OXCGN’s Need For Speed: The Run Review
Road trip worth taking?
©2011 Alex Balwin
Donning many guises over the past decade, EA’s premier racing series has moved between subgenres on an almost yearly basis with titles in open-world street racing (Underground, Most Wanted, Carbon, Undercover), semi-simulation (Shift, ProStreet), cops and robbers linear chases (Hot Pursuit) and even massively multiplayer online (World).
This year’s The Run is a bit of a hybrid.
With a reported longer 3-year development, The Run has all the indicators of a game vying to bring the franchise back into mainstream popularity with a new format, new engine (DICE’s Frostbite 2) and an exclusive deal with Porsche.
But is it enough to compete in what has been arguably the most crowded holiday game lineup ever, or even best prior Burnout developer Criterion’s quite excellent Hot Pursuit last year?
The most significant change in The Run is the new overarching structure. Tied together with a very loose story, The Run‘s campaign is a single, several-thousand kilometre race across the US from San Fransisco (east coast) to New York (west coast).
The protagonist is desperate to pay back a bad loan to the mafia before he’s killed, and the promise of a $25 million reward from this coast to coast race is exactly what he needs.
That’s about it for story, and what you’re left with is a massive race against 250 opponents.
Except, sadly, that’s not what you get at all.
Short term over long term
Instead, you are simply participating in numerous small races against a maximum of 8 opponents over a preset stretch of road before you lose and must restart that section or progress to the next 8 opponents, after more loading.
This really hurts what could have been a fantastic new format of race focusing on the long-term.
Unfortunately if you take away the numbers above of competing cars and the loading screen, there is no indication of the overarching race and rather just move through a lot of small point-to-point races.
This isn’t particularly bad; after all, it’s exactly what most racing games are. It just really feels like a lost opportunity to use the context to its full potential.
Variety is the spice of life…
However, these smaller races fail to provide much variety. As noted, almost ever race involves just taking over up to eight opponents to win, who are usually spread evenly over the track, Ridge Racer-style.
Occasionally it will attempt to reference the overall race through a ‘make up time’ section that involves a typical checkpoint race. The difficulty of this is that the standard ‘overtaking other racers’ works identically, and if you just rename each car ‘checkpoint’ you are playing and completing the exact same objective.
Pull over! This is the Police!
The real difficulty with this is how pre-planned these sequences are, as new cars appear in the exact same location each time and roadblocks are set up at the same place, and always with a perfect car-sized gap.
It makes it feel more like a trial-and-error process of memorising what will happen rather than truly reacting and adapting to the circumstances.
When I’m sitting at over 300km/h in a Porsche concept car, it’s a tad immersion-breaking for a police SUV to be able to race straight past me at least 100km/h faster for the purpose of boxing me in. I have to wonder how much better my chances would be in a standard SUV compared to my apparently inadequate supercar.
Corners and checkpoints
As the races are primarily on highways, there is often open land each side of the road. It can be tempting to take a corner sharply over a few metres of grass, but doing so will be harshly punished.
The Run uses a checkpoint system in each race, with wrecking your car resulting in the game dropping you back at the last predefined checkpoint. This system is a bit too sensitive, as it will do the same thing if you drive more than a few metres off either side of the road; a definite issue for those who like to take corners at speed.
This is not the case in The Run, with the visual time-going-backward replaced with a black loading screen (usually between 7 and 15 seconds) and a dump back at the last checkpoint. It is extremely jarring in the middle of a race to have to sit back and wait if the game decides you drifted a bit too much off the road.
Petrol stations = new car dealership?
This system is sadly quite flawed, with very limited selections of cars and no apparent benefit to switching.
Unusually for a Need for Speed game, the cars themselves are not the focus anymore and seem to be an afterthought.
There is no indication of if you’ve ‘unlocked’ a car or what will be available upon pulling into a station and little customisation beyond choosing colour (when you’re allowed to), making the ability to switch quite forgettable unless you happen to notice a petrol station as you speed past.
Top Gear would say cars handle great!
The rapidly-refilling nitrous provides ample opportunity to take risks speeding into oncoming traffic and ensure your speed is almost always above 200km/h.
Unusually, I did notice that the detail seems to increase significantly towards the end of the game, as if the campaign was developed in reverse and no time was left to populate earlier tracks with detailed scenery.
Frostbite 2 = stunning
The Frostbite 2 engine (notable as Battlefield 3‘s foundation) is put to fairly good use with excellent lighting and lens effects, although slowing down reveals a few too many two-dimensional trees and visual shortcuts earlier on.
That being said some later tracks look stunning.
Some more opportunities were sadly missed as racing through the US’s famous ‘Tornado Alley’ prompts a threatening storm that results in nothing more than a visual effect and no tornadoes.
This is echoed in several other places, such as in a desert area with the game prompting ‘race through the dust storm’ that ends up being a few particles occasionally thrown your way that provide almost no visual impairment or effect on performance.
In spite of the extended development time, it’s sequences like these that seem as if grand plans had been laid for exciting set-pieces that were abandoned before release.
Save the best for last!
The final race provides an indication of what could have been. I won’t spoil it, but suffice to say it is one of the most adrenline-pumping sequences I’ve ever driven and consequently begs the question of why this was not present in earlier races.
Occasionally the action is broken up by poorly-conceived quick-time events.
Considering the consistent backlash from both critics and gamers against quick-time sequences in almost any game except Heavy Rain and God of War, its inclusion for on-foot cinematics is bizarre and lacks any excitement.
Thankfully there are few, but they are always unwelcome interruptions to the racing.
When not interrupted by checkpoint resets, the action-movie tunes keep the vibe going and provide an epic background to racing.
It’s actually disappointing when a licensed track is used instead, as the original music is far more fitting and exciting.
Multiplayer utilises the Autolog system from Hot Pursuit for organising races against friends and tracking stats, with a standard suite of modes. These work well, will races usually consisting of a few of the campaign races strung together rather than individual races between lobbies.
After all that, the numerous annoyances and lack of truly exploiting the unique context of The Run may seem overwhelmingly negative.
In spite of this, I can say I did enjoy my time with The Run and would definitely have finished it even without the obligation of this review. The cars feel great and scenery kept me interested, while the music kept excitement levels high.
In the end, this is a game that gets the basics right but sadly fails to truly excel due to technical issues (frequent loading), design annoyances (checkpoint rewinds), overuse of scripting (race structure, police, quick-time events) and numerous missed opportunities (location events).
Racing fans should still consider picking this one up as the racing is still tight and entertaining, but if a sequel that can give the race across the US more continuity, choice and memorable events comes along we could be in for something truly special.
As it is, for now we will simply have to settle for ‘pretty good’.