How much depth is there to Ghost's sandbox? Both times I've played Need For Speed: Rivals following my initial hands-on, I've come away with questions about the game's emphasis on casual play, wary of Ghost's decision to move the series away from an established structure and whether the game itself really does enough to motivate the player's interest for prolonged periods of play.
To recap, Need For Speed: Rivals feels a lot like a sequel to 2010's Hot Pursuit. It's all about the thrill of the chase, reaching those eye-blistering high speeds and nailing a drift around a sweeping corner. It's racer-chaser carnage at its very best: the decision to focus on online social play providing the opportunity for some terrific set pieces, none highlighted better than a human cop randomly stumbling upon a group of online racers midway through their own 150mph battle.
But while Criterion's game focused on linear progression, dictating the pace by pushing the player through specific sequences and providing little emphasis on sandbox, Ghost's appears to do the opposite. Rivals is based entirely within an open world - as if Hot Pursuit and Most Wanted had a little next-gen love child - and fundamentally acts as an MMO-lite, providing a social sandbox for players to create their own dynamic scenarios, compete amongst themselves and - ultimately - unlock new cars and upgrades.
The technology is impressive, with Ghost boldly merging the line between single player and multiplayer by removing player lobbies and event menus, and lumping human players and AI together within a unified game world (the developer claims that players can migrate seamlessly from single-player to multiplayer in "less than a second"). Whether you're playing online or offline, there's always something to do, too: the game's omnipresent 'Assignment' lists acting as a constant reminder of objectives you've yet to complete. They're essentially to-do lists of activities and events to take part in, with initial Assignments asking players to engage in a pursuit, reach a certain speed, or near-miss a specific number of vehicles, and objectives altering depending on whether you choose to play as a cop or racer. Completing each one unlocks a new car and earns you Speed Points, a currency system used to unlock new technology and upgrades for each vehicle.
Whether a constant stream of checklists is enough to keep the player motivated, though, will vary from player to player. While there is a loose narrative thread tying things together, it appears to be as much of an afterthought as Most Wanted's 'Blacklist' story, with the reliance on emergent gameplay and the open world's unpredictability seeming to take precedence.
In fact, it appears to be an evolution of Criterion's 'distraction play', the term coined by the developer for Most Wanted's speed cameras and collectibles, with the side challenges and mechanics appearing to function as a major part of this year's main event. "There's a saying that we say where 'Not playing the game is the game', right?" Criterion producer Matt Webster told me while speaking about the studio's approach to open world development last year. "Most games are authored. They are, 'These are the experiences that we've created for you to enjoy in this particular order'. What we're trying to do here is, just go and play, be distracted, and embrace the fun."
But what does Rivals' creative director Craig Sullivan think? "The game has to have a structure and it has to have a meaning to the player," he says when I ask him whether Ghost has taken that element of freedom and distraction play too far for this year's game. "You have to feel like you're progressing otherwise you're lost. There are reasons why we've designed elements into [Rivals] that were different to Most Wanted and Hot Pursuit. Both of those games are really fun, but people love and hate different things in both of them. People hate the fact that there was no narrative in either of them. People love the fact that there was no narrative in either of them. People hate the fact that there was no open world gameplay in Hot Pursuit. People hate the fact that there was open world gameplay in Most Wanted. It's striking that balance between what's the correct amount to put in."
It's also been designed with social play firmly in mind, Sullivan suggests. "We've made sure [Rivals] will work in its best light when we have six players across the board," he continues. "That means it's the most fun, the most balanced, nothing can overpower itself... We can AllDrive with 6 players and they can all be in races or in chases that go into a race that go into a chase. You can have 5 racers go into a race with AI racers, with a human cop coming around the corner rolling with three or four other cops."
When it works, when there are six players weaving through traffic and hurtling through the rural countryside of Redview as both cops and racers, Rivals' looks as if it could provide the Hot Pursuit sequel you've always dreamed of. But when it doesn't, there's the unshakeable concern that the game could descend into an unfulfilling exercise of simply ticking off a shopping list.
Rivals provides the tools for players to have an astounding amount of fun, then, and the moments you'll remember best will almost certainly be born out of daredevil scenarios and impulsive cross-country pursuits brought on by the players themselves. But while it has the potential to be an excellent racer superbly crafted for online play, questions linger over whether it will stand out as anything more than an amusing distraction amongst the rest of the next-gen pack, or if it really can be the racing fan's perfect partner in crime.