While I prefer racing sims, sometimes it's nice to not have to worry about technical details like race formation, proper lines and vehicle specifications. Sometimes you just want to go fast. EA's Need for Speed has always served as the other side of racing for me -- that fast and fun escape. And by now, 18 games in, they should know exactly how to make racing fun.
Their latest, Need for Speed: The Run, is definitely fun. In The Run the entire country is the racetrack, and any vehicle you come across is your race car. Nothing matters but getting to New York. You're free to drive on the sidewalk, run through barriers and crash into on-coming traffic. Starting positions? License tests? Pssssh.
Need for Speed The Run (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 [reviewed])
Developer: Black Box
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Released: November 15, 2011 (PS3, 360)
In Need for Speed: The Run you play as Jack Rourke (played by actor Sean Faris), a guy in a really bad financial place. His debts have piled up so high that the Mob is out to get him. He finds a potential solution to his problem with a cross-country race from San Francisco to New York. A first-place finish will give him more than enough money to get the mob off his back. All he has to do is make it across America, speeding all 3,000 miles to beat about 200 of the best drivers ever assembled. Easy, right?
Early on, a pretty redhead, a sort of handler and navigator named Sam Harper (played by lovely Mad Men star Christina Hendricks), tells Jack that the purse for first place is 25 million. She aims to take most of that cash in exchange for facilitating and putting up the cars, but the left over money will easily save Jack's ass.
In the beginning, hopping in a BMW M3 GTS, the money was my prime motivation. That quickly changed as the racing got underway, though. From the get-go, racing from Nob Hill to Las Vegas, dodging cops and hopping barriers, Need for Speed: The Run was already a blast. The game kicks off with an explosive start, with flaming explosions, wrecked cars and near-misses with speeding trains. Between these cinematic elements and the first races' tight turns, close passes and near collisions, I was hooked.
While it's always pedal to the medal in The Run, you're presented with a variety of race types to keep things interesting as you speed your way across the country. Many segments require gaining a certain number of positions to proceed. For example, early in the run, on Alamont Pass road, California, going to Interstate 580, I was required to pass 10 cars before reaching a goal line to move onto the next area. Other segments have you racing time instead of opponents; you'll work to beat the clock to make up for lost race time after certain cinematic elements.
The Battle Race segment type has you racing the clock while working to overtake other drivers. These bits are like a series of individual opponent battles, and they're a hell of a lot of fun. The game keeps the tension on with countdown timers that appear as you encounter racers. You'll have to be in the lead position when the timer ends on these encounters, so you'll have to use every trick in the book to move past these aggressive drivers and stay ahead. The first race of this type takes place on windy, ice-covered mountains where you'll have to work through three opponents in a row. It was intense, but really fun.
Finally, Rival Races take place when you meet a more advanced racer on the run. This is a straight head-to-head race to the finish, where rivals will do everything possible to have you run off the road. Some challengers would pull evil tricks, like quickly steering to the side to have me run directly to on-coming traffic. All of these sections were tough, but they paid off as winning let me add my rival's car to my garage.
Of course, as in other series games, all of these race types are peppered with traffic cop chases. The real fun hits in these action-movie-turned-videogame sections as rival racers are pushing you into sharp turns on high mountain highways while super-aggressive police cars are on your tail. The pressure is always on, so there's never a dull moment in The Run.
For all race types you'll earn experience (XP) to gain levels and earn new and better racing abilities. For example, a new level might give you the ability to refill your nitro by passing cars. Eventually you'll open up the ability to draft, make jumps and high higher speeds to earn more XP. When faster times and more tricks earn you more experience, you'll find yourself balancing the race, the cops and the push to the next level. All of this together makes the standard sim racer seem a bit boring!
The Autolog networking system of the past NFS games system returns with The Run, and it's fully integrated into the single-player experience to even more racing elements to the mix. As I was playing, completing stages, Autolog was giving me the finish times of my friends, comparing their results to mine. Segments where I thought I had an untouchable score showed that someone else on my friends list finished 6 seconds faster before, making the stage restart option a bit more attractive. After each race Autolog tells you where you stand among your friends while also tracking your total Run time. This system's constant feedback lets you and your friends challenge each other in any way that you'd like, jumping right into competition with the given data.
