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Need for Speed: The Run

Score: 72%
ESRB: Teen
Publisher: EA Games
Developer: Black Box Games
Media: DVD/1
Players: 1; 2 - 8 (Online)
Genre: Racing/ Action/ Online

Graphics & Sound:

The longevity of the Need For Speed series is matched only by its complete lack of consistency, and that's primarily due to entries like Need for Speed: The Run. You can only give a developer so much credit for trying before stepping back and admitting that the game really isn't all that great. So yes, The Run has some really novel ideas. However, it also has its share of really stupid ideas. It's hardly the worst installment in the series, but it doesn't help to elevate the brand beyond "good every now and then."

I've already gone on record with my thoughts concerning Frostbite 2, but I'll recap: it's nice. Damn nice. The Run benefits from DICE's powerful new engine, but I'm not convinced the finished product is as quite stunning as last year's Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit. It tries to make up that lost ground by brandishing a bit of cinematic flair, which certainly helps. Some of The Run's best moments come as a result of the situation spiraling out of control; a sprint through a twisted Colorado mountain pass brings you into several close encounters with a deadly series of avalanches, and a later race through a Midwestern valley springs a violent thunderstorm upon you. It's really thrilling.

Other parts fail to impress. First, the loading screens. Whether you're loading a new event or resetting to a previous checkpoint, be prepared to wait a long time. The eponymous Run doesn't last long at all, but it sure feels like the combined amount of time in loading screens is dangerously close to the combined amount of time spent behind the wheel. Character models are as vanilla as the personalities that supposedly inhabit them; Jack is the blandest-looking hero since inFAMOUS's Cole MacGrath, and his chesty redheaded friend Sam is clearly only there to be chesty and redheaded.

Need for Speed: The Run's licensed soundtrack isn't the best I've heard in a racing game, but it gets the job done well enough. Songs tend to follow themes; whether that theme revolves around your current location or a rival you're trying to pass, it usually feels right. Musically, Lykke Li's overtly sexual "Get Some" is the perfect accompaniment to a flirtatious Bond-esque show-off race, and the lyrics (oddly enough) also work. Put all of this against the roaring of powerful vehicles that sound like feral wild animals, and you've got a (mostly) great-sounding game.

And now the downside of the audio. The voice acting is phoned-in and ultimately inconsequential, which is surprising, considering the talent on hand. It's like they told Sean Faris "Say this and sound totally determined and badass," let him go with that for a half-hour recording session, and called it a wrap. And don't ask why, but it's completely and perversely ironic that Christina Hendricks (Mad Men's Joan Holloway) voices Sam.


Gameplay:

Need for Speed: The Run has a cool premise, but it severely botches the delivery. You play as Jack Rourke, and all you need to know going in is that he's in debt and in way over his head with some nasty characters. The only way out? A cross-country sprint from San Francisco to New York City. The Run gives you absolutely no reason to pull for Jack other than, you know, you're controlling him. He pumps his fist, swears a bit every now and then, smirks in a way that makes you want to backhand him, and primarily communicates with one word sentences. I haven't seen a protagonist as thoroughly lame as this one in a long time.

Every now and then, Jack comes up against "rivals," special drivers whose backstories take up a small amount of the load screens that preclude the races. These characters are not even given voices; you're left to fill in the blanks, I guess. The Run even gives this treatment to the supposed main villain, whose only purpose is to show up a few times and empty a clip or two into Jack's car.

So how does one go about structuring a single player story mode in a racing game about driving from one end of the United States to the other? Black Box does it by having the player complete a series of stages. Each of The Run's ten stages is made up of short sprints that require Jack to move up a set number of positions while occasionally evading the very long arm of the law. The events change a bit every now and then, and sometimes you don't even go up against other racers, but the focus remains the same throughout: get to the front of the pack by the time you reach the Big Apple.

Once you complete the actual Run, you might be tempted to give the multiplayer a whirl. And to be sure, you'll find a stiffer challenge online. The experience bar continues to fill, occasionally pausing to shower you with some unlockables. Unfortunately, most of them are completely aesthetic boondoggles; this in turn makes the whole endeavor feel a bit superfluous.


Difficulty:

Need for Speed: The Run offers a consistent challenge that doesn't ramp up over the course of its three-or-so hour single player mode. However, there are frustrations to take into account. Cars don't handle very well in The Run, and the lack of responsiveness can land you more trips to the pulsating Reset screen than you want. It's particularly troublesome during the painfully bad sequences that have you swerving to avoid gunfire from a mob helicopter.

Control iffiness aside, there's only a touch of noticeable rubber-banding in The Run. Rival races are predictably the biggest offenders in that respect, but even then, it's tolerable when compared to rubber-banding in other racers. In regular events, competitors you pass tend to stay behind you, provided you have enough control over your own disobedient steed.


Game Mechanics:

Need for Speed: The Run uses the same playbook as last year's Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit, but sabotages a few of the things that really worked in that game. It all starts with the aforementioned handling issues. Regardless of which cars you choose to drive, none of them feel particularly responsive. Small adjustments to your line feel riskier than they really should, and several of the game's trickier turns will have you wondering if your cars are actually programmed to ignore your commands.

The Run gives you a number of ways to earn nitrous and XP, but for some inane and unintelligible reason, it blocks most of them until you reach certain points in the story. Even when you get them, however, some of their functions seem a bit off. Drifting may earn you nitrous, but I strongly recommend against it; at least 90% of the drifts I've attempted resulted in a staggering loss of momentum, which made the extra nitro seem redundant. In fact, with the exception of square and hairpin turns, I actually advise against using the brakes. Simply lay off the accelerator for a second or two and you'll often achieve the traction you need to preserve your forward momentum.

The Run's horrid "Reset" system was the source of nearly all my frustrations with the game. Racing games usually know when you've gone too far off course; the better ones quickly snatch you out of your little pickle in an effort to return the race to its normal ebb and flow. Not so in The Run. You're given a set number of Resets at the beginning of each event, and you're encouraged to use as few of them as possible. However, this system alternates between being hyper-sensitive and broken. Don't be surprised if a slightly cut corner results in the game using up a Reset on your behalf. However, I once went flying off the track into a nearby tree only to notice that the game didn't automatically Reset me.

The Run only allows you to switch vehicles whenever you pull into gas stations. Problem is, many of the events don't include them. There's no sense or logic to this contrivance, and it should have been left on the cutting room floor.

Black Box unwisely opted to implement a couple of on-foot sequences into The Run, and none of them are any good. You don't assume direct control of Jack in these moments, but you do participate in a number of ho-hum quick time events. Some of these cutscenes look thrilling, but the minimal amount of player involvement reduces the entire affair to an enormous waste of time and potential.

You can squeeze every last drop of fresh entertainment out of Need for Speed: The Run during a rental period. As a result, it's not even worth half the full price of admission. As it stands, it's a serviceable, but deeply flawed racer. However, in the year of DiRT 3 and Forza Motorsport 4, you can get a whole lot better than that and pay less at the same time.


-FenixDown, GameVortex Communications
AKA Jon Carlos

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