Need for Speed: The Run Review
Written : Tuesday, November 15, 2011
By: Richard Walker
Fusing a racing game with a Hollywood blockbuster-grade story is always going to be a hard sell. When have you ever known it to be pulled off in a really convincing and memorable way? Never. And if it has, then it can't have been particularly good, because we can't remember ever playing a racer that's successfully been married to a genuinely compelling story. On paper, Need for Speed: The Run's yarn sounds like a pitch for a movie, as it's high concept at its finest. The premise is simple: get from San Francisco to New York before the other 200-odd rival racers, and you'll win a cool $25 million. It's like Vanishing Point. Sadly, protagonist Jack Rourke is nothing like the enigmatic Kowalski. In fact, he's a bit of a dick.
You play as the cocky, arrogant and inherently unlikeable Jack, whose cockiness and arrogance has got him into a lot of hot water and debt with the mob, prompting you to join forces with sassy redhead, Sam Harper who helpfully stumps up the $250,000 entry fee. And so, you escape from the mob's clutches and hit the road, ready to cover the 3,000 miles (about 300 km+ of in-game track) to the finish line, racing through rural America, from the farmlands to the national parks, into the neon of Las Vegas, the snowy-capped Rockies, via the windy city of Chicago, the leafy outskirts towards Cleveland, all the way to the Big Apple itself. Before you can get to each of the key destinations on your route, you'll need to achieve an assigned target and beat your rivals, or you'll be eliminated. First, you'll have to get to Vegas in 150th place, then to Chicago in 50th place and so on, and the route is broken down into easy-to-digest races of a few minutes or so, in which you're tasked with gaining normally six or ten places in one session, with intermittent gas stations to pull into for a car change.
"Lady Liberty is a welcome sight."
To ease the frustration, there are regular checkpoints that act as reset markers (of which you have a limited number) where you'll restart if you screw up. Or if you accidentally veer more than three feet from the designated track. Need for Speed: The Run is quite possibly one of the strictest racing games we've played as far as road boundaries are concerned, penalising you if you accidentally swerve off into a verge. Think you can correct your mistake, recover and get back on track? Tough. It's always too late, and before you know it you've been sent back to the last checkpoint. This can be especially galling in multiplayer when you've built up a lead, only to make a small error, swerve off-course and get sent to the back of the pack. In one instance, we were even respawned in front of a bollard, sent spinning to face in the wrong direction. As a system, it's not exactly great, or reliable, although you can also reset yourself with the back button.
During the course of The Run's ten stages, you'll find yourself either gaining places, completing time attack challenges to make up for lost time, trying to shake the law or engaging in Battle Races to beat rival racers and maintain a lead before time runs out. When you encounter the cops, you'll find that they're solely focused on you more often than not, despite there being several other illegal street racers on the road. Perhaps they don't like your face, or can simply sense your intrinsic dickness. None of these police chases ever manage to replicate the seat-of-the-pants thrill that Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit was so adept in conjuring, which is thanks in no small part to The Run's sluggish and unresponsive handling. Not only does it feel like you're steering a barge, but the sense of speed is also lacking, leaving us longing for Criterion's vastly superior 2010 NFS effort.
As a sightseeing tour of the good old USA however, Need for Speed: The Run excels, with some standout moments and remarkable landscapes to take in on some of the routes. However, it's let down somewhat by the occasional glitch, shoddy texture or drop in frame-rate, which coupled with the handling makes playing The Run a struggle at times, as you wrestle with your car and desperately strive to keep it on the asphalt. There are set-pieces to race through, which also provide some memorable moments, although sometimes these can be memorable for all the wrong reasons. Remember that avalanche from the trailers? This is equal parts spectacular and annoying in its trial and error nature, and the same can be said of almost all of the action sequences in the game. Then there's the on-foot QTE bits, which are glorified cinematics for all intents and purposes, that see Jack getting into all sorts of OTT scrapes, like dodging a flipping lorry. As you do. There are only a few of these though, and they're actually a nice little diversion from racing for a minute or two, but little more.
