Need For Speed: The Run is a brilliant idea, but the game's bogged down by some iffy technical issues and frustrating AI. There's a lot to like about The Run — it's well presented and technically impressive — but its quirks will prevent you from returning despite its excellent Autolog implementation and decent track design.
The last thing Need For Speed needed was a narrative, but Need For Speed: The Run delivers one regardless. Well, sort of. Beyond the angsty stares of protagonist Jack Rourke and a few fluttered eyelashes from accomplice Sam Harper (played by Christina Hendricks), there's really not much substance to The Run's 'rich man racing' plot. Contrary to what EA has said in the past, that's probably for the best.
Relegated to a loading screen distraction, we learn that Jack has got himself into a spot of trouble with 'the mob'. Apparently the designer stubble-sporting everyman has just one option to escape from the clutches of his sinister pursuers: beat 250 competitors in a cross-country race across the United States. As you do.
Snark aside, the plot's fine for what it is, and it actually provides reasonable context for the great idea thumping at the heart of Need For Speed: The Run. Racing across the United States is a clever concept, prompting a varied experience that provides a great excuse for some impressive track design and a memorable collection of set pieces.
Driving over San Francisco's famous Golden Gate bridge while clouds swirl around you or through the neon-lit streets of Las Vegas is a satisfying and evocative experience, and it adds an exciting backdrop to the racing. While Need For Speed: The Run never really attempts to break away from the bulletpoints that have defined its parent brand over the years — races, cop-chases and time trials — it gets away with its familiarity by virtue of its compelling setting and solid racing model.
But as strong as the cross-country concept is, it's clear that developer Black Box made a few concessions to get the idea to work. Some of The Run's biggest issues are its artificial rule sets, which require you to hit a specific point in the race at a defined destination. There's no specific rule in the competition that says you need to be in 50th position before you reach Chicago, but the game paints it that way anyway. "Hey Jack," your long-lashed accomplice will say over a fancy in-car Skype machine, "If we don't hit 50th we'll never catch up." Jack, being the furrow-browed simpleton that he is. will simply curl his lips and respond, "No problem."
Except it is a problem, because the contrived rules strip away some of the fluidity from the cross-country setting, leaving the campaign feeling bloated and unnecessarily overbearing. Objectives range from overtaking cars to making up time, and if you fail to meet the requirements you'll be left hitting the retry button even if you're just one position behind the target or a second over the deadline. Ridiculously, once you've completed a race — and subsequently overtaken a set number of opponents — there's never any danger of the cars behind you catching back up, the attention turned to the next challenge. Despite the quirky concept, The Run ends up feeling like every other racing game.
Thankfully The Run manages to individualise itself through the interesting locations it explores. A sprint through the southern rocky mountains of Colorado prompts an avalanche, which sees you trying to outrun a reckless opponent as well as collapsing snow. The game has a number of these memorable moments throughout its campaign, including a thunderstorm and police car chase through Las Vegas. Each location has an individual look to it that enhances the sense of journey. It really does feel like you're taking a tour through the United States, and developer Black Box has done a great job framing the locations so you always see the most exciting stuff.
Sadly some of the set pieces are let down by finicky collision detection. As you charge through the aforementioned avalanche your car will come into contact with a variety of rocks, often causing a crash and an instant reset. Following in the tyre tracks of other popular racers, Need For Speed: The Run includes a flashback mechanic, but without any of the finesse of Codemasters' implementation, its nothing more than a fancy checkpoint system and leads to some serious issues throughout the course of The Run's campaign. Despite including a variety of off-road shortcuts, the game is very picky about when you're allowed to leave the track, frustratingly forcing you into unnecessary resets when you stray too from the tarmac of the road. Given how cluttered The Run's roads can be at times — with traffic and other racers all vying for space on the track — you'll find yourself using the extremities of the road to overtake. Occasionally progress will be reset the moment you leave the road, leading to massive frustration.
It's strange that we've gotten this far without mentioning Need For Speed: The Run's on-foot elements, but it just goes to show just how inconsequential these Heavy Rain-inspired sequences are. What was made out to be a big deal during the game's E3 2011 unveiling is barely noticeable during the length of the campaign, with a few short cutscenes requiring button presses to keep the action flowing. Said cutscenes look great, and it's a shame that you'll spend the majority of them staring at the bottom of the screen looking for tiny button prompts to appear.
Powered by DICE's new Frostbite engine, it's not just the cutscenes that look absolutely stunning in Need For Speed: The Run. The whole game is a technical show piece, marred only by the most minor of frame drops and rough textures. The sense of speed that the game manages to convey is staggering, but it's the lighting that is most astounding. Driving through a rain-dampened Las Vegas while the glow of brightly coloured signposts reflect in the tarmac is a rare treat, and it gives the entire game a cinematic flare that complements its concept.
The quality presentation extends beyond the visuals though, from its slick menu screens through to the impressive implementation of Autolog. A year on from the brilliant Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit, Autolog has become a key component of EA's competitive game roster. The Run's implementation is hardly innovative, but the inclusion of real-time updates in the game's HUD really adds to the competitive nature of the gameplay. It tracks your time across stages and the campaign as a whole — meaning there's plenty of replay value on offer if you're part of a competitive group of friends that absolutely must dominate the scoreboards.
Since Need For Speed: The Run tracks your time across the entire campaign, there've been some misleading statistics shared about the game's length. While it'll take you around two hours to complete the race itself, this is a combination of your raw times removed from cut-scenes, retries and loading screens. In reality the campaign lasts about five hours depending on your ability.
The campaign isn't the only mode on offer in Need For Speed: The Run, though. The game boasts a challenge mode which re-purposes locations from the main campaign, tossing in a selection of medals for you to collect. There's also an online multiplayer component with a vast smattering of playlists and Call Of Duty-inspired challenges to complete. As with so many other PlayStation 3 titles, everything is tied together by an individual progress bar which rewards you with new icons and backgrounds to add to your profile.
How long you'll want to spend with Need For Speed: The Run beyond your speed to New York is another question entirely though. While the driving model itself is ostensibly fine, cars can feel a bit sticky, a problem which is enhanced by the game's poor controller response.
The AI is similarly frustrating, relying on rubber-band techniques to obliterate you should you make the slightest error. Opponents will linger teasingly at the head of the pack, only to get a sudden burst of speed as you close in on their rear bumper. Cop chases are equally curse-inducing, as the flashing sirens ignore all the other racers in the group and decide to focus all their attention on railroading you off the track. Consider the reset conditions mentioned earlier in the review and you have a recipe for controller flinging activity.
It all culminates in a game that never quite lives up to the quality of its core idea. A cinematic cross-country race through the United States sounds brilliant on paper, but in practice it doesn't quite work as well as hoped. That's a shame, because The Run had a real opportunity to distance itself from the myriad of other racing games bearing the Need For Speed licence released over the past 12 months.
There are some great moments in Need For Speed: The Run, and the on-foot segments aren't nearly as offensive as they appeared at E3, but frustrating AI and some dodgy technical issues get in the way of what's otherwise a pretty and well-presented racer with some good ideas.