Having Michael Bay direct Need for Speed:The Run’s commercial was utterly perfect. Usually a videogame’s pre-release media and final product are so divorced from each other you wonder if anyone in the marketing department actually bothered to play the game, but The Run’s message is in complete harmony with the experience it provides the player. Like Bay’s body of thrilling cinema, The Run is rife with police chases, smash ’em up speed contests, occasional gun fire, and huge set-piece moments born for ultra stylized wide angles. It’s also blatantly unconcerned with coherence and sometimes too afraid to sacrifice some rather cool looking cut scenes for sequences that are actually fun to play. That’s Bay’s brand and it’s earned billions of dollars, the question is whether The Run’s conceit as videogame enhances or damages its fortune as an interactive medium.
Let’s take a look at The Run’s call to adventure. Jack Rourke is introduced duct taped to a steering wheel in a car about to be crushed by a trash compactor. He makes a nick-of-time escape, swipes a car, and engages in a car chase with some mob guys. It ends with Rourke barely getting by a train, in typical action movie fashion. Later he meets up with his buddy Sam Harper, who enters Jack in a coast-to-coast race for a $25,000,000 purse. Winning could ease Jack’s apparent debt issues, so he’s off from San Francisco to New York City to claim first prize.
And that’s about all The Run is offering for a plotline. Jack and Sam occasionally exchange banter between the races, and there are a few sequences where Jack pauses to stare at a girl’s ass or express brooding discontent at a rival, but The Run doesn’t tell you why Jack needs money, why police are allowed to open fire from a helicopter on street racers, who is repairing Jack’s car after every race, or where in the hell Jack manages to get access to new vehicles when the plot dictates he wrecks the current one. Actually that last sequence isn’t entirely accurate, there is one scene where Jack has to meet Russian gentlemen to get a new car, but that one instance makes the lack of any other all the more puzzling.
These things happen in Bay’s movies and highbrow film aficionados cry foul every time, but videogames are allowed to play by different rules in favor of creating an experience that’s fun to play. Every videogame ever made boasts a sequence or ten that will not stand up to scrutiny; it’s a conceit we all accept, and The Run is mostly aware of its rules in limitations. It’s only bothersome when it interferes with gameplay. For example; wreck someone who’s pursuing you and the game cuts to a script of their car getting ripped to shreds – which shifts the camera, puts your car into autopilot, and totally ruins your momentum. That looks really cool, but I would have rather overtaken my opponent and won the race rather than watch a car wipe out for the tenth time and be forced to use a retry. The Run manages to away with most of its brain melting discrepancies, as it often moves too fast for the player to stop and think about what just transpired.
For starters, it doesn’t waste your time with cars that are either under fifty thousand dollars or 300 horsepower. Right out of the gate your selections are BMW M3 GTW, am old school 240z, and a Ford Shelby Super Snake. It only goes up from there, with Jack getting access to even higher tiers of cars as he progresses across the country. Though the cars are all pulled from their real life counterparts, The Run’s particular angle bends more toward arcade than simulation, which is what one would expect from its pace and intensity. Tires scream in futility to make contact with asphalt, recharging nitrous provides a veritable turbo blast, and every wreck looks like it should horribly murder whoever was inside. There is some concern for realism, mid-engine vehicles seened more prone to a loss of control and racing surfaces like ice or dirt have a tiny effect on handling, but The Run otherwise comes off as unapologetically arcade.
Like other popular racing games, The Run grants the player to ability to rewind time and correct mistakes. Rather than do this at anytime, however, The Run creates predetermined checkpoints throughout the race which the player can go back to by choice or default should you pilot Jack’s car off a cliff or into a building. You’re also limited to five resets per race. On one hand limiting the amount and position of a reset is a justifiable way to keep the difficulty in check. On the other, The Run is a bit too finicky to only allow five resets. For example, sometimes I can t-bone a road block and drive away without issue. Other times even the slightest contact with traffic damaged my car beyond repair. Similarly, the boundaries before one is considered too far off the track are wildly inconsistent; sometimes it’s so far out a reset feels totally necessary and others I was barely off the road. It feels like races are so tightly scripted that any potential thorn in the side of momentum qualifies as a necessary reset. It’s annoying, sometimes more so than it is helpful.
In terms of structure, The Run figures out a pretty good way to get Jack across the country. Races are segmented into ten stages, each boasting a handful of races, through the middle of the United States. San Francisco kicks it off with its trademark hills before giving way to the Rocky Mountain’s frozen passes and New Jersey’s garbage piles. Blasting through big cities like Las Vegas, Chicago, Cleveland, and New York City has the added bonus of bit of real-life sightseeing, but The Run does well to manage the spaces in between too. Dust storms, ice patches, controlled avalanches and the threat of darkness are occasional challenges, as are frequent police chases, road blocks, and occasional mob interference (which function basically like police with automatic weapons). You even get to evade a helicopter’s spotlight a few times, all of which helps keep the racing frantic and fresh. It is kind of silly that the game spends a ton of time in a few east and west areas and almost completely ignores flyover states, but it’s no worse for wear.
