Need for Speed: The Run Review
For a long time, Need for Speed was generally considered the biggest and baddest racing franchise out there. Often straddling the line between full arcade experience and the more sim-like features of its increasingly popular competition, EA's long-running series has brought us law enforcement pursuits, huge piles of Porsches for gamers to slide around on mountain roads with, and some of the industry's worst live-action cutscenes for us to laugh at. But now, the rest of the genre's developers are closing in, marginalizing Need for Speed's edges with fantastic, accessible racing that can smoothly transition from an easy and intuitive arcade-like experience all the way to nearly full simulation.
I don't want to say that this franchise is in trouble, but EA's shotgun approach of having three or even four development teams all working on games with Need for Speed on the cover - with us often seeing more than one game per year - might betray just a little bit of concern that EA doesn't know quite what to do with the series. Newest up is Need for Speed: The Run from EA Black Box, the series' most core and "original" developer. In this one, players leave the confines of closed-circuit tracks and hit the open road to race from San Francisco to New York.
The campaign mode, called The Run, has you playing a young, annoying-looking (and awfully overconfident) dude called Jack Rourke. His barely-formed moustache and douchebag sneer tell you right off the bat that he might be better off as a villain, but here you are, helping him to win this illegal road race across America. The Run is split up into sections that take you through California, on to Death Valley, then Las Vegas, on into the Rockies, and past to Chicago and eventually New York. Each section will have several snippets of Jack's overall race, where he'll have to gain and hold positions amongst eight other racers, simply hit checkpoints in time to make up lost progress, or battle other racers in nice cars.
Speaking of nice cars, The Run busts right out of the gate with cars that can go extremely fast in the very first mission. You'll get the choice of three souped-up cars that can all go upwards of 190mph, and it only gets faster from there. And since I guess the developers thought that the traffic on the roads and highways would be too much of a hazard if they were only going sixty, they set most of the traffic on the rural open roads (including pickups and econoboxes) to go upwards of 100mph or more almost constantly. This is Need for Speed, dawg: everyone goes fast in our world. Or something. I guess.
The Run includes checkpoints you can see on the minimap that enable you to retry sections of the same race; it's pretty handy when you put your car into a wall at 200mph, or you can trigger it with a key or button as well. You only get a few rewinds per event, and it is possible to have a checkpoint saved later in an event that creates an entirely un-winnable race scenario - one where you're simply too far behind to ever actually catch up. Of course, you can always restart the whole event from the menu at any time. The checkpoint system feels like it was put in at the last minute and it tasks players with worrying about making sure that any saved checkpoint is still winnable, otherwise they'll have to restart all over. Simply put, that's a meta-game working outside the confines of the race itself, and for something that's intended to be a lighthearted, high-octane thrill ride, I don't think players should have to micromanage checkpoints. Throw in issues like a generally short campaign, rubberband AI that seems to purposely slow down or speed up beyond their cars' abilities just to make a story point, and other minor problems that take away from the experience, and it becomes tough to recommend this game even to serious fans of the series.
Over on the story side, our brotagonist Rourke was in a bit of trouble with the mob just before going into this race. Plus, the cops are of course trying to shut down the race in pretty much every major city you visit, so sometimes our boy is forced out of the car to run or fight for his life in some Quick Time Event sequences. These bits are relatively short and are only a tiny fraction of the overall campaign, but I still found myself more motivated to see Rourke bitten by dogs, punched by thugs, and arrested by cops than to see him get away and continue the race. For a video game character, he has one of the most punchable faces released this holiday season.
Other modes include the Challenge Series which cuts up the main game's storyline and makes snippets out of them, putting you in unique challenge scenarios. Some are just plain driving bliss in an arcade-racing style, while others are downright sadistic - like the one where you're driving a Shelby with awful handling at 150mph around an icy mountain course where the guardrails break away upon contact. Actually, that defeats the whole purpose of guardrails in the first place. What a nightmare events like this can prove to be.
Multiplayer modes consist of chaotic races on the same roadways that the single player game takes place on, but now they'll be populated with people that are most certainly trying to crash into you and put you into a guardrail. My experience with the online play led me to hate my fellow man and wonder if this is where all the pent-up aggression from the young professional's daily commute was going, but then I realized it was probably just a bunch of teenagers who are attempting to play Vehicular Call of Duty instead. If you want a real race where the objective isn't to attempt to reproduce the Burnout games every fifteen seconds, you'll have to play something else.
Through all of this, you're increasing your driver level and gaining new abilities as you go. From getting extra XP for driving in oncoming lanes to being able to use extra boost off of a successful draft behind an opponent car, these things get you to change up your driving style and give you solid, useful rewards when you succeed at it. On top of this, Autolog has been improved; now, when you're trying to beat a friend's time, you are getting constant updates on whether you're doing better than them rather than having to wait until the end of an event to find out how you did. Unfortunately, Black Box didn't see fit to put an actual ghost racer out on the road, so you'll have to spend valuable split-seconds glancing at the clock in the corner of the screen.
I played the Xbox 360 version of The Run for this review, and I have to say that I'm really not happy with the performance. The game uses the Frostbite 2 engine (also powering Battlefield 3), which Black Box says was necessary to deliver streaming performance and high detail on the many, many miles of open road that the game renders, but there's just something that doesn't feel "right" about the racing, like there's some kind of delay in translating my controller inputs to where the tires meet the road. On top of that, the 360, PS3, and even the PC versions of the game are all hard-limited to 30fps. On 360, we're not really repaid with great visuals, either, as the road surface quickly becomes muddy and blurry starting only a hundred feet in front of your car. I'm no expert on GPUs and visual effects, but it looks like the developers had to disable anisotropic filtering in the name of performance.
If EA is concerned about the future of Need for Speed, then I don't think that The Run is going to do anything to dispel those concerns. I feel like this series is getting boxed in on all sides and the niche it occupies is getting smaller every year. The Run's attempt to use a cross-country road race to break free of conventions comes packaged with a few crippling flaws, the biggest of which is simply that even with its tense moments and high-powered supercars, it's just not as exciting as it should be. The Run adds up to something less than the sum of its high-speed parts. I hope to see you again in the future, Need for Speed, but maybe give it a while and release something in 2013. I can't help but think we're all a little... burned out.