Publisher: EA Developer: Ghost Games Platforms: PC, Xbox One, PS4, X360, PS3 Price: £49.99
Criterion are one of the UK's top developers. The Burnout series in particular is one of the best things to come out of the UK since Boddingtons draught, and holds fond personal childhood memories. Nothing helps solidify a brotherly bond quite like ramming a sports car into a lorry at a crossroads, causing a seventeen-car pile-up, millions of pounds' worth of damage, and two teenage boys to hurt themselves laughing. In more recent years, the Guildford-based studio has been busy transferring that Burnout recipe for thrills and mayhem into EA's Need For Speed franchise, resulting in an equally strong if slightly less comical series of games.
But it seems 2012's Need For Speed: Most Wanted was one racer too many for Criterion, who shortly afterwards cut their team down to just thirteen people to make something smaller, more personal, and almost certainly not about cars. That's the bad news regarding Need For Speed: Rivals. The good news is, the seventy displaced members of Criterion were arranged into a new studio called Ghost Games, and they're responsible for bringing us this year's entry in the series.
So it's perhaps unsurprising that it's pretty darn good. Broadly speaking, Rivals adopts the same structure as the previous NFS games, Most Wanted and Hot Pursuit, letting you play the game either as Racers - irresponsible, adrenaline-hungry freewheelers who would be absolutely insufferable in real life - or Cops - brutal authoritarians who believe that ramming a car into a tree using an electrified bumper is a perfectly reasonable way of dispensing justice, and therefore would also be absolutely insufferable in real life. It's basically a world full of egotistical, self-righteous arseholes. There's a quote you won't see on the box.
The two biggest changes in Rivals have been made to the graphics engine and the open world in which the game is set. Like so many of EA's games, Rivals has been developed using DICE's Frostbyte 3 technology, which means it looks slicker than Ryan Gosling at a water park, particularly when the sun goes down and the dynamic weather effects kick in. More important is how Ghost Games have used the technology to as varied an effect as possible. Set in the startlingly diverse Redview County, the game's one hundred miles of open road twist and turn through sunlight-dappled forests, vast rocky deserts, idyllic coastal villages, and snow-blasted mountains. The only thing it lacks is a substantial urban landscape, although there are plenty of manmade structures dotted about the place.
It's an environment that begs you to explore it, an urge that is heightened by how it approaches player interaction. After a brief tutorial, the whole county is available to race around in from the beginning, and while challenges of a similar difficulty tend to be clustered in particular areas, for the most part you can progress through the game from any location. This is achieved via the use of Speedwalls (NFS is bristling with its own 'hip' jargon that is guaranteed to make you feel old provided you can buy a beer without the barman looking at you funny).
Each Speedwall is a list of objectives comprised of specific challenges dotted around the map, and various things the game's systems allow you to do. For example, a typical Racer Speedwall might say "Earn 10,000 points, get a bronze medal in a race, destroy a Cop car, and don't forget to pick up some milk". Sorry, that last one's from my shopping list. Completing each Speedwall and returning to a Racer "hideout" will unlock new cars, liveries, and upgrades.