If there is one thing certain about what new PlayStation 4 owners will be delighted with, it is the new consoles ability to pump out the eye and ear candy.
Playing through the first few hours of Cops versus Racers in Rivals is an adrenaline filled experience, with some fantastic visuals including lighting and particle effects and plenty of audio richness to boost the atmosphere of the onscreen mayhem.
With a Need For Speed game comes a great deal of established franchise expectations, this presented challenges for Ghost Games’ James Mouat Lead Designer on the project.
“No doubt that is a big challenge. There are a lot of established norms in this franchise that, for better or worse, have to be there. But, I think, the ones we have carried over are great, so we have AutoLog [NFS’s online friendly stats comparison system] , but we have also innovated with AllDrive [The Rivals system allowing players of all game-ranks to play together], so we have brought across the stuff that works really well.” Says Mouat.
But that said, I think just delivering the same Need For Speed game again would be a failure. I come from a NOT driving game background, I’ve worked on a lot of other genres, so that is what I brought in the scoring mechanic styles, the tension and the split up of these two feelings [between Racer and Cop] to make sure when you pick this game up it is going to feel familiar, but you are going to realise that actually there is a bit of a hard-core edge to it that we haven’t seen before. If you get busted then there are consequences inside the game. If you don’t like that, the Cops have a more traditional feel; you can always switch back and forth and see what is right for you. If you beat me in a race then I can go over [to the Cop side] and chase you down [laughs].”
The game enables players to switch sides at any time, and the dynamic and tension also changes along with the switch. As a Cop it is all about earning Speed Points by patrolling the region and taking down racers, usually violently, in a dynamic open world. Cops can also select specific challenges and goals that help boost Speed Points along the way.
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As Cops it is all about team work, either with the AI or other players that can drop in and out of your game at any point. Completing challenges unlocks new exotic cruisers and spending Speed Points means you can outfit your new black-and-white with ‘pursuit tech’ such as EMP blasts, spike strips and rams.
The focus on Cops and Racers is very reminiscent of past NFS games such as Hot Pursuit.
“Yeah, we have definitely looked at Hot Pursuit, Most Wanted, the last few Need For Speed games but especially the ones that involve Cops.” Explains Mouat “In my opinion, “Cops” is a big part of what makes Need For Speed a stand-out product. It’s not simply driving around a track over and over, it’s that conflict between the two sides and I really wanted to make sure that players could get both sides of the experience, that was one of my experiences from Most Wanted was, there was tons of fun there, but I wanted that other side. Hot Pursuit delivered on that really well, we were able to look at how that worked and bring it over as a good reference point.”
The AI in the game is quite wily, faking one way at a road fork only to dart back the other way at the last moment, refreshingly the AI is also fallible, when racing with CPU controlled Racers it is fun to see them scrape against each other even as the Cops close in. This controlled unpredictability adds to the challenge and fun of the Rivals experience.
Another Need For Speed trope has always been exotic cars, and whilst we never got to this level in our play through, it is nice to see the Ferrari brand back in a NFS game.
“Yes!, that is awesome,” agrees Mouat “it has been seven years, and for no other reason than they have amazing cars and every so often one will show up at our booth at a trade show, we had a Berlinetta in Germany, it was amazing, people weren’t even paying attention to the game, oooohhh! A Berlinetta. It is fantastic to have those guys in there, everyone has been crying out hey we love Ferrari’s where are they? And we have been able to work out a deal with them so that they are happy to be in the game.”
The cars we drove were all wonderfully fast, whether it was a Merc AMG Black cop car, a Porsche, a Dodge Challenger or Aston Martin Racer there were certainly handling characteristics that set each car apart.
“I would like to think we are not 100 per cent arcade, there are definite arcade moments but we try to walk that line between simulation, and if you play the game you will realise the cars are actually simulated cars, they are not simply turning on a central pivot point, they are actually behaving like real cars and we can model those cars after their real world counterpart,” explains Mouat “so that when you drive the first Porsche, the Cayman versus the GT, you are going to find these perform differently, they actually have different characteristics, and if you are familiar with the cars, you will realise they are somewhat like the actual real cars.