The Run’s track design is fairly sound. Hard ninety degree turns and start/stop straightaways are reserved for city courses, while winding country roads tuned for high speeds are good for a literal change of pace. Though the game tries to encourage a mantra of “slow in, fast out” for turns I often found abusing the drift mechanic was easier and more effective, and seemed to keep my cars better glued to the road. In fact, every time I was getting smoked in a duel I found that barreling through turns like an idiot and/or making contact with my opponents worked more often than it didn’t. A couple of The Run’s gimmicks don’t always play – traffic can feel perfectly scripted to annoy the player and the lingering final level is a mess – and can limit progression to a series of trial and error attempts rather than an intuitive, skill based voyage.
Advancing race positions is also broken apart rather sharply. On some races Jack will be tasked to overtake eight or so cars before the set end point. In other races Jack will need to “make up time” by nailing a series of checkpoints in a set amount of time. Smaller challenges tasks Jack with overtaking three cars, one at a time, and keeping in front of it before a timer runs out. Rival races hit the player with a few sentences of background text before the race begins and then the ensuing races amounts to a face off of sorts. Rival races are a little hollow; winning access to their ride is nice, but any sort of personality beyond a paragraph of inane text would have been appreciated.
And then there are those quick-time sequences The Run debuted with last June. Getting out of the car was an alarming shift in perspective mostly met with negative reaction, but some felt it presented an opportunity for something fresh in the fifteen-plus year old franchise. In the end, these sequences only occur three times and are relatively docile and inoffensive. Heavy Rain’s method of dealing with action is an accurate comparison, as you’ll be pressing buttons in context sensitive sequences to make Jack evade or fight police, kick open locked doors, and run from other dangers. They could have been better, sure, but they’re nowhere near as dreadful as some were expecting.
It’s also over in about four or five hours. The Run feels even shorter when your campaign-wide time is shown on top of the screen and indicating you just crossed the United States in under two hours. The truth is a little bit easier to swallow when you factor in the density of one shotting every single course in the game, and remember the competitive benefits afford by Autolog. Criterion landed on fertile ground by transplanting Burnout’s competitive single player dynamic, rebranded as the aforementioned Autolog, into last year’s Hot Pursuit, and Black Box has kept pace by improving Autolog in The Run. It not only instantly ranks you against your friends on individual courses, but also The Run as a whole, encompassing your total campaign time into a number. Better yet, your time against the current leader is compared in real time during a race, with your clock bleeding green if you’re ahead of pace and red if you’re lagging behind. If you’re like me and you never really get a whole lot out of competitive multiplayer, Autolog is still an awesome way to reap the same benefits out of a single player experience.
All of The Run’s campaign is subject to Autolog’s gifts, but it also applies to a separate Challenge Series. A series of five races centered on a particular theme, Challenge Series takes courses from The Run-proper and repurposes them with different challenges. Most of it is relatively simple – a formerly checkpoint course is now an actual race – but a few others are entirely unique. Rural Track Attack’s third course, at eleven miles, was longer than almost every track in the campaign, and its twisting mountain accent felt like Black Box was trying to build a challenge to mimic something like Deal’s Gap. 70 challenges are the end sum, though most lie behind an lock.
A competitive online mode is also present, albeit blocked behind an online pass. My review copy came with a free two day trial (as will all retail copies), but said trial began well before the game was released and online races were obviously nowhere to be found. I did play with other writers for an hour or so at a preview event, and my impressions there were generally favorable. It was a whole lot of fun when there were a bunch of us smashing around in a pack, which, even with the (thankful) lack of rubber banding, happened almost every race.
There’s also a game-wide player level, which feels like a mechanic in search of a proper cause. Passing opponents during a race, wrecking your aggressors, not using retries, and generally performing well all add to your level in the campaign, as does winning challenges in Challenge Series and multiplayer. Climbing up the ladder increases your driving abilities, but it also opens access to a wider variety of cars and a few customization options for your online profile. It’s appreciated, but the driver level feels more like a box that had to be checked off rather than a measure of progression.
DICE’s Frostbite 2 engine, seen recently powering Battlefield 3, flashes versatility in The Run. The sense of speed is its most profound asset, as The Run rarely dropped a frame despite offering up some fairly large and beautiful vistas. Simple character models and a lack of detail (compared to heavyweights like Gran Turismo and Forza) on the cars speak more toward the age of the current generation rather than faults with the engine, but odd technical hiccups get in the way sometimes. I was subject to several instances where I was reset on the track for no reason, where oncoming traffic disappeared, or where the audio clipped or cut out entirely. Loading times, both between races and after engaging a retry, felt too long given their frequency. I got the sense that Frostbite 2 was screaming to rip out of my PlayStation 3 like The Incredible Hulk sheds his clothing, but was held back by relatively ancient hardware.