Another year, another Need for Speed game. It’s been interesting to watch Criterion evolve this franchise over the years, and even though their name isn’t on the most recent game, Need for Speed: Rivals, the new developer Ghost Games is made up of ex-Criterion folk. They are Criterion in all but name only. Last year they tried to take Need for Speed open world and failed miserably (and then some). This year they made a better game, but one that is still at war with itself on a fundamental level.
First off, Rivals solves the problem of open world exploration in a car by simply getting rid of all off-road collectibles and any other item that would encourage exploration. This might seem like a wrong move since it represents a loss of content, but it was content that opposed the genre and controls. Cars, especially the fast cars of Need for Speed, are meant to move in one direction—forward—but open worlds are about exploration and discovery, and exploration doesn’t happen in a straight line. It zig-zags and twists all forward progress all to all hell because we wander. Cars don’t wander; they move with a purpose. Rivals realizes this and thus removes any reason to wander. In doing so, the game becomes a more unified experience. It’s a racing game that keeps its focus on the racing, on doing what fast cars do best.
That’s not to say that it ignores the open world at its disposal but that Rivals uses the open world in ways that are more consistent with its stated genre. Like other open worlds this one is populated with NPCs that make it feel like more of a living place. In this case, the NPCs are all other racers and cops. In one brilliant bit of convergence, Rivals lets us challenge any of the other racers (NPC or human) to a head-to-head race without ever having to stop or slow down. We just get close and hit a button to issue the challenge, then they can accept or decline with a single button. If they accept, the course for the race is automatically plotted from your current location. It’s a truly wonderful blending of an open world and racing game, a system that lets us take advantage of random meetings while never losing sight of what Need for Speed is really all about.
It’s important to note that the open world of Rivals puts a greater focus on the players within its world than the world itself. I can’t even remember if this city, if it can even be called a city, has a name. It’s not meant to be a realistic location; it’s more of a playground. The world isn’t meant to be interesting or immersive; it’s just meant to be a conduit for cooperative or competitive play. That focus actually makes Rivals more of an MMO than a traditional single-player open world game. It’s a smart shift because no one really cares about the world of a racing game. We just care about the road and who else is on it.
However, this is where the game introduces a whole new set of problems. Rivals doesn’t really know how to be an MMO.
The game is structured around “Speedlists,” which are essentially quests. A Speedlist is a series of objectives, and once completed, you’re rewarded with a rank/level up, which unlocks better cars. You’re timed on how fast you complete a Speedlist. As you’re selecting one from the menu, a leaderboard of your online friends is displayed under the objectives, showing how fast they completed that particular list. You also can’t replay Speedlists until you hit rank/level 20, which is fairly deep into the game (the max rank/level is 60). Thus, the game encourages you to complete the Speedlists as fast as possible. It’s a competition that’s advertised every time that you look at the menu, and it directly contradicts the playground ethos of the open world.
Rivals has essentially created an open world filled with other players and an infinite number of races that you should ignore because they’re not on the Speedlist. All the fixes that Rivals has made to its open world formula are undermined by this system that completely ignores all those fixes. The Speedlists don’t encourage you to seek out other players or compete in random races. They’re more about funneling you into single-player events. In theory, you could play these events with other players, but in practice, no one ever wants to do the same thing because they’re always off working on their own Speedlist objectives.
Personally, I still think open world racing games are dumb because you can accidentally go off course, but Rivals tries so very hard to make a good case for that genre mixing. It improves upon everything that made Most Wanted frustrating, but then it starts a new war with itself.
Need for Speed has had a sad evolution ever since Hot Pursuit, which was very nearly perfect. Each successive game has tried to add something new to the franchise, and each time they failed to recapture the magic of that first Criterion game. There have been improvements, but each improvement only brings the franchise more in line with what Hot Pursuit accomplished 3 years ago when it reminded gamers why Need for Speed was relevant. At this point, it’s just a matter of time until we get a Hot Pursuit 2, and hopefully then Need for Speed can make another case for its continued relevance because for now it’s just another major franchise with an identity crisis.