Need for Speed: Rivals rarely wants you to take your foot off the accelerator. Swedish upstart Ghost Games’ debut arcade racer fuses the fast-paced police chases popularised by Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit with the open world pandemonium of Need for Speed: Most Wanted, and serves up an emergent online experience that ensures that you’re on the road as much as possible. There are speed bumps in its structure and game engine, but the experience is moreish enough to ensure that you’ll be outrunning the law for many hours before you swap your Enzo Ferrari for something a little more suitable for the school run.

There’s a civil war taking place in Redview County, and you hold the keys to both sides. Just like in Criterion Games’ abovementioned 2010 PlayStation 3 wreck-‘em-up, publisher EA Games’ latest automotive outing allows you to assume the role of both the free-spirited racers and commotion-averse cops. There’s a loose narrative thread packed with poetic commentary that makes neither side seem particularly endearing, but it basically boils down to hazy context for your on-road antics. Unsurprisingly, these comprise outrunning the police and t-boning the racers. Some things never change, huh?

Beneath this paper-thin premise, there’s a compelling hook. All of your actions in the PlayStation 4 racer are rewarded with Score Points, which essentially act as a fictional finance for buying new rides and upgrades. You’ll unlock this make-believe money by driving recklessly, loosely drifting around hazardous hairpins, and sending expensive sports cars to the scrapheap. A multiplier makes the cash easier to accrue as a racer, but as you move through the gears, you’ll become a higher-value target. Consequentially, if you get busted by a moustachioed undercover cop while casually soaking up your surroundings, your kitty will be snatched.

It creates a really clever dynamic that makes every session a game of cat-and-mouse. It’s harder to earn points if you’re not busting people as a cop, so you’ll need to be constantly on the lookout for high-value targets to boost your bank balance. Meanwhile, as a racer, you’ll feel the pressure as your accumulator increases, resulting in some white knuckle chases back to your base as you desperately attempt to stash any cash that you’ve earned while out on the road. It’s a simple idea, but it makes the conflict between the two factions much more meaningful, and it plays into the title’s online component.

This is a game that’s designed to be played while you’re connected to the ‘net. There’s no separate multiplayer progression – or even an introductory menu screen for that matter – as the single player campaign and competitive suite are one in the same. Each time that you boot up the title you’ll be filtered into a lobby filled with six other drivers. These will all be going about their own business, and your paths may not initially cross. However, there will inevitably be occasions where your actions overlap, and this is where the game really comes into its own.

Two racers, for example, may decide to work together to stave off a fleet of computer-controlled cops. Alternatively, you could be on the side of the law, and chasing down two wannabe Sebastian Vettel impersonators. You’ll play with or against each other until your pursuit concludes, and then you’ll end up going your separate ways until your paths cross again. It’s all completely seamless, and while the lobbies can feel empty due to the lack of players, it gives the game a real next-gen quality. After all, this is the vision that upcoming titles like Destiny and Watch Dogs have projected – but it’s already here, and working well.

Well, a vast majority of the time anyway, as there are niggles in the format that let it down. Occasionally, you’ll be minding your own business competing in a solo race when another player will disconnect, sending you to a host migration screen and forcing you to restart your event. You can default to single player if you want to avoid these intrusive hiccups, but it seems a bit of a shame to disregard one of the racer’s greatest assets just because the netcode isn’t quite up to snuff. We’re secretly hopeful that this is something that will be patched.

In fact, there are quite a few bugs and niggles that leave infuriating imperfections in the title’s otherwise exquisite paintwork. For the most part, the title runs at a silky smooth 30 frames-per-second, resulting in a slick sense of speed – but the engine will occasionally hick as you hit tight corners, causing you to misjudge the turn and knock milliseconds off your time. Moreover, there are moments where textures will flash from the screen, revealing luminescent wireframes behind the beautiful scenery. We’re not sure whether there’s some Matrix-esque metaphor embedded beneath the drudgery of the narrative, but it was lost on us. We think it’s just a glitch.

It’s a shame because the title looks rather stunning otherwise. You can see the current generation concessions in the picture’s aliasing, but you’ll still encounter some jaw-dropping moments throughout the release. Highlights include a fairly convincing day-and-night cycle, and thunder storms which change the entire complexion of the game. These happen dynamically, often without warning, and really transform the feel of some pursuits. Your adrenaline will already be higher than a teenager at a Justin Bieber concert when you’re trying to outpace the cops – but it’ll be doubled when you’re forced to navigate through overgrown environments during a twilight shower.

The way that the weather and lighting changes all adds to the appeal of the non-stop action that we alluded to a little earlier. Rather than select events from monotonous menus, you’re free to race around the world and initiate head-to-heads and time trials while on the road. Many of these will occur while you’re already being chased, and it results in a non-stop dynamic that keeps you behind-the-wheel as much as possible. The racer career is a bit more erratic due to the fact that you constantly have to bank your funds, but gambling with your multiplier is a big part of that campaign’s appeal.

Granted, the events themselves aren’t exactly groundbreaking. Playing as the police means that you’ll spend most of your time ramming into speedsters, though the implementation of car combat-esque power-ups add to the fun. EMP charges can be locked onto the bumpers of expensive vehicles, while you can drop spike strips to spin out those behind you and even call in roadblocks from your friends on the force. Racers have less room to customise in this area, but as most of the faction’s challenges revolve around outrunning the cops – and other drivers – you’ll be able to pour your cash into vehicle upgrades that improve the performance of your chosen ride.

Of course, the sandbox setup means that you’re never necessarily required to do anything if you don’t want to. The world is filled with speed cameras, jumps, and custom routes for you to explore – each packed with Autolog leaderboards based upon the performance of your PlayStation Network pals. This constant sense of competition extends to Speedwalls, too, which comprise the core of the campaign, and see you completing increasingly challenging objectives in order to improve your rank and unlock new vehicles. These do drag on a little, but they force you to explore different driving techniques, and give you something to focus on if you’re not a fan of the open world structure.

As you check off objectives, your endeavours will be backed by a trendy soundtrack that’s perhaps trying a little too hard to be hip. We daresay some will be fans of the four-to-the-floor dance rock that comes blaring out of your Ford GT’s subwoofer, but we opted to lower the music’s volume in favour of letting the vehicle’s raspy exhaust pipe pop. Fortunately, the engine sounds are generally exceptional, and a far-cry from the archaic audio production in PlayStation’s other big racer of the moment, Gran Turismo 6.

Conclusion

You certainly won’t find an enemy in Need for Speed: Rivals – even if it does have some infuriating issues that put a dent in its otherwise immaculate exterior. The clever competitive dynamic at the core of the open world excursion augments the experience with a white-knuckle tension which ensures that outrunning your opponents, either online or offline, is entertaining at all times. However, performance sputters and progression impeding connectivity problems scrape a layer of polish off the overall package. This is agonisingly close to being at the front of the pack, and is the best arcade racer on the PS4 by default, but its missteps mean that it’s a millisecond away from a podium place.