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Need for Speed: The Run — Going hands-on with Challenge Series

EA Black Box’s Need for Speed: The Run is only a few weeks away, with the release set for November 15. So imagine my surprise last week when I hit up Electronic Arts‘ seasonal preview day in New York City last week and saw a new portion of the game being demoed.

The focus of the new content is The Run‘s Challenge Series, which offers up a set of more than 70 standalone events that unlock in packs progressively as you advance through the story-driven main game’s 10 stages. These are very bite-sized medal-based events; the two I got to see were both checkpoint races which involved passing through a series of gates, with the end goal being to post a solid time.

It should be noted that the mode’s “Challenge” moniker should not be taken lightly; in both modes I sampled, there was flat-out not enough time to move from checkpoint to checkpoint without making full use of your nitro. Even a small mistake or two was enough to ruin any chances of advancing. Like classic arcade racers, if the timer runs down to zero for the checkpoint you’re working on, a retry from the previous checkpoint is triggered. You have five of these retries to work with.

In addition to the basic focus on successfully making it through each checkpoint, there’s also the constant battle to best your overall challenge time. This mode is linked with EA’s Autolog, which manifests in the game as a “SpeedWall” showing you times to beat that have been posted by fellow NFS players on your friends list. You actually get real-time update mid-challenge on how you’re faring against the next highest person on the SpeedWall’s time; a constantly updating readout on the right side of the screen shows you how far ahead or behind (in green and red text, respectively) the target time you are.

The mode as a whole is built around unlocks. Each completed stage in The Run‘s story mode unlocks a pack of challenges for you to choose from, all based on the various environments you sped through in the main game. Completing a given challenge nets you some new rides, which can then be used to post better times in those same challenges as well as others. The idea is that the more time you put into Challenge Series, the more effective you can potentially be. Some of your friends’ times will be impossible to top with the stock car you’re given to use for a particular challenge; that’s why the unlocks are key.

What’s more, progressing through The Run‘s story gives you access to a variety of abilities. Things like nitrous boost, drafting and cop-buster (bust up the cops!) only open up as you get through more and more of the story. These tools can then also be used in the Challenge Series. All of which means, the ones posting the best times will be those who play through the full game and put time into earning some of the mode-specific car unlocks.

The first of the two Challenges I sampled, set in rural America, was a simple checkpoint-based affair. Make it through a series of gates before the timer runs out and hopefully post a good overall time at the end of it. Letting the timer run down or straying too far off the winds you back to the last checkpoint and knocks one off of your available retries. The traffic patterns are completely random, so the whole event is much more about pure skill than memorization.

The second challenge map, in Death Valley, throws an added wrinkle into the mix. It’s still a checkpoint-based time trial, only now there are cops in pursuit the whole time. The already-difficult task of hitting each gate before the clock runs out is made significantly harder when you’ve got one or more cars behind you, knocking you about and trying to send you spinning off the road. Take down a police car and you’re rewarded with a slow-mo cutscene of its demise, but it seems like your best bet, generally speaking, is to try to keep as clear from your pursuers as you can get.

There you have it for Need for Speed: The Run‘s Challenge Series. The Autolog integration and range of unlocks present some nice long-term play possibilities, especially since success in the mode really boils down to pure skill. EA will be releasing various themed packs based on previous NFS games — Carbon, Underground and Hot Pursuit — as pre-order bonuses, though you can probably expect a DLC offering of those and others further down the line. On its own though, Challenge Series feels like a worthwhile addition to an already features-packed game. With less than a month to go before The Run hits stores, we’ll all find out soon enough.