Need for Speed: The Run
Need for Speed has had something of a rough ride this generation. After starting off strong with the initial crop of open-world racing games, something of an identity crisis seemed to arise around the time Need for Speed: Shift was announced. Was Need for Speed about illegal street racing, like the critically panned Need for Speed: Undercover? Was it supposed to be open-world, or track based, like it was in previous generations? More to the point, how did it fit into EA’s racing lineup alongside Burnout, a series about… open-world illegal street racing? The answer seemed to be “have the Burnout guys make Need for Speed“, which brought us 2010’s excellent reboot of Hot Pursuit, which took the series back to arcade-style racing. EA Black Box’s Need for Speed: The Run ditches the Undercover open-world formula and follows Hot Pursuit‘s format, featuring races from point A to point B, cops, and lots of power-sliding. While a step in the right direction for Black Box, problems in a few key areas keep it a few strokes short of a V8.
The core concept of The Run is a race from one end of the United States to the other, starting on the West coast and ending up in New York. Instead of aiming for first place in every race, players are instead in a pack of 200, and must slowly work their way up the ladder by a certain amount of positions in each racing stage, or “make up for lost time” in time-trial stages. While the actual gameplay here isn’t too different from other arcade racers, the way the race is presented is at least creative – there’s a motive for all of these events, and seeing that you have 150 cars in front of you is a bit more exciting than, say, being 6th place in an 8 man race – sure, it’s semantics, but it’s a neat idea all the same. The game occasionally breaks the action up with QTE cutscenes, showing the player stealing a new car or running from cops, and various other shenanigans that probably would have been better served as a plain cutscene.
The actual racing, separated from the clever framework, is fairly standard, although it’s hampered by some odd problems here and there. Tracks are usually point-to-point challenges along stretches of highway, with the odd city segment thrown in for good measure. Some areas have huge setpiece obstacles – avalanches, trains, explosions, etc – that try to break things up a bit, but to be honest, most of these sequences fall flat and cause frustrating restarts. Cars in The Run are pretty much always going flat out, and the squirrely handling sometimes makes avoiding obstacles nigh impossible. These segments don’t pop up too much, though, and for the most part The Run‘s driving is on point – as long as you’re good at staying on the track. The game has a strange tendency to reset cars after barely leaving the road, making some shortcuts incredibly hard to enter. It’d be less of a problem if the game featured a graceful rewind system, ala GRID or Forza Motorsport, but The Run simply cuts to a black screen with a “rewind” button on it for a few seconds. It’s jarring, to say the least.
Visually, however, The Run has no problems. The game runs on DICE’s Frostbite 2 engine, which delivers absolutely gorgeous landscapes to race through. The car models are excellent, but the tracks and scenery steal the show. The coast to coast race takes the player through cities, deserts, forests, and mountains; each area looks incredible and unique. Oddly enough, the most impressive looking things in the game are the character models. Considering that the story is anemic at best, The Run‘s cast looks fantastic, especially the main character Jack and his sponsor, Sam. Their dialog may not be any good, but the detailed character work sells the action in the game’s cutscenes.
However, audio suffers a little bit. On the 360, some sounds just seem overly compressed and tinny – voice work and road noise in particular. Sound quality concerns aside, The Run does feature a great licensed soundtrack, consisting mostly of modern blues rock like The Black Keys and The Dead Weather. These songs tend to play during key races; most other levels feature a dramatic score that certainly gets the job done, but doesn’t stand out, and certainly doesn’t mesh with the licensed music on offer.
Need for Speed: The Run is a fantastic concept hobbled by lots of small problems. The presentation is unique and exciting, but the constant button cues distract from the animation and visual design. The driving is competent, but is weighed down by strange reset problems and frustrating obstacles. Goodness knows, Christina Hendricks looks and sounds wonderful, but it’s a shame the story doesn’t give any room for characters to do anything other than say one-liners. It doesn’t help that the whole package just feels a little light, with a story mode that can be completed in one sitting and a multi-player that doesn’t offer much outside of simple race modes. There’s nothing terribly wrong with The Run – it just doesn’t feel entirely put together. Still, it’s light years ahead of Undercover, and I’m anxious to see where Black Box can take the series next.