Electronic Arts' Need for Speed line has produced a lot of great racing games over the years. The theme of the games has changed here and there, and recently, the Need for Speed name has been squarely attached to import tuner-style street racing games. The subset of the series, known as Need for Speed Underground, has done a good job of capturing the thrill of late-night illegal street races while including all of the parts and customization. Now, EA is bringing its nitro-powered racer to the Sony PSP and its stripped-down take on the series fits nicely onto the new handheld.
NFSU Rivals offers a stout variety of race types. The most obvious race--a multilap circuit race--is the cornerstone of the game. You can also engage in knockout races, where the last-place driver is eliminated after each lap until only one winner remains. Rally relay races put you on the same tracks, but you'll change cars between laps. Once you get away from lap completion as a goal, there will be four more types of events. Nitrous run challenges you to make your way around a track, crossing gates that add time to a constantly draining clock, and refilling your nitrous oxide tanks. The idea is to boost around the track, hitting as many gates as you can before time finally catches up with you. Street cross races take place on smaller, often indoor tracks that flex your technical abilities rather than just forcing you to drive as fast as possible. Drift attack is the weakest race type of the bunch, simply challenging you to lose traction in special drift zones and whip around poles for points. Drag racing, a popular mode in the previous games, returns here in all its camera-shaking and blur-effected glory, and it, along with nitrous run, is definitely one of the high points of the game.
As you play through these different races and win trophies, you'll earn upgrade points and unlock visual add-ons for the cars in your garage. Unlike the previous games that bear the Underground name, in Rivals, there's no benefit to tricking out your car with spoilers, vinyls, rims, neons, or hood scoops beyond simply making your car look as crazy as you want it to look. There is a great deal of available visual upgrades, so you'll always be unlocking something new. Performance upgrades are the meaningful enhancements. Your car is broken down into 10 different categories of upgrades, including engine, drivetrain, chassis, brakes, and suspension. These upgrades are kept pretty simple, as well. You'll drop into a category and see a few upgrades you can make in each area. Each one boosts a meter that is devoted to that category closer and closer to 100 percent. Also, you'll only have to purchase each upgrade once to use it on all of your cars, but unfortunately, you'll still have to wade through multiple upgrade menus to get each car up to speed with your latest changes. The upgrades should have been automatically applied to all cars.
You'll encounter more than 20 licensed cars in the game, like the Dodge Neon, Toyota Celica GT-S, Pontiac GTO, Mazda RX-8, and more. Each car must be unlocked by winning events, but even after they're unlocked for use, you'll still have to spend a pile of upgrade points before they're yours to trick out. The variety of cars is good, and the cars feel different enough to make your vehicle choice meaningful. The artificial intelligence that you'll race against is generally good, but the cars do seem to occasionally ignore you in favor of a rigid racing line. That can be a little annoying, but it doesn't happen all that often.
Steering in NFSU Rivals can be done with the D pad, but you're going to have better results with the analog control disc. The steering and handling is well programmed, and you'll really feel a difference in your control over your cars when you sink some upgrade points into handling-based enhancements. In addition to steering, gas, and brake, you have an emergency brake, which doesn't come in handy all that often until you get into the really fast cars. You'll also have a nitrous button, which boosts you up to high speeds and is accompanied by a great-looking blur and shake effect.
While the car models themselves look a little flat, the environments in NFSU Rivals are excellent. The buildings are detailed, the streets look appropriately slick, and overall, the game looks great. You'll also notice little details, like neon reflecting off the street, and the reflection of the sky and nearby buildings in your car's tinted windows. But when it comes to the racing genre, all of those things take a backseat to how well a game can convey a sense of speed. The blurring and shaking that occurs at high speeds is something that the Need for Speed Underground games have been known for and that effect translates to the PSP very well. You'll run into some random spots where the frame rate takes a serious dive, but for the most part, the game runs smooth enough to make you feel like you're flying down the pavement, especially in drag races and nitrous runs.
Rivals also contains wireless multiplayer for two players. If you want to race against your friends, this mode works, but without many of the available options of the single-player game, it's not nearly exciting as it could have been. If you're limited to one PSP, you can play four-player games by passing the PSP around to see who can finish the fastest or score the highest in street cross, drift attack, nitrous run, drag, or circuit races. If you have a lot of competitive friends, these options will offer some additional value, but they really don't add much to the overall package.
Sounds like squealing tires and throaty exhausts are key to good racing game sound, and Rivals does a good job with this stuff. The soundtrack consists of music found in the console and PC releases of Need for Speed Underground 2, so you'll hear tracks from Fat Joe, Ministry, Freeland, Chingy, Queens of the Stone Age, and yes, the musical atrocity that is Snoop Dogg featuring The Doors performing a duet from beyond the grave with "Riders on the Storm." The music fits the action well, but one part of it really gets in the way. Whenever a new song starts (like at the beginning of a race), a little window pops up in the lower-left corner to tell you the name of the song and what album it's from. This window covers the onscreen map, which is very, very key in street cross races. This boneheaded design decision should have been rectified before release.
Also on the subject of music, NFSU Rivals uses something that EA calls EA Pocket Trax. This mode is just an overblown music player that lets you listen to the songs in the game. In one case, you can actually watch a music video for one of the songs, which is a neat bonus. But for everything else, you're treated to some incredibly lame visualizations, such as...a spinning Need for Speed logo or an equalizer that has a speedometer graphic behind it. These visualizations are pretty weak, and considering the fleeting nature of the PSP's battery life, it just seems like a real waste. It would have been nice if you could just access the game's soundtrack from the PSP's music menu instead.
If you played a lot of Need for Speed Underground 2, you probably couldn't help but notice the constant bombardment of product placement. Everything was sponsored and licensed all to hell. The good news is that, for whatever reason, Rivals doesn't contain any of that nonsense. In fact, since you can't choose the brands of upgrades you install anymore, the game almost seems slightly stripped down. You can still access licensed vinyls from various car part and stereo manufacturers, though, so if you're partial to, say, Brembo, you can fly your company colors with pride. This sort of optional branding is much less invasive than the nonstop advertising that made NFSU2 feel so cheap.
Fans of the Need for Speed Underground series will feel right at home with Rivals. It gets rid of the overblown, big-city atmosphere of the recent console release and puts the focus on getting into races--the best part of the series--very quickly. Though a few minor tweaks would have made Rivals a bit better, there's enough fast-paced driving action here to satisfy race fans.