Since Black Box’s last Need for Speed release – Undercover, EA has released three NFS games from other developers. While Slightly Mad steered the series into sim territory with the Shift games, Criterion took it back to what made the series most beloved with its reboot of Hot Pursuit. Black Box, however, has failed to recreate the magic of Most Wanted in the games that came after it. With The Run, it aims to bring back the story-driven action driving experience that once helped Need for Speed rule the arcade racing roost. Unfortunately, the aim is way off.
The Run is an illegal cross-country race of high performance cars that starts out in San Francisco and traces its way through the continental US towards New York. Think of it as the video game version of Cannonball Run. But the game’s protagonist, Jack Rourke, isn’t just in it for money and the thrill, but he’s also on the run from the mob. Why he’s on the run and why the mob wants him dead is never revealed, so all you get throughout the game is random slivers of totally irrelevant information that do nothing to move the plot forward. Now, I’ve never bought a Need for Speed game for its story, but even so, if you’re going to attempt a story with cinematic custscenes and voice acting from established actors, the least you can do is put some effort into it and make it coherent. There are a few interactive cutscenes thrown in to mix things up, with what is quite possibly the most unnecessary implementation of QTEs I’ve ever seen, but all they do is provide an alternative to staring at a loading screen.
Thankfully, The Run is a racing game, so as we’ve done for Need for Speed games in the past, we can forgive it for its terrible plot progression. However, without a story to keep you interested, it’s imperative that the game deliver in the areas where you expect it to – the cars, the tracks, the controls, and the events. Like Criterion’s Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit, what makes The Run really stand out is its locations. Since this is an illegal cross-country sprint across the country, you won’t really stick around in the same location for multiple events. You’re constantly moving east, through the jumpy streets of San Fancisco, the winding country roads of the Yosemite National Park, the treacherous heights of the icy Rockies, and the open expanses of the plains. In between, you’ll race through the streets of iconic US cities such as Las Vegas and Chicago and indulge in some high-speed events on interstate highways and expressways.
The game uses DICE’s famed Frostbite engine, but don’t expect Battlefiled 3-level lighting or destruction. All of the above locations look picturesque, and the game looks fine in motion, but it clearly isn’t one of the best looking racing games on the block. The cars in particular look quite shabby, with a very unconvincing sheen on them. The car roster is impressive on paper; there’s everything from the GT-R and the M3 to new supercars like the Pagani Huayra and the Lamborghini Aventador. However, how they’re presented to you in the game couldn’t be worse. You only have a limited selection of about four cars at any given point, and you can’t change cars between events; you’ll have to drive into a gas station during a race to change cars, which completely breaks the flow. All the cars; even the otherwise nimble 370z and Lancer Evo, feel disconcertingly weighty on the road and there seems to be some amount of input lag while turning. You’ll need to pull off some drifts during the windy tracks, but don’t expect the handbrake to do you any favors. Nine times out of ten, the car will refuse to straighten out properly after a handbrake turn, so much so that after a while, I just gave up on it and stuck with the standard brake.
The rewind feature is extensively used in arcade racers these days, allowing you to turn back time to a point of your choosing should you make a mistake. Rather than improving on that mechanic, Black Box has regressed by using a checkpoint system that takes you back to the last checkpoint you crossed. And not only are you sent back to a checkpoint when you crash, but there were also times when I was reset to my last checkpoint for trying to straight-line a bend in the road. This is an illegal cross-country race, and one where events often have off-road sections! So it just seems a little unfair to penalize someone for barely taking four wheels off the road. Equally frustrating as the resets is the rubberbanding AI. No matter how much of a lead you take, the game always manages to throw up a close finish, which really makes setting your best possible time a moot point unless you’re interested in topping the Autolog speedwall.
It’s in the event selection that The Run really lets you down though. There are only three event types – a sprint to the finish line where you’re required to overtake an X number of cars; an elimination event; and a checkpoint-based time trial. The game does throw up one-off cop pursuits, chases with machine gun-firing mobsters in black SUVs, and choppers, but these are few and far between and do little to diminish the feeling that you’re pretty much doing the same all through the four- hour campaign. If you’ve played the demo, you were probably impressed by the set pieces in the event that had you racing straight into an avalanche. Rest assured that this is the absolute best event in the entire campaign, and is no indication of the quality of the rest of the game. You’ve been warned!
After the unfulfilling campaign, you have the Challenges mode to fall back on, which simply puts you in set scenarios on tracks from the campaign with preselected cars and objectives. There’s no free play mode to speak of! You could head online for some multi-player, where again, you won’t find anything out of the ordinary to hold your interest. So for most people, arriving in New York will probably be the end of their time with The Run. That said, completing the campaign and challenges and winning online does help you level up your driver and earn random unlockables for your online profile, if you’re into that sort of thing.
For all the Frostbite name-dropping and talk of cinematic set pieces, Need for Speed: The Run feels like a step back for arcade racing games. You’ll probably enjoy your 3,000-mile romp to New York in parts, but Black Box has essentially stuck to the formula that made Most Wanted an instant classic. Unfortunately, that was six years ago. Since then, the genre and those who enjoy it have moved on to better things, while the Need for Speed franchise is being left behind.
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