Review: Need For Speed - The Run / Developer: Black Box / Publisher: Electronic Arts / Format: PS3 (reviewed), Xbox 360, Nintendo 3DS, Wii, PC
And it was all going so well. After a string of lacklustre entries in the Need For Speed franchise, the last of which being 2008’s subpar Need For Speed Undercover, publisher EA decided to start a fresh. Drafting in different developers and giving each a couple of years production time allowed the brand to spread its wings and, in just two short years, we’ve already been treated to solid racing simulators Shift and Shift 2 from Slightly Mad Studios and Criterion’s absolutely sublime Hot Pursuit. Now it’s Black Box’s turn with Need For Speed The Run. After producing the lion’s share of previous NFS titles (including fan favourite Most Wanted) and being granted a healthy three year long development period, all eyes were on Black Box to turn in something to take the franchise to the next level. What we’ve actually ended up with is a racing title so underwhelming in nearly every aspect it’s almost embarrassing to see this on the shelves at full recommended retail price.
The concept behind it isn’t that bad. In fact, a race from San Francisco to New York, taking in the sights of the beautifully diverse American landscape, opens up a world of possibilities. All those states to drive through, the myriad of routes to take, the huge range of vehicles to command, the race changing weather effects, the list could go on. The recipe was there for an epic, high speed cross country journey, but nobody added any of those aforementioned ingredients. There’s a storyline in there somewhere (you’re in debt to the mob for reasons the developers could not be bothered to explain and the race is your only ticket out), but it just serves as a reason for the race to exist and is so underdeveloped and rarely referenced that to remove it from the game entirely would have very little effect.
The campaign itself screams to be set-up as one long endurance run across an abridged version of the US. Liberally sprinkled with checkpoints and save opportunities, it could be something that would be tackled over a few long sessions as you fight for the almighty first position before crossing the finish line. Instead the race is broken down in to ten stages, each containing between 4 and 7 events. What this means is each event has a goal, be it pass 8 other competitors, pass 3 other competitors, pass, I don’t know, 6 other competitors before crossing the finish line for that section. There are other race types, to be fair, such as elimination or straight up beat the clock but they all amount to the same thing. Fail to achieve the set goal and the dreaded ‘Try Again’ looms into view and you won’t be able to continue until you get it right. This removes any excitement the game could have provided as regards to moving up the pack as you know exactly what position you’ll be in at any given event. When you’re told over your PDA that you have to be in 150th place by Las Vegas you know for a fact that you’ll be in 150th place by Las Vegas. Not 149th or 148th.
There are a few scripted, cinematic events such as a one on one race down a snowy mountain pass as an avalanche is taking place or a sandstorm along a desert highway, but these are rare occurrences and aren’t nearly as exciting as anything offered from the entirety of Split/Second last year. When the story does raise its head it appears in the form of an on-foot, sub-Heavy Rain quick-time-event, just without any other outcome than ‘escape antagonists and choose another car’. To be honest, you’ll be thankful for these sequences just for the ‘choose another car’ option. The only other option you have to change vehicles will be during the race at a roadside gas station. During my playthrough I spotted four, maybe five of these stations, usually as I was passing them at 140mph. Missing one means missing a chance to swap out your current car for something more suitable for the road ahead and you could be stuck in the same Nissan GT-R for quite a few events. A lack of customisation options (aside from colours and the well hidden bodykit section) only adds to the monotony of commandeering the same vehicle race after race.
Handling these vehicles is, to put it bluntly, a nightmare. Black Box stated that they wanted the handling model to fall somewhere between Shift and Hot Pursuit, between sim and arcade. What we’ve obviously ended up with is something that is neither one nor the other. Regardless of what car type you’re racing (sports, exotic, muscle) the handling is equal parts sluggish and unresponsive and the only difference you’ll notice is the top speed. Weaving in and out of traffic on the straights becomes a scary game of chance, as what your left stick is doing doesn’t always marry up to what happens on screen and the option to drift around corners is rendered nigh on impossible due to the overly sensitive handbrake. I approached every hairpin bend by using the slow in/fast out method, which I’m fine with, it makes sense. But I could slow to a crawl, almost stopping in fact, and then accelerate out when my car was straight on the other side of the turn and it would always end up with me fishtailing and slamming into another car or careening off a cliff edge. Frustration sets in from the first race and doesn’t let up until the chequered flag and thus renders the whole game an exercise in tedium and constant restarts.
Completing the campaign will take, I kid you not, somewhere between 2 to 3 hours. The options are there for harder difficulties and the ability to play through with all your unlocked vehicles and upgrades to obtain better times, yet there’s nothing about the game to draw you back. Nothing sticks out as being memorable and it doesn’t have that addictive ‘just one more go’ nature that Hot Pursuit had in spades. It does have the challenge mode which, frankly, ends up being more worthy than the campaign itself. Attempting tracks in any order you like to achieve XP, unlockables and aiming for the top medals is actually a lot of fun. Well it would be if you weren’t still wrestling with the unwieldy handling, but if you can work past that you might find a few more hours of play. There’s also multiplayer which is, at the time of writing, a bit of a mess. In my time online I witnessed a shocking amount of pop-in from npc traffic, floating traffic and bouncing player cars. I’ve been involved in slight collisions with other players that have sent us both hurtling around a hundred feet skyward and I’ve sat staring at a lobby screen with ‘next race loading’ flashing in the corner for up to 5 minutes. Even if all of this is looked in to and fixed all you’ll be left with is straight forward racing, with the only option being what class of car you use. There’s nothing to keep the servers full beyond a couple of weeks.
One positive is that all this is running on the new Frostbite 2 engine and I will admit that the game sure looks pretty. The environments you race through are beautiful and really do give you reason to keep advancing just so you can see what the next stage has to offer. Plus, ‘Autolog’ returns to keep track of you and your friend’s statistics and times for each and every aspect of the game. The downside here is that to make any use of it requires you to have someone on your Friends List playing the game as well.
I was really rooting for this game. After Hot Pursuit I was genuinely excited for another Need For Speed title. But The Run wastes its potential on a linear, gameplay depriving story mode and broken, uninspired multiplayer. The handling leaves everything to be desired and the whole project stinks of being a showcase for a swanky new game engine running on something other than a first person shooter. Black Box have proved they have what it takes with this franchise with Most Wanted and I genuinely believe they could return to that former glory, but, for the time being, when it comes to crafting a current generation racer Criterion take pole position.