Need for Speed Rivals

Need for Speed Rivals isa frantic and outrageously entertaining entry in EA's ever-consequent racing series. It may well be the best in its lineage to date, a silly and exhilarating driving sandbox with very serious intentions of becoming your go-to launch title for the PS4. It's helmed by brand-new developer Ghost, although comparing it to Criterion's recent and exciting work with the series is apt, as a large chunk of Criterion made their way to this new company to continue their brand of aggressive open-concept racing, and it feels like that thesis has been freshly reexamined once again. Dusting down a stretch of road at 200mph and trading paint with all you see hasn't felt this good since Burnout Paradise, and fans of that game can safely consider Rivals its successor.

Those who played 2010's Most Wanted entries will already know the basics here in Rivals. This game has two distinct “career” tracks – one focused on illegal street racers, and another for the fuzz who aim to put a stop to their shenanigans. Each has their own distinct set of challenge checklists to work through, events to complete and styles of play to offer. Generally, racer events encourage you to use any grimy tricks you can to snag top honors, while cops have to minimize the carnage they leave in their wake. Both get access to various kinds of “pursuit tech,” basically weapon systems you can fit onto your car. There are stun mines, shockwaves that damage and push away nearby cars, a ramming bumper that shoots from the back of your vehicle. Personally, I found the Racer side of things quite a bit more interesting. There are loads of customization options for the street racers – paint, decals, liveries, custom plates and performance upgrades – that don't play into the Cop side of the game at all. Cruisers are automatically added to your garage as you rank up that career, unable to be tweaked or improved upon. The thrill of hunting down street racers is still in full effect, but I focused mostly on Racer stuff because it let me customize and personalize my cars.

Your checklists – er, I guess that's speedlists here – operate outside of the main events and serve as your main means of progress. A typical one may ask you to land a gold medal on any Race event, accumulate a certain duration of airtime, and get a number of side-slams in on opponents. Speedlists are largely designed around driving maneuvers and cumulative goals instead of specific events, and that means advancing in Rivals can be done alone or near-entirely with others. By default, you're experiencing a mixture of both at the same time.

The way Ghost has managed to merge single and multiplayer functionality into one cohesive flow is the best and most divergent part of Rivals, and what will keep you with it in the long haul. Like recent Need for Speed titles, this one uses one large map that encompasses an entire fictional road system. It also uses the Autolog, an online connectivity system that's been a part of the series for a little while now. You can use a d-pad menu to set up matchmaking with people on your friends list, but by default Rivals fills up your game a handful of other players, each able to roam freely across the world map as they so choose, be they racer or cop.

The way your activities intertwine with others is a ton of fun. Often, you'll be accepting head-to-head challenges and starting up race events with a considerable police tail, and all that attention stays right along with you while you vie for first place. It's one thing to race a rival while avoiding obstacles and oncoming traffic. Bringing a level nine police chase into the fold – complete with EMPs messing with your car's computers and helicopters kicking up dust all around you – is another entirely. Occasionally, the constant interconnection can be annoying. I was robbed of a couple tough-to-nail gold medal times because I crashed head-on into a player whipping around a corner and wrecked my pace. Those situations ended up being rare setbacks in what is otherwise a fun and lively way to make Need for Speed more fast-paced and potentially competitive than ever.

This wonderful chaos is controlled by a smart reward system that keeps the whole thing from devolving into total bedlam. Racers quickly rack up speed points used to buy new cars and upgrades by driving dangerously and evading pursuing police. They also take on additional levels of heat which intensifies attention from the fuzz, along with the opportunities to score big. If Racers are totalled or busted by the cops, though, they'll get sent back to their garage with nothing. The draw of keeping a chase going a few minutes longer and racking up enough points to purchase a new car is strong, and it's a great motivator for pulling crazy stunts and pushing your driving in the sorts of ways Rivals is all about. It also safeguards against chases running on for too long, and it's mostly successful in that.

The feature-rich world wouldn't mean a thing if the basic driving wasn't sound, but that's never an issue. Rivals is the sort of racing game that's keen on having the gas pedal punched at all times. The cars you start with can be thrown into a high-speed drift and swiftly flicked back out again, and rides you unlock as you go progressively ask more and more finesse from your input. Jumping into a Ford GT gives you a ton of power to work with, but being able to tame that power isn't something you can do immediately. There's not a tremendous amount of cars, but each has a unique feel that will suit some drivers and repel others. Like the great Burnout Paradise, reducing the real-world nuances of driving a performance car doesn't make the game any less nuanced or enjoyable.

If you're looking for a good way soak up the sights and sounds of your brand new hardware, Rivals' audiovisuals have you covered. The mountainous coastlines and ancient forests you tear through look terrific, and smart use of blur and screen shake effects make the sense of speed amazing without ever going overboard and obscuring your view. The new weather effects that occasionally conjure up fierce storms are outright striking. It's tough to be impressed by the look of a game nowadays, but it's hard to deny the gorgeous presentation on PS4. Audio seems more sharp than ever as well. The uncompressed screams of performance engines and wailing sirens sound downright vicious at times, and the copious police chatter describing racers' flippant destruction of public property is still a fun touch. If you've got a good pair of headphones, be sure to try them out on your controller.

Need for Speed Rivals' boisterous and brash open-world driving design gets enormous mileage thanks to some amazingly fluid online functionality. This is a stand-out launch game in every regard, and if you have any interest in this sort of action-heavy racing, here's the best way to experience it this year.