The Run is the increasingly confused Need for Speed series’ most obvious attempt at a cinematic blockbuster to date, a title aimed squarely at the lucrative Christmas-period audience. This is a game that looks pretty, looks exciting and looks like it includes cars. In short, everything about the way it has been promoted screams perfect present for the male gamer in your family. The mums will be queuing up for this one in December, make no mistake.
Unfortunately, it’s too confused and too shallow to keep you keep you occupied much beyond Boxing Day. And that’s a shame because it looks beautiful (Black Box showing that the powerful Frostbite 2 engine can be put to great use in a racing game), and the handling model is sound and satisfying. It’s just that almost everything else is throwaway, predictable and paper thin.
A lot of effort has clearly gone into ramping up the cinematic tone, which is why it’s so confusing that The Run features one of the weakest protagonists you’re ever likely to see in a videogame. You play as Jack Rourke, a man the mafia wants dead and someone with more than a few skills behind the wheel. So his luck is in when a seductive red head in a tight fitting suit (played by Mad Men’s Christina Hendrix) offers him a chance to solve his problems by doing what he does best.
If Jack can win the $25 million first prize in a 200-racer strong, coast-to-coast race known as ‘The Run’ then Ms. Hendrix will get the mob off his back. Plus, she’ll throw a stingy-yet-tidy 10 per cent of the winnings your way.
When told in a flashy, over-the-top, razzle-dazzle manner, I’m all for throwaway storylines (hell, I like Robert Rodriguez and Michael Bay movies). However, other than a few lacklustre, infrequent attempts at cut-scenes, there’s nothing here that goes anywhere near successfully pulling you into Jack’s world. If you’re going to attempt to add a narrative to a racing game then go for it wholeheartedly, otherwise there’s just no point. No one likes mediocrity, it’s worse than all out failure because all out failure can be amusing… the middle ground never is.
The Run is split into stages (i.e San Fran to Las Vegas, the Rockies to Illinois), with multiple events housed within each stage. These events usually take one of three forms; overtaking races, battle races and checkpoint speed runs. Overtaking races charge you with beating a set number of opponents to the finish line, your final position then becoming your starting point for the next event in an attempt to create the illusion that you’re competing in one long race.
For example, you may start an event in 200th, overtake ten cars and finish in 190th. In the next race you’ll start in 190th. There’s no way of overtaking more cars than the objective demands as only that number spawn in the event. Conversely, if you don’t overtake enough you’ll have to try, try again. It’s a restrictive system, but a necessary as it allows the designers to pace the game exactly as they wish and spread the 200-racer format across the whole country. Allowing you to overtake 20 cars a race, and get in the lead in a mere five events, would hardly make for an interesting (or substantial) challenge.
Battle races take on a similar structure but feature fewer, more skilled opponents while high speed checkpoint runs are incorporated as an excuse to catch up with the next batch of cars. There’s just no where near enough variation to sustain your interest throughout and by the time you reach the outskirts of Chicago (roughly the midway point) you’re more than ready to give up due to sheer repetition-induced boredom and play something else.
To make matters worse, races are typically short and the loading screens long. Very long. I’d estimate that a quarter to a third of the game is spent looking at the one of the least interesting load screens I’ve ever set eyes upon.
In an attempt to make things more interesting some races feature the world’s most aggressive cops, civilian drivers that do not react at all to the carnage going on around them and the odd weather hazard such as falling rocks and heavy rain.
It’s not only the over-the-top weather, though; the cinematic touch is everywhere and is relentless in its execution. It’s no exaggeration to say that the cops batter you with reckless abandon – to the point where they seem more than prepared to kill themselves just to stop you racing. It’s a ‘feature’ that quickly becomes annoying and forces you to prioritise avoiding them rather than getting on the job of racing. I guess Black Box believes constant skirmishes with cops make things more exciting – they don’t.
In a game where action and accessibility are clearly the order of the day it’s baffling that cops are so effective. Their primary function seems to be inducing to ‘Try Again?’. Forcing you to play the same sections over and over again until you’ve worked out the perfect route through the never changing police road blocks and civilian vehicle patterns is not fun and not my idea of an arcade and/or blockbuster experience.
To make matters worse, incredibly inconsistent out of bounds detection means you’re sometimes punished for setting a wheel over the white line while as other times you’re a good ten metres or so off the road.
What also fails to make things more exciting are the much talked-about, much feared on foot sections. A glorified quick-time event, these see Jack take to the pavement – usually in an awkwardly set-up bid to escape either the cops or mob.
While the visuals themselves look great, their direction is equal to a first-time Hollyoaks director. Compared to the masters of such sequences (Uncharted, God of War) they are crass and uninvolving, reduced to smashing a button to outrun a cop or timing an input correctly to dodge out the way of something. Thankfully, their presence is minimal.
More successful is a checkpointing system taken straight from the big book of action games. If you wreck your car or veer too far off the road you’ll respawn at either a pre-defined checkpoint or in front of the last car you overtook depending on the event type. For this kind of game it’s a system that works well and prevents the frustration from building up to controller-smashing levels following being barged off a cliff or knocked into a tree.
The handling model is excellent, also. Slightly more punishing than Criterion’s Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit, it takes a little bit of getting used to but feels more rewarding once mastered. Handling doesn’t vary wildly between cars but four wheel drive, rear wheel drive and front wheel drive are different enough to make your choice meaningful.
Unfortunately though, a rewarding handling and lovely graphics can’t hide what is ultimately a fairly average game. Things would have been greatly improved by going the whole hog and making the narrative something truly important – a means of involving players and giving every event meaning beyond simply a stepping stone to New York. Race types could also do with much more variation to prevent the feeling of a grind, and your opponents and the tactics cops employ to slow down are also in need of some diversity.
The now standard inclusion of Autolog and a play-each-event-separately challenge mode do little to further the lifespan. Multiplayer fares somewhat better because of the wide variety of game types, many of which are focused simply on racing and allow you to enjoy the handling model in its element.
It’s a shame that the core driving experience has been tarnished by dodgy design choices elsewhere. After the absolutely brilliant Hot Pursuit, I was hoping EA had finally nailed the arcade side of the Need for Speed franchise. There’s a decent game to be had from this format, but as it stands The Run is not quite there yet.
Other than the visuals and the handling model there’s little reason to take to The Run’s road pavement. Like a smoke filled wheel spin, it looks good but it gets you nowhere.