In the category of franchises subject to annual release schedules, EA's venerable Need for Speed series has experienced a rockier time than most. For a series primarily concerned with driving beautiful cars very quickly, a bevy of developers has tried their hand at injecting something new into the franchise, resulting in a variable catalogue of titles which runs the gamut from street-racing (2003's Need for Speed: Underground) to hard-nosed simulation (last year's Need for Speed: Shift 2). With last year's Criterion-developed Hot Pursuit, however, it is arguable that Need for Speed reclaimed its throne as the king of arcade racing and focused on what it ultimately does best. This year, however, sees the release of Need for Speed: The Run, developed by franchise-veterans EA Black Box and flirting more boldly with narrative than almost any racing title ever to have come before. Following in the footsteps of the jewel in the series' crown, does The Run and its high-octane plot have what it takes to stand out from the pack?
The game opens with a cut-scene which sets the scene with economy: players assume the role of Jack Rourke, a rogue packing serious driving abilities and an indebtedness to the mob. When the opportunity to partake in an illegal cross-country race from San Francisco to New York City presents itself with prize-money in tow, Jack sits behind the wheel in an effort to win the race, and his freedom. While nobody typically plays racing titles for their narratives, it is difficult to argue that the additional context afforded by the game's story isn't welcome. While the plot is far from substantial, and represents more of a premise than an actual narrative with any sort of thematic resonance or rounded cast of characters, The Run does a deft job at giving players a reason to race. In other words, context is key, and The Run has just enough to compel players to see the game through to its end. If anything, the story and indeed the entire game would have benefited from better writing and a more interesting scenario, but The Run represents an interesting, albeit flawed, first step into a deep pool of potential.
The primary mode on offer in The Run is the game's single player story mode, which comprises a series of point-to-point stages set across a variety of locales across the United States, with each stage broken down into a set of a half-dozen or so events. These events offer up their own specific objectives to overcome, such as requiring players to overtake a set number of opponents before the finish line, but on occasion the player's goals come off as somewhat arbitrary and are seldom justified by the narrative. Between stages the game offers up interludes designed to set up the next chunk of the plot, comprising some awkward cut-scenes and even a few 'quick time events' which see Jack take to the streets on foot while dodging the authorities and mob goons. Truth be told, these semi-interactive vignettes neither detract from nor enhance the core racing experience, and one can almost sense the tentative half-heartedness with which Black Box approached them. Fortunately, the racing model is solid enough to prop up The Run in its more awkward moments. The cars' arcade-style handling can be alternately skittish and sluggish at times, but the point-to-point track design is satisfying enough to overcome any moments of clumsiness. On the downside, some fairly egregious rubber-banding on the part of the game's computer-controlled opponents keeps competition fierce at the expense of a diminished sense of accomplishment, and the story reaches its abrupt conclusion in around two-to-three hours of play, excluding time spent in menus and viewing cinematic sequences. The Run then, is a fairly brusque experience which wavers between compelling and clunky, and certainly cannot compete with the generosity, polish and variety of Hot Pursuit, which served up tighter handling and more consistent visuals across its single-player mode.
On the subject of presentation, The Run is certainly capable enough in its visual panache, which is hardly surprising given that it runs on DICE's formidable Frostbite 2 engine. The game's locales, from Las Vegas to the Rocky Mountains and the streets of Chicago, are convincingly rendered and vividly designed, while the game's occasional chases and set-pieces are afforded intensity by the strength of the technology. Unfortunately, The Run suffers from frequent bouts of frame-rate chugging and some sloppy textures whose defects become more apparent when things slow down. While such spottiness is not enough to detract from the game's slick aesthetic, it is slightly unfortunate to observe such blips in a big-budget entry in a prominent franchise.
On the multiplayer side of the package, The Run is typical of its genre, offering online racing for up to sixteen players over designated playlists of stages and events. Based on our experiences, the game's network code holds up well under pressure, which is a necessity in a racing game where the difference between victory and defeat can often be less than a second. Tellingly, the best aspect of the game's social suite is cribbed from Hot Pursuit. Yes, the 'Autolog' feature returns in The Run, tracking players' performances all modes and comparing them to friends' results in a tangible fashion. The incentive to retry any of the game's stages is enhanced by the prospect of besting a friend's latest record, but the appeal of the feature is admittedly lessened by the harsh reality that the racing experience is simply not as compelling as that offered by (you guessed it) last year's Hot Pursuit.
Need for Speed: The Run is ultimately an interesting experiment which only partially succeeds in its lofty ambitions. Injecting narrative and a sense of context into a traditionally threadbare genre is a curious idea ripe for exploration, and in this regard The Run takes a big step forward, albeit a stumbling one. The cross-country chase story is corny and underdeveloped in equal measure, but as a premise for taking a series of beautiful cars very fast across a plethora of eye-catching locales, it just about delivers. In the final analysis, The Run does just that: it delivers on the basic expectations of its genre, but only just. The visuals, handling, and competitive racing are all just about good enough to pass muster. However, in a year defined by its abundance of top-quality titles, to be merely good is perhaps, mildly insufficient. The Run is easy enough to recommend to racing fans after their next fix, but its difficult to imagine that any of them will be blown away by a game of such modest accomplishment.