Need for Speed The Run Review
An interesting concept cannot save this otherwise unimpressive racing package
The Run is yet another annual release by EA for the once-popular Need for Speed franchise. A series which has struggled in recent years, and attempted to reinvent itself with a sim-based spinoff Shift, once again returns to the hands of original developers Black Box. Last year’s Hot Pursuit, a solid remake of a previous title with the same name, did well to revive the arcade racing thanks to Criterion Games. The previous game from Black Box, meanwhile, was a very disappointing Undercover. It’s been said that Need for Speed: The Run was in development for three years, but even with so much time and a genuinely fresh idea for a racing game structure, The Run is anything but great and is unable to carry on the momentum after Hot Pursuit’s success.
As a rare case in this series, The Run includes an actual plot – players assume the role of Jackson "Jack" Rourke, a good driver who has somehow got in trouble with a crime family. As he escapes near-death, his only shot to survive is a race across the country, from San Francisco to New York, in order to win a large cash prize. Christina Hendricks plays Sam Harper, Jack’s handler of sorts who enters Jack into the race and provides him with cars and occasional commentary.
Such is the story in the Run – that is, there’s not much story at all. We have no idea why Jack is in trouble, and he is the only character, alongside Sam, who has actual dialogue. All other characters are introduced by a few lines of text and have no effect on the story. The narrative is extremely limited and basic, and falls behind even the older Underground games with their cheesy but at least fully realized plots. There are a couple of good set-pieces, but they are very few in number and are a missed opportunity – in fact you’ve already played through one if you tried the demo.
Also a first for the franchise, the game features action which takes place outside of the cars – but don’t get too excited, these are simply basic QTE events. Running, jumping, and occasionally kicking police officers, these on-foot sections are fully dependant on timed button inputs, and offer little to the experience with less than 10 minutes of such scenes.
Speaking of length, the game conveniently tracks the total time actually spent racing, and the experience can be completed in just a little over 2 hours. Sure, that doesn’t include any checkpoint restarts (of which you may use a few), cutscenes, on-foot sections, and loading screens. But none the less, in this day and age, that’s poor value for the asking price. It’s not a particularly thrilling two hours either, as previously mentioned the special environmental hazards are too few in number, and the rest of the time is spent in races that play out in a very similar manner.
The Run is a continuous event, as you race across the country in various locations, so there is very little opportunity for game mode variety. Tracks are linear with a few shortcuts, and most of the race types involve either trying to make up time or beating a certain number of opponents. The problem is, however, is that The Run’s campaign is anything but a proper racing game. It’s more like a heavily scripted road trip across the USA. That sounds at least intriguing in theory, but in execution many of the aspects fail to impress.
To the point, all of the races are locked in to the track length, which means things have to happen in a very specific fashion. For example, events where you must race against time work fine since the clock is the limiting factor and there are no opponents present. Most other events, which in a nutshell require you to pass a certain number of cars either before finish line or before time runs out, simply feel static. In order to actually make the player race the whole length of the track, and because all races begin in-progress instead of an even start, the AI won’t allow you to beat them until a certain point. Cops show up as well, but prove to be just as rubber-band and unrealistic as the other AI drivers. Occasionally dodging roadblocks and trying to push you off the road (unsuccessfully) is about all the tension that exists. Later, when faced with armed thugs in jeeps and a helicopter, the game does have a few jarring difficulty spikes, but it’s nothing that can’t be beaten in a few more restarts than usual.
The Run is quite simply a scripted racing experience, whereas the game adjusts the speed and distance of your opponents based on the point of the race. Early on, you’ll be hanging around last place, but as the race goes on, other cars suddenly slow down and let you pass them, until you’re in first place in the end. On normal difficulty, there is simply no challenge as you only need to race without crashing, and only boosting occasionally – you’ll be guaranteed first place. If you do mess up, the game features checkpoints in each race which you can fall back on for a limited number of tries.
In an attempt to keep things realistic, players can only select cars at specific instances of the story or by finding a gas station. There is a decent variety of supercars on offer, from muscle rides to street racers. Though typical EA silliness persists, when one of the three cars you must choose from is actually locked only to owners of the Limited Edition copy of the game. Cars have basic stats, similar to those seen in last year’s Hot Pursuit, but don’t feel significantly different from one another. There is no car customization to speak of, save for being able to apply an arbitrary set of body kits. There’s also a handling category stat which marks higher-tier cars as more difficult to drive, but that is a fairly pointless statistic.
That’s because The Run has a very basic handling model. While Hot Pursuit had it nearly perfect, The Run is so basic and easy that it feels like you’re barely trying at all. Cars handle very much the same, drift almost perfectly, and make even the sharpest turns with relative ease. To put simply, it’s beyond arcade, requiring no skill at all, and beyond any kind of physics realism as well. For a game built on the Frostbite 2 engine, the physics are underdeveloped and car interaction is basic at best. Driving off the track or hitting obstacles is an extremely glitchy experience. Though to give the game some credit for bucking a very old mechanic, directional arrows which mark the track are no longer invisible walls, and players can crash/drive through them (resulting in a checkpoint restart).
Alongside the main campaign, players can participate in a series of challenges unlocked after completing each section of the story. These races have specific goals and scenarios, letting you earn medals and trying to beat previous best times. It’s a decent distraction which essentially allows the player to revisit the various tracks in the game and compete for the best times.
As with all recent Need for Speed games, Autolog is included as the central profile tracking service. Everything you do progresses your Autolog rank, racing offline and online, which also instantly compares your times and scores as well as unlocks new cars and some artificial bonuses. There’s been little change to the service since it was introduced, and while it’s great for leaderboard boasting against friends and unlocking new rides, it remains problematic when actually trying to meet new players online due to an unintuitive interface.
The online play is fairly straightforward and to the point. Rather than pick one track, a selection of playlists is available to be taken on with friends. A new concept for The Run is the ability to join races in progress instead of lobby waiting. Players who enter an ongoing race start in last place but get extra notorious boost so they have a chance to catch up. It’s an interesting concept, but seems hardly fair if the currently last place racer is actually miles behind the main pack. There’s not much lag to be had, though a common annoyance is the game resetting you back to the track if you happen to drive off. This mechanic exists in single player, where going offroad costs you a checkpoint reset, but online the system seems a bit too strict and inconsistent, resetting the car right away some times but letting you recover at others. Overall though, there’s nothing particularly engaging or unique about The Run’s online play.
Perhaps the game’s most redeeming feature would have to be the environmental and character visuals. Various locations across United States are quite simply beautifully recreated in the game – from the valleys of California to the urban jungle of New York. The Frostbite 2 engine is put to full use with some great lighting effects and overall sharpness of the graphics. Character models and animations are very well done with all in-game cutscenes. The game is also quite well optimized, being able to run maxed out and looks good on decently powerful PCs. On the downside, the cars don’t impress with some lack of detail and no cockpit view. The camera in third person view also has a nauseating habit of swinging back and forth during the race. With forgettable voice acting and minimal audio and soundtrack, the sounds of The Run are not really worth mentioning.
When Hot Pursuit reboot released last fall, it had seemed that EA have found life within its arcade racing series once more. Many had hoped that this momentum would carry on, but as The Run proves, perhaps the series’ problem isn’t the design or a yearly release schedule (though perhaps taking time off would be rather beneficial). The issue seems to be one of who’s developing the series – be it the still-lackluster Black Box, or newcomers Criterion. While The Run’s visuals and locations impress, everything else is entirely forgettable, short campaign that is unable to live up the premise, and car mechanics that only work on the most basic, scripted level. And that, for a racing game, is the end of the road.