Some weeks ago, I wrote about how Need for Speed: Rivals fights against all of its improvements, constantly sabotaging itself right before it does something spectacular. But I left out one important point (at least one that is important to me): the soundtrack.
I love the soundtrack for most EA (Arcade) Sports titles — mainly, SSX, Need for Speed, and Burnout. In this case, to say that Rivals does the soundtrack right is a criminal understatement. The game is filled with the kind of pulsing and pounding and shouting music that makes you want to drive fast and ram other cars into oncoming traffic. Personally, I like it all. I like the synth, the electronica, the dubstep, the metal, the rock, the rap, and all the combinations thereof. I actually use these annual Need for Speed games as a central source of finding new music.
Some players might dismiss the soundtrack as just a kind of advertising for new musical artists, as something not integral to the experience because it’s all licensed music not crafted specifically for the game. But that would be wrong. The soundtrack is integral to this type of arcade racing game because it’s an effective way of setting mood and pace, and different race types require different moods and pacing.
If I’m in a Hot Pursuit, battling it out against cops and other racers, it helps to have an aggressive song setting the scene’s tone. It’s tempting to save your offensive gadgets for as long as possible since they have a limited number of uses per race, and it’s tempting to try and pass other players by driving better than them. However, the moment that you do that, they’ll use a gadget on you and send you into a wall. You need to stay aggressive, and the right song can keep you in that mood. The opposite is true as well. If I’m a in a normal race or a Time Trial, I care more about speed and precision than busted up cars. The right song, something quiet and fast, encourages me to drive clean.
The music changes the game by changing the tone of a race. This change is only possible because there are a variety of race types and a variety of songs to go with each type. Variety is necessary. Repetition is the bane of any good soundtrack.
Rivals has that variety of music, but you wouldn’t know that if you just played the game. On a whim, I started listening to the soundtrack on YouTube and was surprised by how many of the songs that I had never heard in the game. This is because the soundtrack only plays when you’re not being chased by a cop. As soon as a cop sees you and a pursuit officially begins, the music shifts into a more orchestral score with heavy drums and string instruments. Now don’t get me wrong, it’s good chase music, but that’s all it is. It is music for one kind of gameplay; it creates one kind of tone. Over time, as this chase music starts up over and over again, interrupting the rest of the soundtrack, it becomes grating. To make matters worse, since Rivals is an open world, it’s possible for a cop to start chasing you even when you’re playing a cop-less event, like a Time Trial. Eventually, every event becomes a chase, and every event features the same music. Thus, every event feels the same.
Rivals has a great soundtrack that could emphasize the variety of its racing events, but instead it constantly interrupts that variety to play the same chase music over and over again. It’s not long until that ominous thump that indicates a pursuit ceases to be exciting and just gets annoying.
I’ve actually started to put the game on mute while I listen to the soundtrack through other speakers. That seems to be the only way to actually hear all the licensed music that EA paid for. If you have to put a game on mute in order to listen to its soundtrack, something has gone terribly wrong.