Need for Speed: The Run
16th Nov 2011 | 11:49
The Run is impressive in many ways, though none of them are the obvious ones. Much has been made of the 'interactive cutscenes' and the story in general, but these are actually the weakest elements.
The strongest - thankfully - lie in the racing itself. These cars and roads are exciting, sexy and fun. Turns out that's a good way to make a racing game. Who knew?
The concept is that you, Slick McDouche - he must have a name, but we don't care - are in an exclusive, high-stakes, coast-to-coast race across America. What's more, you've only just escaped the mob, who drop you into a car crusher during the game's opener.
They must really hate you, as you were in a rather nice Porsche at the time, so along with the other racers, the weather and the cops, you must occasionally contend with machine-gunning nutters in black cars. The Run is admirably varied and actually - creatively - uses the structure of an FPS instead of a racing game. To great effect, too. More on that in a moment.
In many ways we sympathise with the mob, because your character, along with all the others, is a self-regarding arsehole. Everybody speaks in movie poster quotes. Everybody is street tough. Everybody is smug. You can't blame EA so much as Hollywood, because the inspiration is obvious: the adolescent posturing, macho fantasy and cowboy-made-of-testosterone looks of The Fast & The Furious.
That said, Slick looks for all the world like Tom Cruise in The War of the Worlds - all no-nonsense leather, hardwearing jeans and audibly brutal Frankenstein boots. In fact, no driver in the history of the world has worn less suitable footwear.
So much for empathy, then, especially as the excitingly-shot cutscenes are actually dulled by the annoying 'Simon Says' button-hammering. Happily, they're actually pretty rare, despite the advertising - mostly you're just driving flat out on often fantastic roads.
It's a surprisingly common misapprehension in racing games - all the beautiful licensed cars in the world are boring if there's nowhere fun to drive them. The quality of Polyphony Digital's fictional tracks is what, in truth, saves Gran Turismo 5 from complete obsolescence. And here, EA has found a brilliant balance between sweeping, 200mph curves and oh-God-I-should-have-braked-sometime-last-month tight turns.
It doesn't do this through slavish realism - the handling is a weighty, feedback-rich cavalcade of drifts and squeals - but through keenly observed fantasy.
Running in the Frostbite 2 engine, last seen powering the impressive Battlefield 3, the route snakes through every kind of environment you could wish for: cities, deserts, canyons, mountains and plains. The roads weave constantly out of sight, with crests launching you into the air, cambers sucking you down into banked corners, dusty rally-style cuts tempting you on the inside and all manner of deceptive telltales to contend with.
At its best it recalls the classic Burnout 2. There are plenty of useful shortcuts too, and even the main roads can feature, say, rock faces on one side and sheer drops or massive trees on the other. Sudden and total write-offs are just frequent enough to remain shocking.
And then there are the dust storms, the wet patches, the flying debris of destructible objects, the distractions of booming waterfalls or crashing waves, the drifting snows and the problems of darkness. It's one of very few games where the mini-map feels truly integrated - we found it invaluable for judging speed and line, yet it's often tough to find a second to glance at it.
When The Run is firing on all cylinders, that tension is superbly balanced. This is not about gear ratios and braking points. It's all about streaming towards a blind crest at what frequently feels like an insane speed and wondering if you can control what happens next.
Its simple design is deceptively clever. That coast-to-coast race format has allowed a shooter-like structure that, in removing most choices, allows The Run to be varied and cleverly-paced on its own terms. It's essentially a series of 'levels' - snappy sections with their own individual objectives - instead of the usual cloud of races and championships.
For one section of desert road you may be tasked with passing ten cars, for instance; the next with making up time in heavy traffic; the next with getting through a dust storm; and the next you'll be fighting off cops. They're not wildly original objectives, but they all help remind you why you're doing this, and make a notable change from yet another lap and yet another championship. Fail an objective - or crash and die - and you'll reset to a checkpoint, though resets are limited and using them costs XP. Probably.
