EA Black Box's last Need for Speed game was Undercover, a game with a plot that didn't go over very well with critics and the gaming public. Since then, the series has been handed off to two different developers for the last three games. Slightly Mad Studios created Need for Speed: Shift two years ago, taking the series in a simulation direction. Last year, Criterion Games went back to a fan favorite with Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit, adding both online play and Autolog. Earlier this year, Slightly Mad Studios returned with the sequel to their game, Shift 2: Unleashed. Despite being completely different experiences for the franchise, all three games shared praise from both critics and fans, returning the series to being a formidable name for arcade racing. After a few years of innovative changes and quality, it's unfortunate that EA Black Box's Need for Speed: The Run sets the series back a few steps.
Like a few Need for Speed games from the last two console generations, The Run also features a story. You play the role of Jack Rourke, a man who has run up a sizable debt with the mob and is sent to die in a junkyard for failing repayment. After he makes a daring escape, he meets up with Sam, a childhood friend who proposes that he enters a cross-country race from San Francisco to New York. The prize is $25 million, and even though he'll only get 10% of that cut, it's enough to settle his debt. With nothing to lose, he enters the race.
That's it for the plot. Any character backgrounds are presented in the loading screens. The basic character treatments tell you what he or she is like without providing any background. There's nothing to explain how Jack got into his predicament, and there's no background for any of the other characters you'll meet along the journey. There's also no real character advancement throughout the story, so seeing a character for the first time gives you an idea of how he or she will act through the rest of the game. While stories are never very deep in racing titles, the bigger focus here doesn't mean that it should be light on character development.
With the single-player game focused on the story, the flow of the racing in the campaign is a little different than it was in previous entries. Once you pick a car, you're pretty much stuck with it until you pass by a gas station to change it or reach story segments where you're forced to make a vehicle change. Since the three car types (exotic, muscle and sport) are all built for different types of racing, the selection element adds some strategy to your racing.
Your races will be primarily about passing a certain number of cars before reaching the finish line or hitting multiple checkpoints before time runs out. There are also a few others later on, where you have to make it to the finish line before a specific opponent. In all cases, you're given a limited number of rewinds, which you can either manually activate or automatically activate should you wreck your car. Running out of said rewinds forces you to repeat the track section until you get things right.
There are enough issues with the racing to make you wonder if anyone was paying attention. The physics of car handling feel off no matter which car you drive. Straight paths are fine, but come to a turn, and your car will either be too squirrely or too difficult to make drift, with no fine line between. Nitro is there, but it doesn't feel like it gives you any speed advantage, especially when it depletes almost immediately. There is rubberband AI and while it keeps things close, it does so at the expense of realism. A car involved in a nasty pileup, for example, can still come from behind and take the race away from you at the last second. This will most likely force you to spend a rewind to fix things, but then you'll discover that the rewind is a checkpoint reload instead of a traditional rewind (as seen in Forza Motorsport 4). This terminology gaffe wouldn't be so bad if it weren't for the load times, which are pretty lengthy even if you perform the optional HDD install for the Xbox 360 version. Coupled with the fact that the checkpoints are placed at a significant distance away from each other during a race, and you might spend as much time waiting as you do racing.
Quite possibly the biggest flaw and source of frustration comes from when the game automatically decides that it's time for a rewind. Rewinds are done when you experience a big crash. Collide head-on with a big rig or run into a pileup, and you're guaranteed to be sent back to a checkpoint. Going off-road on something that isn't a shortcut also does this, but there needs to be some consistency. Going into a ditch is obviously something that you won't be able to recover from, but trying to cut through some dirt to get back on asphalt gets you a rewind — even if you have a guaranteed chance to come back and win the race. This doesn't trigger all of the time. Slightly getting your tires into some dirt might get you a rewind but getting your car fully off-road might not cause a rewind at all. Because of this lack of consistency, the player questions whether leaving the road at any point will cause a rewind, making the races more frustrating than they should be.
The experience system also contributes to the game's woes. Your abilities are tied directly to your experience, so something like nitro use and recharge rates, for example, won't happen until you've reached a certain user level. Some of this is fine since there needs to be a reward for progressing through races, but drafting shouldn't be locked away. It appears that your opponents can use it immediately, making it even more frustrating. You'll feel like you need to grind away needlessly before reaching a level where every basic element is unlocked and you can begin to have fun.
