Need for Speed: The Run ReviewMatt Wadleigh
Need for Speed: The Run opens with protagonist Jack Rourke waking up behind the wheel of an automobile. Two mobster types stand by, watching the vehicle as it is carried through the air to a waiting car crusher. Jack's hands are bound to the wheel with duct tape, and a button prompt comes up on the screen. We mash away to the prompts and watch as Jack pulls his hands free and escapes the car, his first of many brushes with death over the course of Black Box's newest entry in the Need for Speed stable.
I try to leave my expectations for games at the door when I start one up, but it was harder with The Run than most. I played the game at E3 this year and left skeptical, unsure what role I wanted story to have in my racing games. The racing was really solid, but there were a number of abrupt cutscenes and QTEs that cut into the race and I wasn't a fan of that. I didn't want, and I think most players would agree with me, for these elements to intrude on the racing.
As it turns out, Black Box agreed. The game's opening cutscene is one of the longest, setting up a cross-country dash. Jack's in a bit of trouble with some mobsters and to get them the money he owes them, he's participating in "The Run," an illegal street race stretching from California to New York. A huge purse has brought a lot of challengers, meaning you'll have to beat hundreds of competitors as you make the 3,000 mile journey.
The jaunt is broken up into ten stages focused on particular highlights of the region. The stages are then broken down into individual races that you must win to move through the ranks. The race types are everything you've seen before, but themed around "The Run." There are time trials, elimination, standard first-to-finish races, and one-on-one races against rivals. Counting restarts, I probably spent five hours completing my first trek.
The Run embraces an arcade style, though nowhere near as drift heavy as last year's Hot Pursuit from Criterion. What impresses me most with this driving engine is the feeling of vehicle weight conveyed back to the player. Heavier vehicles, particularly a police car in the middle stages of the game, accelerate very realistically as the engines compete with the size of the vehicle. Heft also comes into play as cars slide through tight turns, almost dragging across the road surface. It helps that the camera for the The Run is extremely cinematic. It moves around somewhat freely behind the car, responding to g-forces as a human would if they were behind the wheel. When you accelerate hard, the camera draws back, and it swoops in toward the bumper during hard breaking. When taking turns, the camera responds to the turn a little more slowly than the car itself, accurately simulating the momentum that drivers feel in real life.
The Run's dynamic camera immersed me into the game in fascinating ways. It makes players cognisant of themselves as individuals competing in a race, rather than just a car as you feel in most games. The presentation builds an illusion that you are the one behind the wheel. When the camera pitches, you can't help but respond, leaning forward and backward as you would in real life. We often see novice racing gamers leaning through turns or turning the controllers, but the illusion is so strong here that it was hard even for me to resist the natural temptation.
Coming from Black Box, the excellent racing comes as little surprise. Unfortunately The Run sputters a bit in other areas, particularly the load times, a lack of features and sometimes intrusive story elements. The game's load times are long and exacerbated by their frequency. Retries and restarts all mean watching the loading screen. The game also lacks a cinema mode that allows you to view replays, a noticeable omission.
One of my big concerns when I first heard about the game was that the story elements would intrude on the purity of the racing. Fortunately, plot elements are kept to a minimum. You'll do battle against rivals, but there's very little dialogue between characters. The same goes for QTEs. But story elements do intrude on the racing, and detrimentally. I built a dominant 8 second lead in the final race over my opponent only to have him magically overtake me because of a triggered cutscene. When I had to retry after losing, I stopped trying for the first half of the race because I knew it didn't matter. I would think the developers would want me to be fully engaged during the final race. I left feeling unimpressed with the closing race, save for a final segment driving through shipping containers, but only because it had some very memorable lighting effects.
That said, Need for Speed: The Run impressed me. It isn't perfect, but it isn't nearly as bad as it could have been. It does a lot of things remarkably well, and the cinematic camera style is incredibly immersive and a benchmark for the genre going forward. It stumbles a bit incorporating a storyline into one of the least amenable genres for storytelling, but these instances are few and far between. Load times and collision detection could use some work, but I look forward to playing the next game in the series.
Disclosure: We are provided copies of games from the game companies for some games that we review.