In their constant quest to turn the Need for Speed franchise into something more than just a racing game, EA tapped it's Black Box studio to create The Run, a game driven by equal parts speed and narrative. How'd that turn out? See for yourself.
Remember the Cannonball Run movies? Burt Reynolds at his cheesy charming best, racing across the country with the loveable Dom DeLuise at his side? Man, those were so good. I was sort of hoping that's how Need for Speed: The Run would turn out. Instead we've got an unlikeable protagonist and his sexy benefactor on a cross-country journey that probably doesn't involve a fat man in a superhero costume. Pity.
While I go shopping for Cannonball Run DVDs, let's see what happened when game reviewers got behind the wheel of Need for Speed: The Run.
This is presumably the only racing game where 'spoiler warning' could apply not just to the number of automotive accoutrements but also the fact that it actually has a storyline. Well, of sorts. It's basically impossible to ruin Need For Speed: The Run's story because it's as flimsy as budget bog roll. 'Cocky, intensely unlikeable man races across America' is about the long and the short of it. There are very few other characters to speak of, Christine Hendricks turns up from time to time to offer encouragement, having somehow convinced hero Jack that risking his neck for 10% of $US25 million is a fair deal, just because 2.5 million is a large number. There are other competitors on the 3000 mile race, but their personality is limited to loading screen bios that read like they were written by a Speak And Spell. This is to storytelling what Chicken Cottage is to haute cuisine.
Where The Run fails to hit the mark can be seen almost as soon as you boot it up. The game opens with a dramatic QT sequence, where you watch events unfold, waiting for the moment when you become involved in the action in similar style to the Uncharted series. However, where Uncharted succeeds by drawing you in with its sparkling dialog, dramatic moments, and great gaming cinematography, The Run feels obvious and predictable: you just sit there watching the cliches play out. It seems like it's trying too hard, a feeling that is echoed when you encounter the game's overblown dramatic set-pieces. They're supposed to be thrilling "Michael Bay moments," but often feel contrived to the point of silliness. I'm sure if I was a lot less cynical, I might sit there and say "wow," rather than simply rolling my eyes. But I'm not, and I did.
Need for Speed: The Run starts out so well that I coasted on that high for about 45 more minutes before I realised the game I was playing just wasn't very good. It takes that long to realise it because the fundamentals work pretty well. Cars in Need for Speed: The Run are fun to drive. They handle well, they sound good (some awful audio compression aside), and they feel fast. That last part is good, because The Run wants you to drive fast. Really, really fast. Faster than you probably should.
That speed is where the trouble starts. I know that The Run wants fast. I can tell because the competition is always ahead of you, going about 150 miles an hour. If you want to catch up, you'll need to drive like, well... an arsehole. You will need to drive like an arsehole. I had to cut corners sharply, pull bootlegger turns, and ricochet off of other cars most races to stand a chance. All of this seems at odds with The Run's level design.
...my biggest problem with The Run is the lack of options. I don't just mean the inability to customise and upgrade cars (which I personally don't mind, but is a big concern for many fans), but more that I can't fine tune my racing experience. After the campaign there is a Challenge Series which offers additional gameplay, similar to Shift's challenges. However, there is no free race option at all in this game. Whether I'm playing by myself, or online, I have to choose from the preset Challenges with their car types and rules. Beyond the dumb story, the unintuitive way to switch cars, and any problems I have with the AI, it's these lack of features that turns The Run from my racing game of the holiday, to a weekend rental. I beat the challenges, I beat the story, and now I don't have a lot more to go through.
The Run's multiplayer is fairly no-frills, with racers competing across sections seen in the main campaign. You don't get some of the cool modes where some players get to be cops as in Hot Pursuit (and it's a bit of a missed opportunity considering there could have been cops vs racers and even mob vs racers). There are tons of challenges to chase even if you're not winning a race, giving every player something to strive for, and there's a bonus wheel that randomly selects rewards for races, so even if the racing itself is straightforward, the metagame offers some interesting additional play value. We did notice some lag issues while playing on 360, with cars occasionally warping around, but didn't see this on PS3. However, this was on debug machines and only over a few hours of play, so it's hard to say how well the retail multiplayer will perform.
So, while the ancestry of Need For Speed: The Run will be readily apparent to veterans of the series, The Run breaks new ground in a number of interesting ways. The adoption and adaptation of the Frostbite 2 engine allows for far more spectacular scenery and action, while the supporting campaign storyline provides an interesting way to serve up the standard race types in a new and compelling way. The multiplayer is strong and user friendly, providing just enough subtle assists to keep even rookie players involved. At the end of the day, it is an impressive achievement to bring such a fun and fresh look to such a mature product.
Need for Speed: The Run takes the venerable franchise in a startling new direction while preserving all of the aspects that have made the series so successful. This one is definitely worth taking a look at.
Okay, I looked. Can I stop looking now?