When I first heard that EA and Criterion had called on Michael Bay to film a trailer for Need for Speed: The Run, it felt like little more than a gimmick: Get a big name Hollywood director and set him loose on a trailer, and thus make headlines outside of the normal gaming circles. But Need for Speed: The Run and Bay go together well. They are cut from the same mold, and both produce entertainment that offers glimpses of something straight from the adolescent minds of teenage boys, then throws it at you so fast that it’s hard to do anything but react.
In some ways, for consumers who play video games as an alternative to movies Need for Speed: The Run is the perfect game. It takes an adrenaline-filled, action-packed idea of an illegal cross country race, and offers it up in a way that could never realistically be filmed. Barring a Congressional bailout, even Boom-Boom Bay wouldn’t be able to film a movie where 200 racers in some of the best (and most expensive) cars in the world ripped through locations like Las Vegas, New York, and Chicago.
This is The Fast and The Furious without the apologetic undercover cop angle. It is a balls-to-the wall race, with no stops for adventures, sick kids that need money for an operation, or other character pieces to humanize the action-driven narrative. Unfortunately it strays a little too far in that direction by introducing interesting characters and possibilities, but then it does nothing with them.
Many of the characters are chock full of personality in the way the dress, they move, and the cars they drive, but most of them are introduced via an on-screen description that is typically just a few sentences. Then once you beat them, they disappear. It is a missed opportunity, but it doesn’t take away from what these games are all about—the driving.
This is the 18th Need for Speed title, and the various iterations have given EA and EA Black Box plenty of time to fine tune the controls. The game moves extremely well, and — based on the car you select — it handles well, allowing some white-knuckle passes and insane drifts. There are a few issues that plague the game, but none of them are technical. The biggest issue with Need for Speed: The Run can be summed up simply with this one sentence: This game is an a**hole.
Meet that guy…
The story is a casualty of The Run’s desire to constantly assault your senses with fast-paced and thrilling races, but the overall setting, and the reason for you to be doing what you are doing, could (and one day should) lay the basis for the ultimate driving movie. You are a guy named Jack Rourke, a man marked by the mob for his problems with gambling. They want him dead, but his friend Samantha “Sam” Harper has a way out. For 10 percent of the $25 million purse, Sam enters Jack in an illegal, underground, 3,000 mile cross country race from San Francisco to New York. If he wins, the mob will leave him be, but to do so he will need to beat out 200 of the best drivers in the fastest cars, all of whom have no problems slamming him off a cliff to his death.
As you tear across 10 stages as Jack, each containing multiple race events, and each exposing you to a different type of environment, your opponents will not take kindly to you overtaking them. In fact, they will repeatedly try to murder you. And if that weren’t enough, the cops aren’t all that pleased to see 200 people burn past them, either.
Along with the races where you try to climb the leader board, there are also a handful of instances where you are part of quick time events that take place outside of the car. These moments might have actually meant something if you cared about the character — or at least knew something about him — but you don’t and you won’t.
If this were done properly, it would make for one of the most epic movies ever made. As it is, it should easily have enough going for it to tell a compelling story with the most meager of plot points, but it hardly even tries. Jack is in trouble for reasons that are never really explained, the opponents are generic and not fleshed out in the least, and the races lack any real emotion because of it. For another racing game, that wouldn’t be a big deal, but a huge emphasis is placed on the cross-country race. With even the simplest effort, the story could have made this game something special, but instead it is an afterthought, which places the entire burden of the enjoyment factor on the racing. This would be fine, but again: The game is a prick.
Elasticity in reverse
The Run is a difficult game. At times, it is extremely difficult. It can be controller-breaking, jaw-grindingly tough. You could call it challenging, and a challenging game is fine, but that would make it seem fairer than it is.
In many racing games, a common complaint is that the opponent AI is irrelevant due to a forced elasticity, which is wedged in to make races more competitive. You can utterly smoke the competition, laying down your dominance upon them with a near perfect run, only to glance in the rear view and discover that the nearest car has almost magically defied the laws of physics in order to be right behind you. It’s meant to make races more exciting, but it does so at the cost of removing the rewards of driving well. In The Run, the elasticity is there, but in reverse.
Basically, the game cheats. It knows you have it beat, and it refuses to be humiliated. If it could delete your saver game data, it probably would out of spite.
The majority of the races in The Run have you starting from behind, with your goal to pass a certain number of cars in the allotted section of track. Despite the car you have, you will almost always be just a bit slower than your opponents, who seem to be able to use you as a slingshot when you pass them to rip past you at insane (and unnatural) speeds, forcing you to bide your time and wait for the right moment to break out. In itself, that is fine. But then the game hits the cheat codes.
