Good and evil is always a pleasant dichotomy to work with, especially in games where such choices are a primary gameplay mechanic. While Need for Speed Rivals doesn't feature the depth and complexity of narrative-driven games like inFamous or Mass Effect, the good/evil dynamic is a well-realized feature made better by the online features of the PS4. Right from the start, you're given the choice to play as a racer or a cop, and you get the opportunity to outlast or bust racers online at will. The voice-over narration makes it sound like the racers are messiahs of all that is good and free, while the cops are the brunt end of an oppressive dictatorship looking to ruin the lives of hapless and innocent street racers. Of course, Need for Speed has always been a game meant to cater to the crowd that cheers for Tony Montana, so one shouldn't really expect the plot to be any less than a glorification of violence. That said, it's still a fun romp if you ignore the laughably sociopathic story and manage to plow through the part of the game that demands incessant grinding.
The tutorial takes you through both sides of the law, starting with whichever you prefer, and once you are through with that you can jump right into the campaign. Don't worry about choosing a side incidentally - when you're at your hideout or outpost, you can switch between cop and racer careers at will. Each campaign is eight chapters long, and each chapter consists of multiple sub-chapters (usually three). To get through these sub-chapters, you're given a list of tasks to complete, such as achieving a perfect nitrous boost, managing 200 yards in a single jump, or getting gold on certain race types. If you don't like the requirements for a given mission, or if you're ill-equipped (such as if you're tasked to use a certain skill that you don't have equipped), you can select a different set of tasks based on different skills (such as driving, racing, or pursuit for racers, and patrol, undercover, or enforcer for cops) and complete those instead. It's a nice way to add balance and keeps things interesting. This is also how you upgrade your rank, and you can return to complete the other two options that you didn't opt for the first time around once you're done with the campaign.
The racing campaign tends to focus more on racing and cop evasion, and the events themselves reflect this. There are four types of events: races, time trials, interceptions, and hot pursuits. Races are typical high speed competitions between you and up to five other racers; hot pursuits are the same thing but with cops chasing your tail; time trials are races against the clock and your own best time; and interceptions are police ambushes wherein the goal is to evade capture and to do so in record time. While racing, you have to balance speed and accuracy, using nitro and pursuit tech to gain the edge. Nitro is acquired by drifting, performing jumps, and drafting. Cops, on the other hand, have slightly different objectives. As a cop, you have hot pursuit or interception events where your job is to take down the racers as a member of the other side of the law; you also have calls where the object is to reach your destination without doing any property damage or hitting any civilian drivers, lest you suffer time deductions.
Upgrading your vehicle or getting better vehicles requires speed points, which are accrued in various ways including completing events, participating in head-to-head races, getting into high speed chases, losing the cops, and certain skill-based feats. However, the only way to actually bank these points is to return to home base without breaking down or getting busted in the process. If you complete a race, get the speed points, then get busted before you return home then, in the words of Willy Wonka, you get nothing! This makes the game one of risk vs. reward; the longer you go without returning to base, the higher your score multiplier, but the higher your heat level, and that in turn means them cops will attack you more aggressively. This is made even more infuriating by the fact that you cannot seem to drive more than a minute without activating a pursuit and having the cops tail you, even at low heat levels.
This led to a lot of frustration around the mid-game, when I had access to some of the harder missions but didn't have sufficient points or rank to purchase the best vehicles or upgrades. Despite performing perfect drifts, utilizing my nitrous perfectly, and avoiding all speed traps and attacks, I still found that slower, weaker cars were inexplicably keeping up with me and even passing me as a result.
The cop AI is also flawed and heavily rubber-banded; cops will often resume a pursuit you think you're long clear from despite there being no vehicles within range and your own vehicle greatly outrunning them. On the flip side, you can mess up multiple times, crash out, and even go backwards and yet still miraculously manage to catch up to the pack leader in even the most heated of races. This is rubber-band AI at its worst. Even at the end of the game, when you have access to the best cars, upgrades, and abilities, the easy AI racers will still catch up to you with ease. The only way to balance this out (besides playing against human players) is to use pursuit tech abilities, which are combat-racer styled abilities that allow you to avoid the cops or take down racers, such as EMP pulses, shockwaves, battering ram blasts, and turbo boosts.
Ultimately, I was sorely disappointed in Need for Speed Rivals. The cops vs. racers concept is great, but it is bogged down by shoddy decisions and poor execution. In addition to the aforementioned AI issues and rubber-band mechanics, you also need to sign into the EA servers if you want to play the game properly. When you log into your game, you sign into a game in progress, allowing you to not only complete your own chapters and play in your own campaign, but also to interact with other racers who are online at the same time. The only way to not play in this mode is to shut your internet off, which means you cannot even pause the game since it treats itself as an MMO.
The world is also surprisingly small. While it's technically huge and ranges from beautiful vistas and snowy mountains to dry deserts and small towns, the actual road layout is like simple patchwork, so even though there are literally dozens of races, they frequently overlap one another. Pair that with the immense amount of grinding needed to get the best cars and upgrades, and you've got a very repetitive game on your hands, even with the addition of a cop career. There are jumps to collect, speed traps to set off, and segments to achieve high speed scores on, but they happen automatically and require little thought or effort to achieve, leaving the post-game content feeling flat and empty.
I'm also disappointed that my first PS4 review is for a game that looks like it belongs on the PS3. As a PS3 title, it would be impressive graphically, but for a PS4 title, it just feels like it could be so much more; the only outstanding visual feature is the weather effects. It seems to have the loading times of a PS3 game as well, which one would expect to be reduced on a PS4. On top of that, the writing is terrible. I'm aware that Need for Speed is supposed to be dumb fun, but given its arcade racer feel, why include a story at all? Adding cutscenes and news reports actually makes Need for Speed Rivals seem like a parody, not a serious attempt at a fun game. I also want to note that not everyone likes rap, and if you're one of these people you likely won't enjoy Rivals' soundtrack at all. The techno and eurobeat tracks compliment the fast-paced nature of a racer perfectly, but the rap tracks sound terrible and don't work with this type of game at all.
Need For Speed Rivals is decently fun, but marred by underwhelming presentation, an insanely stupid story, unfair AI, and repetition. While it is fun and rewarding to upgrade your vehicles, increase their stats, customize them, play with pursuit tech, and see what it's like to play on both sides of the law online, Need for Speed Rivals just seems like it's all filler, no killer. The overlapping nature of events has always been a staple of the franchise, but the repetition has never been as apparent as it is in Rivals, and the new features aren't quite enough to overcome that.
This review is based on a retail copy of Need for Speed Rivals for the PS4