E3 2011: Need for Speed: The Run hands-on
I always grimace when I hear that a racing game is embracing story elements. It rarely works out well and as a fan of the genre, I feel that the storylines and cutscenes never gel very well with the racing elements of the game. But my trepidation never seems to dissuade developer’s intent on adding cutscenes and characters into a racing experience, and thus we have Need for Speed: The Run coming out this fall. I had an opportunity to play through the E3 demo twice today and I still remain a bit skeptical.
If you haven’t been following it, The Run tasks the players with driving from San Francisco to New York, all while dodging cops, gangsters and run-of-the-mill traffic. It comes from EA Black Box, the team that brought us the Underground, Undercover and Most Wanted entries in the franchise. In addition to racing segments, the game also employs QTEs to perform contextual actions during the game’s cutscenes.
As the demo loads up, it’s hard not to notice how beautiful the game looks. The game is built on DICE’s Frostbite 2.0 engine, the same engine that’s powering Battlefield 3. When the demo opens, a message flashes across the screen that we need to steal a cop car. The black screen fades away and we see Jack, the main character, taking cover behind a brick wall. The camera then pans away, revealing a police officer stepping out of the driver’s seat. Jack creeps up behind him, takes him out and enters the driver’s seat.
We’re told we need to escape Chicago and given control of the ride. I felt like the game did a very good job demonstrating the weight of the vehicle compared to other titles I’ve played. The acceleration and braking seemed extremely appropriate for the size of the vehicle. The Run seems to offer a more realistic approach to driving than I initially expected, landing somewhere comfortably between Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit and Need for Speed: Shift. I was able to quite quickly adapt to the driving style, though I will say that I think driving aids were running behind the scenes to make the demo more accessible. I often felt like my car was turning and braking on its own.
At times, it actually was. Periodically through the three minute race, which I completed twice, the game takes control away from the player to show off a cutscene. At one point, the player approaches an intersection and the camera swoops out from behind the car, revealing a pursuing helicopter. The helicopter opens fire, and as the car slides around the corner, a civilian vehicle explodes in front of you. The game then gives the players control again and tasks them with swerving to avoid gunfire and exploding vehicles. Highway overpasses provide cover, and eventually I was able to escape into a tunnel, dodging the tightest traffic I encountered in the demo.
The tunnel opened up into a train yard, and after dodging through some empty train cars, another cutscene took over. The car flipped onto the track and the protagonist is temporarily knocked out. Once he recovers, a QTE demands the player escape from the car. First we have to unfasten the seatbelt (safety first!), which requires the player aim the analog stick toward the seatbelt and mash a corresponding button (the car is upside down, so this is very counterintuitive). Then, another cutscene takes over, this time revealing an approaching train ready to annihilate the destroyed police car (and its occupant). Another QTE takes over, this time requiring the players to kick out a window to escape.
After that, the demo closed. Personally, I felt that the times where the game took control away from me were jarring. Particularly with racing games, you have to be very, very careful when taking control away from the player, lest they feel that it is too automated. From the demo, I don’t know if Need for Speed: The Run will necessarily strike an appropriate balance between the action and the story elements. I will say, I left very impressed with both the malleability of the Frostbite engine and the driving physics. Only time will tell if Need for Speed: The Run will be another excellent entry in the Need for Speed franchise, but after what I played, I am skeptically hopeful.