You could perhaps write an engaging literary treatise on how the slow motion crashes in Need for Speed: The Run somehow represent the gradual destruction of the NFS brand and legacy, but there isn’t any need to dig as deep as that. A few minutes with the game and it’ll be clear enough that The Run is just another inherently flawed video game, mostly owing to an oversized raft of questionable design decisions. What’s more disheartening than the game itself is the fact that Black Box had two years to work on their follow-up to the (surprise!) also timidly received Need for Speed: Undercover. Now, two years may not seem like a long time, but it bears extra weight when you consider the fact that we’ve had three great Need for Speed games by other studios in the interim. Criterion’s Hot Pursuit and Slightly Mad’s Shift 2 are a class apart and can be picked up together on the cheap as opposed to paying MRP for The Run.
The Run’s premise does look good on paper, or at least the idea of racing from San Francisco all the way to New York does. Unfortunately, there’s a fairly ordinary story attached to the proceedings as well. You play a generic dude who’s on the run from the mob. Teaming up with a pretty lady from your past, you enter the aforementioned race with no choice but to win. Oh, and there’s apparently a substantial payout involved, enough to buy yourself out of trouble and still have pocket change to spare. These story bits are when you realize why this game is called The Run in the first place. Interspersed between cutscenes are quick-time-event-filled random outlandish action sequences that would make Michael Bay wet himself. Cutscenes with just the right dash of cheese do work, as we’ve seen with Most Wanted, but what’s here just doesn’t cut it. The characters and dialogue are inconsequential, situations laughable, and there’s a surprising (or not) lack of believability to the world.
Alright, so the story’s a wash. Unfortunately, the gameplay isn’t any better. Far from the miles upon miles of freedom offered by the likes of the underappreciated Test Drive Unlimited 2, The Run’s idea of a cross-country race amounts to stages set in different iconic parts of the US. To be fair though, perhaps stuffing every inch of actual road into it may not be a good idea for the kind of game it wants to be. The reason it works in Test Drive is that it’s more of a driving game than a racing game. You enjoy the drive rather than blasting past scenery like your life depended on it. But here, you’re always full throttle. You’re never easing off and taking in the sights because the game just isn’t structured that way.
So let’s work with that we have. There are ten of these stages (or locations) in all, with a handful of events in each of them. Unfortunately, these events also tend to be extremely ordinary and repetitive. You’re almost always in a ‘pass an x number of cars’ event, a timed checkpoint challenge or in a ‘race’ where you’re just passing an x number of cars anyway. A few differently themed situations do crop up to try and break the tedium. There are one-on-one races against rivals and encounters with mob cars and the cops, for instance. However, none of these offer anything more than a decidedly average racing experience.
Besides the lack of variety, there’s a frustrating inconsistency in the actual driving as well. Cars handle like you’ve got an elephant in the back seat, and good luck trying to pull off a perfect drift thanks to the random oversteer. A lot of the roads are narrow (fair enough), but there’s not enough finesse to the controls to avoid unnecessary wrecks. There’s no car upgrades or tuning system either, although you do increase your driver level and unlock a few racing-standard upgrades such as nitrous and drafting. Unfortunately, your opponents tend to rubberband, so brace yourself for multiple restarts. The game may have a decent selection of motors, but you’ll only be able to switch between them by pulling into gas stations during races. What already is a pretty shaky mechanic becomes even more mind boggling when you realize that you go back to your old car each time you restart a track. You’ll need to pull into the same gas station over and over again, ad nauseam, until you luck out and beat the event. Repeat events enough times and you’ll start noticing how scripted some of the traffic and cop cars are.
The Run supposedly gives you the ability to ‘rewind’, but all you’re really given are five sloppy checkpoints per race and a long, ugly load screen each time you use one, or when the game decides to reset for you. These resets sometimes seem completely arbitrary as well. You’d think that you would be allowed to stray a few feet off track if you’re racing cross-country. Not so. Use all your checkpoints up and you’ll need to restart the event. Here’s another inherent flaw with the premise: Your position among the 200+ racers taking part in the coast-to-coast challenge isn’t dynamic, which essentially means that you’re forced to come first in every event you take part in. There are no second or third places or even medals here. It’s either first, or back to the start you go. As frustrating as this is from a gameplay standpoint, it also takes away from the excitement of the overall race itself as your result is almost predetermined. So if the game urges you to make it to Las Vegas in 150th place, there’s no way you aren’t going to hit that target. You’re forced to retry every race until you do.
The single-player campaign will only last you three hours tops (excluding restarts). This seems criminally short even after you consider the lack of repetition in the point-to-point tracks. If the goal was to encourage multiple replays so as to clock the fastest time in the campaign, they really ought to have made a better game to back that conceit up. Sadly, there isn’t a lot to be said about the presentation either. The game uses DICE’s Frostbite 2 technology to middling effect. Environments fare the best, with some decent variety to the landscapes and vivid colors being used thanks to the cross-country focus. The cars, on the other hand, are unimpressive and there isn’t any customization to speak of barring pre-configured body kits and paint schemes. Damage is superficial, although the crashes do seem meaty enough and can look good on occasion. The Frostbite 2 tech itself struggles to impress on consoles, just as it did in Battlefield 3. You’ll come across surprisingly ugly low-res textures and the pop-in can be atrocious in cutscenes. Why they didn’t just use whatever Criterion worked with for Hot Pursuit is beyond me.
Also damning is there not being a standard single player mode at all. What you’re given instead are challenges to play through that are made up of stages from the single player mode, and these unlock cars that you can use when you’re playing through the campaign. Criterion’s Autolog is also in full effect, although sometimes you feel like it deserves to be used in a better game than this. The multiplayer is also barebones, breaking up the single player tracks into playlists and letting eight players battle it out. But you can tell the game (and the tracks) just weren’t built with multiplayer in mind, so what you’re left with is a quick diversion at best.
While this review may be overly negative, there are fleeting moments of fun to be had with Need for Speed: The Run. But that’s mostly because of the inherent joy in racing cars, and should no way absolve Black Box of their slipshod efforts with the game. Where does the series go from here? Hopefully back into more capable hands.