Need For Speed is one of the original gargantuan franchises. Since 1994 various iterations have been developed by a large selection of developers, all fuelling the need for speed of fans of driving games around the world. Because of this it’s an exceedingly important series for Electronic Arts and one they are working strategically to enhance and improve in broad terms, in order to allow each year’s individual title to flourish. The noughties were a fairly barren time for the series, not in terms of release but with regards to quality. It was selling thanks to the name but it was losing pace to the stellar series’ around it in terms of stratospheric sales. A change was needed.
EA determined the best way forward was a three-pronged approach. Need For Speed: Shift from Slightly Mad studios (a simulation focus), Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit from the wonderful Criterion (a chance to combine the best arcade driving developers with a bigger name than even Burnout) and the continuation of output from EA’s Black Box team. The intent was to provide variety within the canon and ensure superior quality thanks to the extra time afforded to each team. Need For Speed: The Run is the first game from Black Box since this reorganisation.
With simulations and arcade racing already taken care of, Black Box have gone all Cannonball Run on us and built a narrative centered around racing. The opening of the game provides all manner of encouragement in that you learn your character, Jack, is in serious trouble with some crooks and after escaping - on foot and in car - needs some serious cash to stop the chase. Luckily his friend, Sam, tells him about The Run, a trans-USA race from San Francisco to New York where the winner can rake in $25 million. She offers to provide his entry stake and yield 10 % of winnings should he succeed. More than enough to get rid of those after him. All looks good from the point of view of the player too - a chance to follow in the footsteps of Smokey and the Bandit and race long distances, over different terrain and in all kinds of fabulous vehicles on your way to winning a ton of money. It’s unfortunate then that things don’t turn out that way.
Firstly it has to be remembered this is a driving game. It has not therefore had the same kind of creative input into the narrative as would be expected of the latest Uncharted game. That’s fine because the focus should be on the driving and the competition and the AI. But, if you are going to centre an entire game around a competition called The Run and go to the trouble of developing a dramatic framework - make the most of it. In this case Need For Speed: The Run is a framework for a series of races, each of which follows the same few templates. The story is not really there and any interaction between characters is limited. Each time you come up against a rival racer who’s given a face, there are a few words about them onscreen but otherwise they may as well be any computer controlled car.
What’s perhaps more frustrating than the lack of decent story is the fact that Need For Speed: The Run’s structure means you need to progress a certain number of places each stage. There are ten stages, with a varied number of races within. But the game has to ensure you’re progressing towards the race lead (200 competitors to start with) rather than allowing you to be in position sixty-four come the final level and ultimately fail. This is logical. But it makes for a game which feels like a number of trials shoehorned into the idea the developers had, rather than building a game around the idea. There are objectives such as overtaking X drivers, making up Y minutes in time and defeating rivals before you reach the end. When being asked to beat ten drivers though you absolutely have to in those 6.5 miles ahead of you; there is no option to beat nine here and an extra one next time out. The challenge is very scripted, too, as a result. Each of the ten drivers will be caught up at a certain point in the stage - roughly - meaning that a certain level of quality through the drive is needed, otherwise there is no way to chase down the last few cars.
To this end each time you start a new level (not stage, i.e. race within one of the ten stages) there are five ‘resets’. If you crash and burn the game will restart you at the most recent checkpoint, or you can manually reset if you feel you can’t get home in the lead. This seems to be in there to ensure you can beat the arbitrary requirements as there is no room for manoeuvre to do so if you have a big crash or take the wrong route. It soon leads to the game becoming stale and repetitive. Each race feels mechanical, rather than organic. Also, seeing as there is a need to drive near-perfectly each time, why are there certain catch-up levels whereby you need to make up time? If you’re performing fantastically well why are you so far behind time-wise?
This doesn’t even take into account the fact that in a three-thousand mile race the player should be made to feel in some way that they’re driving that far. There is just nothing which makes the game feel like anything more than a set of race types as per previous games, all stuck inside the great idea of the long-distance race for cash. It’s been developed backwards and suffers as a result. The output is so much less than the expectation from the idea.
It’s a good thing then that the actual driving engine itself is very good. It should be - Black Box have used the Frostbite 2 engine (i.e. Battlefield’s) and the whole game looks fantastic, and feels largely like Criterion’s Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit, itself a fabulous racer. Being an arcade racer with the Need For Speed moniker it is superbly fast. It’s twitch-gaming at its best. The graphics and sound effects are as good as you’ll see this side of of Gran Turismo and
This in part leads to the biggest issue with Need For Speed: The Run. It can be completed in around two hours of drive time. Three hours in total taking into account resets and difficulty level. The on foot quick-time events scattered throughout are included in the three hours. These are pretty intense and enjoyable action movie inspired sequences but once done they’re done and of course they’re not the main draw of this game. So what else is there to make the game last longer?
After completing each stage of the main game a series of challenge races are unlocked. These are basically a chance to race against folk in all kinds of cars in an attempt to win in a good enough time to obtain a bronze or higher ranked medal. The cars you can choose from in this mode start at the basic level (old school Golf GTI for example) and as you progress through the main game, online races and so on you can gain access to higher tier, faster and more exotic cars (in the main game you start out with pretty special cars). The multiplayer side of things is fairly basic. Race against others in existing lobbies or set your own up and do so according to the type of race you want - pure time attack in exotic cars or a fight to the winning line in some muscle cars? Maybe a mixture of both over a series of races in the same lobby. There are in-game goals which add to the XP you gain from each race, and of course your XP grows in one big pot whichever mode you earn it in. Levelling up provides unlockable perks and driver abilities. But for some reason not all methods of earning XP are open from the start (in single-player). Despite the fact you can drift immediately you don’t earn XP until the game decides you deserve the chance. It just doesn’t make sense as a design decision, and is only one example of such a choice.
That, in essence, describes the whole experience obtained from Need For Speed: The Run. An entertaining central conceit poorly executed thanks to the lack of superior narrative and the inability to design a game to fit the concept. A concept which is then done and dusted in a few hours leaving behind a good driving mechanic but no advantage over and above similar games, not least last year’s Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit. If you are a big arcade driving fan and just want to drive pretty cars very fast and have exhausted everything else then this game is perhaps for you. But it won’t last and will ultimately leave you wanting. The better advice is to get hold of Criterion’s superior entry to the franchise and replay it to death, including the DLC. This will provide more entertainment, for longer, with more variety and surprise than can be gotten here - despite the fact it’s a year older.
This review is based on the PS3 version