There is certainly a balance present here to enable players to just have fun. Mouat and his team have created a game that will be fun. There is plenty of high-speed chases and on –the-edge moments that just would not be possible in a full simulation game.
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“I have one designer he’s definitely, like, these have to be perfect realistic cars,” laughs Mouat “and I get it, but at the same time our audience wants fun first, and that is definitely a staple of Need For Speed, people want pick-up-and-play, play with your buddies – especially with AllDrive – smashing into each other, having a good time, car damage should not be such a punishing aspect that you hit me and now I’m crippled starting a negative cycle so that now I am toast. You should be potent to the last moment and then kapow! Spectacularly you wipe out. Players feel like it’s fun and engaging and it looks real, but if you think about it, it probably isn’t, but it’s a lot of fun and you never really question the fact that I just fell of a 200 foot drop and the car still drives.”
The level design accounts for this, there are various levels and variety of road surfaces to explore, plenty of differing locations including forests, freeways and many points inviting jumps and crazy driving.
“Yep there are a few, Kingfisher Bridge in the middle especially which has two big ramps that you can catch a lot of air off, there are very small landing points, you can easily go off into the water or land in the middle of a construction site.” Says Mouat.
Amongst the bordering-on-Blues-Brothers style Cops and Racers turmoil is a graphical system that pumps out atmosphere. On the PS4 this means plenty of rain and wind effects, the thrum of helicopters and lightning overhead.
“There are a few different weather types, and there are the day night cycles.” Says Mouat “Both play in especially visually, in terms of, if it is raining and then the helicopter shows up shining his light at you, it is incredibly hard to see, the weather is a factor and the day and night cycles are actually a big factor because in the day that cop helicopter and it’s spotlight is not that big a deal, but at night it is incredibly hard to see and he is kicking up lots of dust, both of those factors contribute, but not in a super hard-core kind of way, more in a tension orientated kind of way, rather than oh my god I hate this when it is raining, no, it is more like wow this is really dramatic when it is raining.”
We played through a number of different game modes, all picked up dynamically. In fact, we could join in with other players connected in our open world as they worked through events or play ours out in parallel. Hot Pursuits cross over standard races, whilst the police radio requests other police to support other chases nearby.
Players can quickly select GPS locations and missions from the Easydrive quick select menu, for Racers this is particularly important in order to get to the nearest safe garage to ‘bank’ Speed Points after a successful race. It is the way Racers access better cars, and lends a different kind of tension to playing as a Racer versus the more grim determination feeling driving as a Cop.
“Its very story light,” explains Mouat “again, I don’t want the story to dictate what you do, rather flavour what’s happening in the progression giving context to why things change or why things are now growing and to give you motivation to find out what’s going to happen next, one of the shortcomings of driving games is if you don’t get into the minutiae of all the cars and love a certain manufacturer you stop playing, we’ll I’ve driven it for half an hour, I guess I’m done. So the story is a great way to keep people engaged, but I never want the story to be something that you get whipped with, like you have to do this now.
We definitely choke you at points, as the Cop for example you get busted down for using excessive force we put you in the worst cop car again, and you are stuck doing a patrol, but the next one we turn it around and you capture a racer car, a high end Ferrari Enzo and it has the top end Pursuit Tech where you can blow people out of the water, busting racers and causing havoc. It allows the fiction to support fun game play, but never says, well you are stuck doing the only thing we want you to do.“ says Mouat.
“That is why the choice is there, you will be given the story, but then how would you like to proceed? Which means as you work your way through everybody is going to have a different experience, and it also allows a big open world, five or six people in that world I could be rank two and you could be rank 12 but we are playing in the same world, we can always keep doing things, we are not stuck without anything to do because you are in the middle of something, they all work together because of that.”
“let’s say we are both Cops, and there is a rank 10 Hot Pursuit, and I am rank 5 and you are rank 15, if we both roll to the start, using AllDrive you can start the event and I can join in, so I will be able to play in that event because you brought me in as your partner. “
This ability to play at any rank with anybody is something Mouat and his team are obviously passionate about. It means that the already approachable Need For Speed franchise will garner wider acceptance when Rivals arrives on all current generation and next generation franchises later this month.