EA Blackbox delivers high-stakes, cross-country racing with plot and Christina Hendricks--is this ride worth your time?
Alternate year racing
For those of you who don't know, EA has an alternate year release strategy for their Need For Speed titles, essentially like Activision does with Call of Duty. Last year we got the Criterion-developed Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit, a revival of the "cops vs. street racers" type of games the series was known for with the extra kick of Criteron's Burnout-style crashes and road battling.
This go-round, it's EA Blackbox taking the reins, mixing up the formula a bit, delivering a racing game which incorporates some of the basic elements of Hot Pursuit while ostensibly expanding them all outward in a coast-to-coast race featuring you and 199 competitors for a $25 million purse. And this is where NFS: The Run starts to hit a few road bumps.
It's the one with the story
The game's "The Run" mode places you in the shoes of street racer Jack "Jackson" Rourke, who owes money to the mob, and with the help of his agent Sam (Mad Men's Christina Hendricks), enters the competition to win the much-needed loot.
The plot is delivered primarily in one big chunk at the start of the game through a couple of cutscenes and Quick Time Events, so it's pretty surprising that for the most part, any kind of story is dropped by the wayside with the exception of the occasional update from Sam over in-dash video in your car and one wildly out-of-place sequence with the cops through the streets of L.A.. Along the way, the race will be broken up into a variety of event types such as Time Trials (essentially you're tasked with making up time), overtake challenges where you have to get ahead of another racer and keep the lead for a set period of time, and races where the cops are on yours and the other racers' tails, attempting to ram you and use roadblocks to stop you.
At certain points in the race, you're challenged to duel a single rival racer (or sometimes that racer and their crew), but outside of a couple of lines of text before the race and a profile picture, these racers are no different from the 199 other faceless drivers you'll be taking on. In fact, it's pretty surprising how largely personality-free the entire race is, with none of the AI drivers employing any particularly distinct tactics to stop you from getting ahead. They simply rely on the tried-and-true rubber band-style races where they pull far out ahead, maintaining a lead until you overtake them in somewhere around the last tenth.
There are actually a couple of pretty exciting scripted moments--the duel in the avalanche being the standout example--but the courses feel so constricted and racers lack any kind of flavor, quirks, or personality and the mode ultimately feels like a missed opportunity.
A couple of attempts to overtake the competition
EA Blackbox has made two odd decisions that actually seem interesting on paper but ultimately hamper the overall race. The first is the way you swap out cars: instead of allowing you to switch vehicles between races, for the bulk of the game, anytime you want to change vehicles it has to be done by finding and driving through a gas station somewhere on a course. These stations aren't on every course and pulling out of the race to switch vehicles actually places you in a disadvantage during the race. The (good in intent) idea is lifted from Burnout Paradise, but this is a far less smooth experience.
Then there's the Restarts, essentially how the game handles crashes during the race. If you crash during The Run, you're reset at the last checkpoint. You're given five of these restarts per race and you can even trigger them manually by pressing Back on your Xbox controller. In theory, this allows a player to take on the race in sections and is actually a pretty compelling idea in terms of not punishing racers for failure late in the course. But in practice, it's kind of wonky given how NFS: The Run seemingly arbitrarily handles crashes. Sometimes you might drift just slightly off the course into the grass and it'll be an automatic reset and at others, you might slam headlong into a tree and nothing will happen. This is especially irritating given the not insubstantial load times on the 360, requiring you to wait anywhere from 5-20 seconds to get back on the course. And since there's no kind of prompt when the race starts again, you might find yourself crashing in the same spot as soon as you're back on the road.
A quick note about the music
Someone should give the person responsible for assembling the handful of licensed tracks that pop up in The Run a raise--I have to give respect to any racing game that has Lykke Li, old-school Ministry, and the Dead Weather playing in its races.
Standard modes and multiplayer, but you might have to pay to ride...
As you complete The Run, you'll open up challenges which are essentially sections of the course that you can complete to unlock additional cars for the rest of the game. These play pretty much like the story mode, but without the occasional commentary from Sam.
Then there's the standard multiplayer, which allows you to jump online against other competitors and is linked to EA's Autolog system, comparing your rankings to those of other NFS: The Run owners in your friends list. Keep in mind, though, that if you buy the game used, there's a chance it won't include the Online Pass code, meaning that if you want to race online, you're going to have to pony up a couple of bucks via PSN or XBLA.
Could have been in the top 10
This year has actually been pretty light on racers, meaning The Run had the chance to distinguish itself as EA's new alternate year line of racers. Unfortunately, a lack of commitment to the story mode and some pretty bland actual racing makes The Run feel like it was lest in the dust of last year's Hot Pursuit.
Need For Speed: The Run is available on the Wii, 3DS, PC, PS3, and Xbox 360 now.