The Run is an exciting new direction for the Need For Speed series. Ever since my early race-gaming days, the idea of a cross-country race has been an attraction that games were already targeting, with Test Drive and the original Need For Speed (though it also had circuits) having a focus on point-to-point tracks on populated American roads. Now, the divergence directive the the Need For Speed series has been under lately has dictated a return to this well in an attempt at a gritty, ‘edgy’ story-driven race from west to east.
You play as Jack, some kind of amazing driver, probably a wheelman, given that he’s currently in a predicament involving the mob and a substantial amount of cash that he owes them. He’s kind of an dickish, cocksure type that probably tests well in focus groups for casting a believable anti-hero. At the opening of the main game, you’re not actually racing, but put into a quick time event of Jack escaping from the car he’s in, and the more immediate threat of the car crusher it’s been placed in. After avoiding cubification, Jack steals a mobsters car and then you’re racing. Or close to it. The mob has more interest in shooting Jack than actually beating him to his destination, so it’s more about keeping moving. This is about the extent of pushing the limits of the racing game genre in The Run; quick time events and driving action sequences. Not that I’m saying they’re bad, but, QTEs? QTEs have become the Suzanne Paul of gaming: generally quite well reviled, and yet they inexplicably keeps showing up when you think you’ve seen the last of them.
After escaping the mob, Jack meets up with an old friend, Sam, who promises that if he wins this cross country race, she’ll make his mob debt problem go away, and give him a tenth of the winnings. From then on, the story mostly gets out of the way for the racing, and is confined to minor cut scenes which usually show Jack wrecking his car or being shot at and then wrecking his car, or telling you about the other ‘characters’ you’re racing against via a loading screen. I say ‘characters’ because most of them don’t get screen time; for you, they’re just a car and there’s really little need to explain that the imaginary guy driving it is a retired boxer who loves gambling and has spent the last of his money entering The Run.
The action sequences aren’t bad, but as stated earlier, they’re marred with QTEs, so you can’t fully appreciate the insanity of what’s happening on screen. Also, the completely over-the-top nature of them is at odds with the edgy tone of the game. NFS hasn’t managed to balance on the fence between endearing earnestness and bombastic lunacy like they did in Most Wanted, and as a fan of ridiculous things like that, it’s a shame. The most important part, the driving, is where The Run falls disappointingly short. I can forgive quite a bit under the banner of “it’s an arcade racer”, but there’s simply too many straws on this camels back to grant a pass on any of them. Handling is unpredictable, you can never be 100% sure whether a car will get sideways and slide around a corner, slide offa corner, or bite deep into the corner sending you into the inside of the turn. Worse yet, the results of collisions and crashes are determined almost seemingly at random. I once glanced off a wall at full tilt and ploughed right on into an indestructible power pole, and stopped dead; stationary, but unscathed. Other times, what has looked to be like a carefully placed bump off of a wall has ended with fatal results. With 200 opponents to pass, and traffic in between, there’s bound to be plenty of chaos, but this kind of inconsistency really shouldn’t be a factor. There’s also the horrendous rubber banding AI that the NFS games have become notorious for, with opponents able to reach phenomenal speeds when lagging behind, to pip you at the post regardless of how brilliant your driving leading up to it was.
When things do go pear shaped, and they will, you get reset back to one of the checkpoints throughout the race. There’s a limited number of resets available, and how limited depends on the difficulty setting. Driving too far off the track (though this is pretty arbitrarily variable) will trigger a reset, as does a crash, or pressing the back button. It comes across as quite primitive, particularly when compared to something like Forza Motorsport, which has had a rewind feature in it for the past two games, and that’s a feature that makes the game remarkably accessible despite being a simulation racing game as opposed to an arcade one.
To lighten up a little, The Run isn’t completely without merit. It does look nice, and there’s a nice variety of scenery and weather conditions that get seen across the country. The autolog feature is there allowing you to get competitive with your friends without pestering them to set up a time to race together. Also, the all-important sensation of speed is still present, meaning that when you’re not getting frustrated over how the car handles, or how inconsistently the crashes and resets happen, or even over the unapologetic rubber banding of the AI there’s a pretty nice nitro boosting, traffic dodging experience to be had.
The Bottom Line
NFS: The Run is almost an homage to rubber banding, far more than previous NFS games, which is really saying something. When you break down the concept, that the lead character is jumping into a race at the back of the pack in a cross country race, wrecks his ride several times, gets caught up to by people that he’s smoked previously, and somehow manage to nab the #1 spot at the end… it’s either the most genius attempt at subtly referencing the games own franchise and pedigree, or a really goofy coincidence which is sadly the most significant thing to me in a rather poor racing experience.