In one particular race, on my fourth or fifth attempt, I drove perfectly. I am not a diehard racing fan, but the game’s car physics make sense, and if you have played any solid racer you should be familiar with the way the game moves. After barely losing repeatedly, I raced a near flawless run without touching another car. I used drifting, took my corners with only the most minor loss of speed, and almost hurt myself while vigorously patting myself on the back. I had long since passed the last car and was cruising to an easy win.
With the final stretch in front of me, I used my full nitro reserves as I headed for the line, then cast a look back to see what was happening. Even while I was hitting close to 170mph, the entire pack of opponents was not just gaining on me, they were travelling at what I would guess was close to 200mph. Then, at the last second, I was hit from behind by one car, as another beat me by a nose. At that point I considered loading up the car, throwing on a diaper and driving down to have a talk with EA Black Box about the AI.
But after I screamed and cursed the heavens, threatening the universe in general and no doubt terrifying my neighbors with my stream of profanity, I took a moment and tried again.
The Run is a frustrating game. Insanely so at times, and it also blatantly cheats, as enemies will suddenly defy the laws of physics and shatter land speed records in order to pass you, and it never stops. Even if you wreck early on, you still have a chance to win (albeit a slim one), yet if you race flawlessly you can still lose at the last second by a virtual opponent not hampered by the same game rules. There are also numerous trigger events, so in certain races, no matter how well you do, a trigger event will occur and negate everything that came before it, allowing opponents back in the race.
Bad AI, good controls
Making the challenge of the game bearable is the gameplay, which is tight and intuitive. The actual act of racing is fun, thanks to slick controls that are quick and responsive. There are multiple cars to try out, and each has some differences, but many of the rides all feel very similar. Compared to other racers, there aren’t many vehicles to try, though, and the lack of customization doesn’t help that.
The oddest omission is the total lack of a free ride function. The cars are hard to test, because there is no opportunity to just give it a go. The opportunity to change cars in the campaign occurs during the races rather than before, so if you lose a race you will have to pit stop in a gas station and try again. And again, and again, as you are forced to learn the feel of the cars on the fly.
Along with the campaign are a series of separate challenges that help to unlock more cars. In themselves, these missions are fun, and they have a decent spectrum of things to do, from knocking out opponents before the time runs out, to hitting checkpoints in an increasingly short period of times. Most are just variations of campaign missions, though. And that brings us to the next major issue with The Run.
The campaign is decent length with 10 stages, each with multiple missions, and there are a few different race types in each. If you were magical and raced flawlessly, you could beat everything the game has in under 8 hours and be done with it, but the length isn’t really the issue — the lack of variety, however, is.
You have the campaign with a handful of race types, then the challenges that basically repeat many of those races in slightly different ways. You end up doing the same things over and over, then you are done. An online mode, a free race and a few other game types that are becoming increasingly standard in racers would have been nice.
It’s very shiny
One of the main selling points of The Run has been the use of the Frostbite 2.0 engine that DICE developed for Battlefield 3. If I could, I would impregnate the Frostbite Engine and have beautifully rendered, high-definition children. It is an impressive piece of technology, and it makes The Run look better than most racing games — in certain instances.
There are several moments where you will find yourself looking at Jack or one of the other characters from the game whose name you will likely have forgotten, and their facial animation is incredible at times. The backgrounds are also killer, and even though you will be tearing by them at high speeds, you will likely be impressed. The texturing is especially solid, and environmental effects like water and dirt kicked up by racers are a highlight.
The cars, however, are great but not amazing. Compared to a game like Forza 4, the look of the cars are fine, but won’t amaze you.
While the The Run offers tight and responsive gameplay, the campaign is repetitive and vapid. The challenges are a decent side dish, but don’t add enough to make any real difference. If EA Black Box had just put a bit more effort into the story that the game relies so heavily on, it would have made some of the more frustrating parts tolerable when the game decides to cheat.
The idea is so solid and the gameplay is good enough that I really hope the idea isn’t forgotten. The numerous problems with the story, the utter lack of characterization, the light content offering, and the dirty, cheating AI can be fixed in a sequel, hopefully,
There are a lot of fun moments to be had in this game, and if you are looking for a new racer, you can do worse. Unfortunately for The Run it isn’t the best racer of the year. In fact it isn’t even the best Need for Speed game of the year.
Score: 7.5 out of 10
(This game was reviewed on the PlayStation 3 on a copy provided by EA)