Is EA Black Box's long awaited update for the Need for Speed franchise a pulse-pumping, full-featured thrill ride across the US of A, or a total cross-country slog? Find out in Ten Ton Hammer's latest review!
Anyone whose had the pleasure (or displeasure, depending on the vehicle and/or reason) of a road trip across the lower 48 knows the basic premise of Need for Speed: The Run. Granted, you probably weren't being chased by trigger-happy Mafia in black sedans and helicopters in pursuit of a blood debt-forgiving $2.5 million purse, but you likely wanted to reach your destination as quickly as possible.
Apart from taking bank shots off of minivans to corner faster, the only potentially offensive aspect of The Run is a few jarring bolts of voice-acted obscenity come out of the blue around Las Vegas, never to resurface before or after. I'm guessing Jack Rourke isn't the first guy to discover their pottymouth in Sin City, though.
At its heart, Need for Speed: The Run is a stage racer, and would be perfectly at home in an arcade cabinet. The sledgehammer plot wouldn't suffice for even a Fast and Furious sequel (despite the Hollywood-this, cinematic-that billing in the options menu), but if you're playing an arcade racer for story, you're in the wrong genre.
Players don't have to race all of the 3,000ish miles across the United States, of course. Thankfully, you're left with an estimated 270 miles (average speed multiplied by hours to complete) of interesting pan-American vignettes, less than a tenth of the actual route. Each of the 10 stages is comprised of mini-stages that follow one of three formats: make up time (flat out racing against the clock), battles (beat 1-3 successive rivals through checkpoints), and move up positions (beat around 7 opponents to the finish).
Every so often The Run will break up the formula, sometimes in innovative ways (the most memorable was a harrowing run down a closed Colorado road in the process of being dynamited to trigger avalanches) and sometimes in forgettable ones. In Las Vegas and Chicago, The Run suffers from the same paralytically interactive cutscenes that appeared in Battlefield 3, where an instant keypress is required or you'll have to loop through the sequence. If you're not absolutely attuned to your controller, it's a frustrating, distracting, and ultimately attempt at injecting gameplay where it's not needed.
All that said, the pacing of The Run is dead-on. The United States is much like a supermodel's midsection; curvy and urbane at the extremes and flat in the middle. Accordingly, EA Black Box gives you slower, easier-handling cars from San Francisco through Yosemite State Park and the Rockies, graduating you to stiffer, faster cars through the relatively flat and straight Great Plains, and capping off the experience with supercars that offer top speeds in excess of 220 MPH, 0-60 acceleration of around 2.8 seconds, and excellent handling.
As tough as the game is to play with steering wheel and pedals (Logitech G27 users and other similarly kitted-out racers should note that the game does NOT support a shifter), it's impossible to play with the keyboard. The X360 controller (or one of the myriad knockoffs) is the only way to play Need for Speed: The Run. Grab a controller and you'll be rewarded with just the kind of grit this type of game should offer. More often than not, I'd win a race with milliseconds to spare, and white-knuckle excitement wasn't just a cliche.
The Run should be a celebration of the scenery (blur that it is) as well as the cars you get to drive. Switching and tuning the cars should be part of the experience. Sorrowfully, you have to duck into a gas station mid-race to change cars, and that usually means losing several positions. Worse, if you lose the race, you'll find yourself back in your old car.
Need for Speed: The Run is lovingly handcrafted right down to the individualized road signs, purple mountain's majesty and golden waves of... corn (into which I regularly went careening). The magic of a continent-wide romp should be one of the big reasons to play a game like Need for Speed: The Run, and it is. Cities, countryside, industrial areas, snowy mountain roads - if you cast a glimpse to try and take it all in at 130 MPH, you'll be impressed with the graphics of this game.
At worst, Need for Speed: The Run shows the versatility of the Frostbite 2 engine, the same engine used (at marginally lower speeds) in Battlefield 3. While the engine regularly delivered fluid visual knockouts at acceptable framerates, the game entered what I started calling "jelly time" when traffic conditions worsened, mafia sedans and helicopters hammered away with their machine guns and, in general, way too much was happening on the screen. In jelly time, the game grew selective about which control movements it chose to interpret, getting a little predictive (more than occasionally to my doom).
Also detracting were Frostbite 2's treatment of headlights and sunlight. Retina-frying lighting and flicker was somewhat more tame than in BF3, but high-intensity lights are still bright and blurry enough to mess with your depth perception. When threading your way through the New York subway system, for example, it's helpful to know just how far away that oncoming train is, especially when travelling at 169 MPH.
Need for Speed: The Run features a pulse-pumping Brian Tyler soundtrack supplemented by a janglin licensed assortment ranging from classic rock to folk to indie to alternative that would be at home on any longhaulers' track list. Sampled engine noise for each car, tire squeals, gear changes, and the whirr of the tires on the game's varied palette of terrain is beyond reproach. That said, the game's directional sound isn't an adequate replacement for a rear view mirror, but it's better than constantly tweaking the "look back" button.