The varied roads of USA make for a fine setting for this cross-country race. I got a real sense of being out on the America road system in The Run, and that was a nice break from the standard city setting of other arcade racers. Weaving in and out of cars on the interstate at 160 MPH is always something I wished I could do. Locations like the Yosemite approach, going through a natural park, or hitting Death Valley leading into Las Vegas, added a some adventure to the cross-country race. I drove through dust storms in the desert, snow in Colorado, saw nature at Zion National Park in Utah, and through Las Vegas Boulevard at dusk. The varied settings are almost as thrilling as the race itself.
It's not just flat, pretty scenery backdrops, like you'd see in the latest sim racers. Black Box has packed in plenty of surprises in each of the locations across America. They're fun surprises; over-the-top surprises. I won't ruin any of the fun, but know there are lots of amazing set pieces to thrill you. I still remember all of the holy shit moments. It all leads up to one hell of a grand finale.
The Frostbite 2 engine makes its debut in this racer, and it gives Need for Speed The Run some really nice visuals overall. All of the cars look great, though they might just miss the polish of the latest sim racers on the market. To be fair, though, there's a lot less going on in a sim racer, and The Run is packed with visual elements. The locales are all fantastic, with enough detail to me have me pointing at the screen saying, "Hey, I've been there before." The close-up shots of characters' faces in cinematics are impressive, though the movement of their mouths and eyes are a bit stiff. There's some strange reflections and lower resolution textures in places in some cutscenes, but overall the look is nice, and at times very pretty.
While they looked great, the content of cutscenes were a mixed bag. The important story segments are mostly good, but the shorter flavor bits sometimes missed the mark. One particular scene was probably supposed to be sexy, as it featured leggy virtual versions of Sports Illustrated models Irina Shayk and Chrissy Teigen slowly coming out of a car, and then later bending over it, but it ended up being funny instead. The main character was supposed to be making a face of pleasure or enjoyments, but stiff movements made him look perverted and strange. The whole thing ended up being unintentionally funny.
Need for Speed The Run adds quick time elements to the cinematics, with timed button presses required to work through action elements. For the first time in the franchise you'll get out of the car and run on foot. Expect to mash buttons to do things like dodge cops and snarling pit bulls in short story scenes. The QTEs seem to be unnecessary at first, especially with the game's opening scenes, but they get better as the game progresses, and end up being pretty fun. There's not a lot of them, though, so don't expect to be bogged down with endless QTE prompts. There's just enough here to mix things up, and they're entertaining enough that you won't mind them.
The race feels a bit unfair at times when you're up against the course, 200 pro rivals and what seems like every police car in America. While I enjoyed The Run, sometimes the super fast opponents, super sharp turns and super aggressive police would grate on my nerves and patience. At some points I felt that there was too much focus on turning and dodging while navigating weather hazards. Mix these with cheap and frequent police road blocks and tricky local traffic and you have a good recipe for rage quitting. One mid-game segment had me retrying over a dozen times to complete it. Thankfully the game's difficulty can be adjusted at any time. Easy mode permits more retries for these tougher sections.
My only other major complaint centers around in-race cinematics. In several instances the game's camera is suddenly forced from the drive view to a first-person camera that pans without warning to highlight the action. It felt like someone taking your head in their hands and forcing you to look out the passenger side window. These instances were always highly disorienting and sometimes confusing, as they would often interrupt the race.
If you want to take a break from The Run and just race you can jump into the Challenge Series mode. This mode is all about testing your driving skill and hitting medal times, with the goal of setting the fastest times to compare with your friends via Autolog. This fight for position has you taking challenges pulled from The Run, like beating the clock or taking on a rival. As you complete these challenges and post times, more are unlocked in themed sets. One had me fighting through traffic on San Francisco's Bay Bridge to beat a time. They're all bite-sized races for quick fun, and are a good way to increase driver level and unlock bonuses and other items.
Need for Speed The Run's multiplayer features themed playlists have you going up against online opponents in set challenges that will give top finishers points and rewards. Online permits pairing up with other players to form playgroups to access challenges that will have them working together. You'll be able to jump in at any time and join any game, and the experience system ties in with the other game modes, letting you take experience back to the single-player game and increase your abilities.
A lot of my driving fantasies were realized in this game. I found myself grinning the whole time, gripping the hell out of the controller, leaning into turns with my body, gritting my teeth as I mashed on the nitro button to boost past rivals. If you've ever found yourself daydreaming about whipping past slow cars on the highway, passing on the sidewalk, or bashing police cars off the road, you're going to love this game. Need for Speed: The Run still has its roots firmly founded in series traditions, but its new look and focus on story make it one of the best of the franchise. Get in and have fun.