It’s not been that great a year for fans of arcade-style racing, with only a handful of titles like Dirt3, MotorStorm: Apocalypse, and Mario Kart 7 vying for our attention. Of course, no year in arcade racing can be complete without a game from the seemingly interminable Need for Speed (NFS) series.
When you think of Need for Speed, you are reminded of thrilling arcade racing with great looking cars and even better graphics. Plot is almost always inconsequential. From face value, it would seem that the latest NFS title (and 18th title in the series), Need for Speed: The Run, has all the hallmark qualities one would expect from the franchise. But something in the machinery is horribly broken. The Run misfires in a quite a few places and didn’t give me the thrill ride that it had promised. Find out why after the jump.
Developed by EA Black Box, The Run is another attempt to create a narrative-driven racing game. Their previous try, NFS: Undercover, was underwhelming and, given history’s propensity to repeat itself, we’re already off to a shaky start. The plot in The Run follows a “No speed limits. No rules. No allies. No fun.” race from San Francisco to New York to win a prize bag of $25 million. It’s like a Gumball Rally of sorts. There’s something about an Italian crime organization and lives being threatened if certain owed monies cannot be paid back, but no one really cares. Cardboard cutouts have more personality than our vacuous protagonist, Jack Rourke (or his friend Matt if you’re playing the Wii/3DS version), who must enter the race to pay his debts. His shit-eating grin doesn’t stop from beginning to end despite being marked for death. Clearly, he is not taking the story seriously, so why should you? The Run could be about getting from your house to the corner shop in the most long-winded way possible, but I couldn’t be bothered about the plot. I don’t need to know why I have to race; I just want to do it.
In The Run, the coast-to-coast race is carried out in 10 stages (five for the Wii/3DS), with multiple sections within each stage. At the start you’re at the back of a 200-car mob, with an end goal of reaching the destination—some 3,000 miles away—in first place. This requires you to not only win the races, but also to avoid the police and the criminal syndicate in the process. This main objective is cut up into smaller more manageable goals, where you have to overtake a certain number of racers, or beat an overly aggressive rival, or be in a predetermined position as you approach a certain location. It’s a pretty cut and dry metric: if you don’t meet the criteria to make it to the next section/stage of the race, you replay it (and replay it) until you do. The game tries to helpful here with checkpoints and a reset mechanic. As you pass a checkpoint, any crashes further on resets you to that checkpoint, but for this to occur you need at least one reset token. Depending on the difficulty level you select, you have a limited amount of reset tokens; use them up, and it’s the long trek to the starting line for you. It’s not just wrecking that will use up a reset token, however: getting busted by the cops or straying but a little off the track will also result in the dreaded reset. It is the latter that proves the most irritating in The Run, where in certain parts of races, it allows you to cut one corner, but try the same a few corners later, and you’ll be reset. It’s inconsistent, and made much more annoying by the lackadaisical traffic that suddenly swerves into your path at crucial moments and the cops who, more often than not, seem to concentrate solely on your presence (evidently, the other racers don’t matter).
Aside from all the obstacles you have to deal with, The Run throws a massive spanner in the works by limiting something you’d least expect—your (officially licensed) car selection, and more importantly, your ability to change them during the race. As you compete in races, you earn XP to unlock different cars (and racing abilities such as drafting and nitrous), but the number of cars available in the single-player campaign is surprisingly small. Considering the nature of The Run, you hardly expect a mobile garage to follow you around; instead the only opportunity that you have to change your car is at one of the gas stations that you encounter. These gas stations are extremely race, usually one per stage, and if you miss it, you’re stuck with your car until the next gas station, which may be many races away. There is no indication of what environment you will move to from one location to the next, so while the twitchy heroin addict of a Lamborghini may be great in speedy chases in one race, the next race may very well find you hurtling down a windy, slippery mountainside in the same vehicle. With no chance to change your vehicle, you will have to replay the race until you have won it. This can become very frustrating.
Another source of irritation is the age-old rubber band AI. At times when you’re ahead, the competition is right up your back bumper, and is relentless right until the end of the race. However, Rubber Band Lane is a two-way street. When you’ve messed up, the game is quite tolerant and will happily drive some your competitors off mountains and into obstacles so that you can catch up to the pack. This often results in exhilarating photo-finishes but the shine is taken off your achievement knowing that your mediocre run still resulted in a win.