At certain points in between the racing, you'll be forced out of your car to go on foot. Instead of taking direct control of your character, you'll be restricted to watching cut scenes and participating in Quick Time Events (QTEs) to reach another car and continue racing. Surprisingly, these sorts of scenes are few and far between, as they occur only a handful of times throughout the campaign. They are a welcome change instead of annoying, and the scenes are pretty exciting to watch, especially since they're rendered in the game engine instead of just being video. Unfortunately, with the button prompts being as small as they are, most players will miss out on the action in favor of correctly hitting those buttons.
Strangely, the campaign is rather short. According to the leaderboards, the completion time for the campaign runs about two to three hours, though it doesn't account for long load times and various rewinds and inevitable retries. Even then, you're only looking at a story mode that takes a maximum of four hours to complete. For something that isn't too memorable, the short gameplay length might be a blessing in disguise.
To supplement the rather brief campaign, you're given the chance to participate in challenge races that are set in re-purposed tracks in every visited environment. Each location features at least five different events with a theme that also limits your car selection. Some themes include using only muscle cars while others are limited to sports cars or a mix of two types; various medals are earned based on how quickly you finish each track. The idea is good, and the tracks are nice since you see areas that aren't covered in the campaign races. However, the same issues also crop up here, reminding you of how flawed things can get if you make one bad move.
Autolog makes a comeback for the third game in a row with an unchanged feature set, including the ability to automatically compete against your friends' times on any track at any time and the ability to take and post photos of your best moments in the game. The experience gained offline is transferable online, so those who have put the effort into the story will greatly benefit from perks that first-time players won't have. The rewinds don't feel too damaging since you'll get back into the race rather quickly and be placed just a little before the wreck. Lag isn't prevalent, so the races should be smooth, and entering a room when a race is going on simply places you in decent track placement and gives you a rolling start instead of forcing you to wait for the next race to begin. There's only straightforward racing here, with the sole variation being one's car types. Those expecting any sort of team racing or chases are out of luck, as are those looking for one-track races. Every match requires one to race a set of tracks in one area before different areas can be chosen.
While most of the elements aren't up to snuff, at least the graphics hold up well enough. The car models look good, and while the damage isn't as detailed as the more recent sim racers, you can see your messed-up car from all angles at the end of a race. The particle effects from a crash look nice, as the flurry of sparks coming from a collision make up for the lack of flying broken glass. The use of the Frostbite 2 engine, the same one used in Battlefield 3, certainly helps with the in-game cut scenes, as Jack and company look great and have some impressive details.
The frame rate is solid throughout, as the engine handles the presence of multiple cars in one shot quite well. What may or may not be a plus is how the cut scenes favor the quick rapid shots of seemingly mundane things, like the counter to let you know how much time has passed or quick cuts of the car at the beginning of a race. It's too flashy since the effects focus on mundane things, and it almost feels like something Michael Bay would do (if it didn't involve explosions). How you feel about that will either make you love or hate the flash.
The sound is also done well. Though the characters remain uninteresting, the voice work doesn't sound like the actors phoned in their performances. The sound effects come in at just the right pitch, especially during the brutal crash sequences. The music is the real highlight. The story mostly goes with an action movie score that accentuates each race as if it were a life-and-death struggle. Lighter moments go with a soundtrack that sounds like it's coming from a radio instead of being front and center. The multiplayer races and challenges play more soundtrack than score, and you discover the soundtrack is comprised of mostly country-tinged rock instead of the expected rock and rap.
The premise for Need for Speed: The Run is good, but it is plagued by so many issues that it is hard to appreciate the things that it does well. The car physics feel a bit floaty, though with some practice, one can adjust to them. The campaign is extremely short, and the restrictive challenges try their best to supplement the gameplay. The false rewind system is more of an annoyance because of long load times and inconsistent application. On the bright side, the game looks and sounds great, and the multiplayer is well planned, even if it is restricted to three track runs. The lack of other compelling arcade racers this year might tempt you to pick up The Run, but the only reason to do this is if you've already played through the other games in the series multiple times.
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