Despite living in Colorado for 10 years I never drove through Independence Pass. Not in bad weather. Certainly not with snow on the mountain pass.
Climbing to 12,095 feet (3687m) as it winds its way through the Rocky Mountains from the town of Granite to Glenwood Springs, passing right through the heart of Aspen, state highway 82's cut through Independence Pass makes it the second highest paved mountain pass in a state of towering roads and 14,000 foot (4267m) peaks.
In the spring it's a beautiful ride of tight switchbacks and amazing views, in the winter, it's so dangerous it's closed. Even when it's open top speeds are sometimes as slow as 20km/h.
That is, unless you're tearing through the roadway in Need For Speed: The Run. In The Run, you're speeding across the country in a nation-wide race from coast-to-cast. During Electronic Arts' showing of the game in Germany, I had a chance to check out the Independence Pass level.
Not content with having you race along the tight switchbacks in the spring, the level opens with a car barreling through the roadblock set up every winter on the entrance, blowing the steel barricade aside in a cloud of snow. To make things even more interesting, the drive is punctuated by the explosions of a crew of road workers knocking down excess snow from the mountains. In other words, controlled avalanches.
The game portrays Independence Pass as a mountain-hugging roadway surrounded by snow-cloaked hills and drop-offs. The road's surface is layered in snow, but the car I was driving didn't seem affected, something I pointed out to the developers in the room. There were times when I felt traction failing, but in general it felt way too grippy for the terrain and climate I was tackling.
Part of that was a design decision, I was told, and part was the need to still balance the game as the developers work through the races. The race starts off as a fairly straight-forward run against another car, but as soon as those charges start going off in the mountain side it becomes a race against the tumbling show and ice.
I found myself weaving through boulders, piles of snow and ice. If I slowed down too much, I didn't just lose the race, the waves of snow encompassed me and I died. It was a nice twist on the racing formula, making drivers worry more about the elements then the road or each other.
It's also a sign that the developers are aware that a game packed with coast-to-coast racing is gong to need some clever course design to keep it from feeling like another Gran Turismo or Forza. This is obviously an arcade racer that remembers it needs to keep gamers entertained with not just tight controls and competitive play, but smart course design and surprising moments.
I still think that Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit will remain my favourite Need For Speed in recent years, but this look at a mountain course and its Mother Nature challenges, has rekindled my interest in The Run.