Because while the post-race XP and unlock rewards are less frantically zap-bang-boom than in the Burnouts and recent Need For Speeds, we still found them confusing. Watching them is like being beaten up by an awards ceremony. However, race events are not the only place that choice has been removed, so it actually matters less.
The customisation with which NFS has become synonymous remains, but you won't be choosing every rim, wing and decal this time around. Each car has four configurations - standard plus style, tuner and racer packs - and then you get to choose a colour. Limited, but again it works well, funnelling you back towards the real meat: the racing.
It helps that the car models look so good, and the tuned versions are so chunkily sexy. The overall selection is excellent, too, with much to offer beyond now-overfamiliar exotica such as Lamborghinis, Koenigseggs and Veyrons (the last two of which are, along with five other supercars, exclusive to the PS3). You can also drive some insane muscle cars such as Cameros, El Caminos, Challengers, Mustangs and Trans Ams - and yes, the last one comes in a very Smokey and the Bandit black and gold.
It doesn't stop there. The Run also offers classic Euro stuff such as the MK1 Golf GTi, early 90s' Audi Quattros and BMW M3s, plus Japan's brilliant 240Z. There's a pile of more expected but still attractive cars too, such as Skylines, MX5s and Elises, plus a host of modern hot hatches and coupes including the Ford Focus and the Nissan Cupholder. Okay, not the last one, but you get the idea.
Some cars have special Need For Speed versions too. Frankly, it's the best selection of vehicles since Gran Turismo 3, and that's saying something.
New cars can be unlocked in the Challenge mode, where you can select any stage - perfect fodder for the always-excellent Autolog, which pits your times against your friends' in a constant stream of one-upmanship. It may even be the most appealing online aspect of The Run: obviously it has straight, online racing, but the cleverness of Autolog really does add to the game.
The 'rubber banding' of the AI racers is less obvious in the Challenges, too, as it focuses on preset stage times rather than simply entertaining you. For the most part you don't notice it, but mess up near the end of a stage in the story mode and you find everyone kindly slowing down as you catch up, then blast past for the win. This game just can't stand the idea of you being lonely.
The nature of the race precludes regular menu screens, of course, so now you look out for petrol stations and pull in. The different classes - muscle, sports, exotica - are supposed to be suited to different types of road, but it's an area of rare complication. Each car is also in a Tier structure for performance, and also has a rating for handling: easy, normal, very difficult, challenging and expert. In practice we went for hottest and wildest car we dared, and it usually worked out fine.
Even the sound deserves a mention. Tyre feedback is excellent, engines are throaty and the cops on the scanner get entertainingly wound up with the hundreds of lunatic speeders cascading through their districts. Even the soundtrack is impressive, dodging the clichés of 'punk' acts you could play in a confession box without raising more than a tut or tinny thrash metal, via an eclectic mix that includes, somewhat amusingly, On The Road Again.
Of course, it's not all amazing. Loading pauses are frequent and just a little too long, while truly random traffic can make for some annoyingly deadly junctions and overtakes. Collisions can be a bit rubbery too, and any long stretches of dirt tend to be uninspiring. Perhaps worst of all, some simpler stretches simply don't challenge or excite, and at times it just feels a bit easy.
And of course, you are Slick McDouche, apparently the best driver ever to don a hoodie but clearly a failed aftershave model with a fetish for rough fabrics - a man who demands you hammer every button except the one you want to, which is the one that makes the car crusher speed up. Just so you don't have to meet his friends. Just so you can watch him leak out. Just because.
But then, he's not the first demographic-sucking void of an NFS character, or the first to have friends whose lips synch worse than Katie Price's. But he is in one of the minority of the 9,146 Need For Speed games that has more to offer than a silly story, a vast empty city or nine million types of wheelnut. The Run cuts hard into the core of what it should offer - crazy-fast arcade thrills - and serves them up as it sees fit.
We didn't miss an open world. We didn't miss the chance to constantly pick cars and tracks. We were fully along for the ride. We blasted through this like the cars were weapons and the Tarmac was the enemy, and damn it if it isn't exciting.