For the first (and hopefully last) time in a NFS game, The Run allows the player to set foot outside the car and leg it to avoid capture. Whatever preconceptions you have had, please check them at the door. The few sections that do involve our character making a run from his vehicle are a series of rudimentary quick-time events. They’re so incidental and unnecessary that a cutscene would have proved more interactive.
While there are missteps in gameplay, there are no such issues in the graphics department. The race from San Francisco to New York contains some of the most amazing scenery yet seen in an NFS title [Ed: Which scenery? The landscape rolling by, or the scenery of Sam Harper, voiced by Christina Hendricks?]. The Frostbite 2 engine, in its first outing with something other than an FPS title, does a fantastic job at rendering the environment as you race from treacherous icy mountain roads, to the sun-drenched rural countryside [Ed: Sam Harper], through the thirsty stretches of Death Valley, past the starry lights of Las Vegas, and onwards towards the finish line in the Big Apple [Ed: and also Sam Harper]. The Run is breathtakingly beautiful to watch [Ed: So is…ah, too easy.] that you do get distracted by the scenery [Ed: still too easy] and blinded by [Ed:…] the light [Ed: Drat]. In fact, there is so much lens flare in The Run that you think the developers hired J.J. Abrams of Star Trek fame to be their lighting consultant. One thing that isn’t in your face is the soundtrack. It’s largely generic and doesn’t make much of an impact, expect at some of the more climactic moments in the game. If you have driving tunes of your own, you’ll be happy to know that the game supports custom soundtracks.
Experienced players can blast through the single-player mission of The Run in four to six largely-forgettable hours (quite possibly shorter on the Wii/3DS). Thankfully the race isn’t quite over, for the multiplayer is where most of the excitement is at. The Run’s multiplayer works with a system of “playlists”, where a certain playlist contains three to five events. You earn points and XP for competing in the playlists, completing objectives within the races, and placing top of the leaderboard at the end of the playlist. There is an interesting addition in the “bonus wheel”. Before the start of a playlist, a giant wheel of fortune is spun to determine what you rewards you might win for placing in the top three, or being the overall winner. These rewards range from new vehicles, to profile pictures, to thousands of XP and give you a little something extra to race for.
The eight-player online racing is simple to get into (obviously not available on the Wii version—two-player split screen is all you get), competitors are found relatively quickly, and you move from one playlist to another without having to return to the lobby. When it works, it works well, but there were a few times when people leaving the playlist resulted in a five to 10-minute wait until the system found more racers to fill the empty slots. While it tried to find more people, the players who were waiting got tired and left too, leaving the system to find more. It’s a bit of a vicious cycle, and tested my patience on a few occasions. Despite the intermittent problems, the multiplayer experience is a highly enjoyable one and certainly breathes much need life into the game. There is also the “challenge series” mode. Any of the events cleared in the single-player campaign are unlocked in the challenge series and you race against the clock to complete these events. New cars are unlocked as rewards for successfully completing these events.
The Autolog social competition system makes a return in The Run, keeping track of your times and constantly reminding you to be competitive. It suggests different races to try and informs you when your friends have bested your race times. If you have the 3DS version, then Autolog supports Street Pass, allowing you to upload your best scores to friends’ devices.
Overall, in The Run, the attempt at a story-driven racing game lacks any sort of sophistication and is as memorable as that car you overtook in traffic on a Thursday in 2005. The plot is hackneyed and the characters are really quite vapid. The shortcomings extend to the gameplay as well with a rubberbanded AI system, too few opportunities to change your vehicles, a frustrating reset system, and a series of useless quick-time events that take you out of the vehicle. The Frostbite 2 engine, however, shines and creates some of the most beautiful terrain I’ve seen in an arcade racer. The multiplayer, too, is solid and accessible and provides a variety of playlists and challenge events to keep you interested once the campaign is a distant memory. The NFS franchise is 17 years old now, and its age shows, wrinkles, warts, brittle bones, and all. Last year’s Hot Pursuit went a long way to reinvigorate the series, and much was expected for this new outing. Unfortunately, The Run is running on fumes, if nothing else.
Score: 6.5 speeding prawns out of 10 (Most of those points are for the multiplayer gaming).
Developer: EA Black Box
Distributor: Electronic Arts
Platform: PS3, Xbox 360, Wii, Windows, Nintendo 3DS, Mobile
Release date: 18 November 2011
RRP: R599 (PS3)
Age Rating: 12