Multiplayer obviously suffers from the same issues as the single-player game, except it's even worse when you're competing with human rivals rather than severely rubber-banded AI. The bonus wheel helps to mix things up a bit, with extra rewards for the winner of a race series and the tracks on offer represent a decent cross-section of what you'll find in the story mode. You'll unlock extra cars and other gubbins too, as you earn XP and level up in both single-player and multiplayer. Although there's nothing particularly remarkable about Need for Speed: The Run's multiplayer, it's perfectly solid, accessible and simple to get into. Like Hot Pursuit and Shift 2: Unleashed before it, The Run also has Autolog support, so you can compare your times with friends or throw down the gauntlet, which is always welcome.
"The hills of San Francisco: not good for the springs."
There are a few multiplayer achievements to attain in The Run, much as you'd expect, but these are relatively straightforward to acquire, with getting to level 30 and getting the 75G bonus wheel achievement being the ones that might take the longest. Other than that, if you can assemble a group to play with, The Run's achievement list is a walk in the park, especially given the number of achievements devoted to simple progression through the story. You'll have to play it through on Extreme difficulty though and earn all of the Challenge Series medals, which could drive you to distraction, no pun intended. This is a pretty uninspired achievement list then, with seemingly very little thought put into it.
As a premise, Need for Speed: The Run had the potential to be a genuinely interesting and ambitious entry in the franchise, but the execution sadly falls way short of the idea. Jack isn't a particularly appealing lead character, and you never really get a sense that his life is effectively on the line if he fails to win the $25 million prize to pay off his mob debts, as he's always wearing a shit-eating grin on his face. The Run has its moments, but technical issues like the shoddy handling and protracted load times (hell, even Skyrim loads faster) hold it back, leaving us wishing that Criterion makes all of the Need for Speed games in future. It's a valiant effort from Black Box for sure, but after the high watermark set by Hot Pursuit, Need for Speed: The Run just feels like a backwards step, despite its excellent concept.
A patchy soundtrack consisting of conventional rock music and the odd rockin' classic, is complemented by dramatic chase music and the usual throaty sounds of engines and the squeal of tyres. In short, this is good stuff for the most part.
Nicely detailed cars, with some good damage modelling and interesting courses with plenty of sights to see and hazards to avoid keep The Run visually arresting. Black Box has done well in rendering some stunning landscapes, but the occasional murky texture and instance of pop-up or slowdown spoils the party. Using the Frostbite 2 Engine, of course it looks lovely.
Where Hot Pursuit dazzled with its face-melting velocity, The Run feels sluggish and heavy, with a reduced sense of speed. Handling is pretty unresponsive on the whole, and the less said about the rage-inducing resetting for the slightest transgression from the set route, the better. A repetitious, frustrating experience.
A short-lived, uninspired story with flat characters, a Challenge Series mode with loads of medals to laboriously unlock and a solid multiplayer component with Autolog and various modes is the sum total of Need for Speed: The Run's offerings. It's perfectly fine, but unremarkable.
A boring list consisting of standard progression-based achievements, levelling-up multiplayer targets, rewards for online group activities and gaining every medal in the Challenge Series. That's the entire list in a nutshell. Dull.
Need for Speed: The Run feels like a missed opportunity. Had this been given more development time, rather than being put through the annual franchise wringer, Black Box might have had a chance of delivering on The Run's premise. Racing across the USA for a cash prize is a great concept, and perhaps there's a Jerry Bruckheimer and Michael Bay collaboration in there somewhere. Or possibly there's a sequel that can inject some variety and fun into proceedings, rather than a succession of thankless, exhausting rubber-band races against faceless opponents and stereotypical rivals. Need for Speed: The Run does generate some memorable highlights, but they're simply too few and far between.