and possibility and cars jostling for your attention, Rivals feels like a shopping list. And not even your own shopping list. Someone else’s shopping list.

Perhaps most disappointing of all is the actual world. The map consists of long wending noodles of road draped over Frostbite landscapes. It’s built for you to drive fast and bang into cars, so it minimizes the concept of mastering a route or reacting to the road. It’s all long, thin, shallow. This means there’s little sense of place. There is minimal traffic. There are too few opportunities to actually turn onto another road or take a shortcut. The world even feels small. You’ll be chasing someone, or running from someone, and suddenly you’re back where you were just a little while ago. It all feels so constrained. And it doesn’t even look that good. Certainly not any better than Most Wanted, and considerably less detailed. The draw distance for the cars is such that occasionally you’ll see a car simply pop into existence, as if its invisibility spell had just run out. I’ve been told the next-gen versions of the game look better. Perhaps the extra visual pizazz makes these noodle roads more engaging, or the wrecks more dramatic, or even the multiplayer more fluid. But on the Xbox 360, Rivals looks and feels like last-gen racing.