In an age in which companies regularly airbrush, Botox and cosmetically enhance their products to the point of virtual perfection, the Michael Bay-directed trailer for Need for Speed: The Run is, perhaps unintentionally, the most honest piece of marketing ever for a videogame.
Mr Bay, least we should forget, is to deep and coherent cinematic narrative what the Klu Klux Klan is to race relations. He’s an explosions first, explanations later movie maker. An ADHD raconteur whose plots are the prisoners of his action addiction. And the hauteur and pomposity with which Electronic Arts presented his fleeting association with this latest NfS offering perfectly encapsulates all that’s best and worst about it.
The Run, then, is an arcade racer with action movie aspirations. You play as Jack Rourke, a young man who, like many of his peers, is much better behind the wheel of an M3 than he is at balancing his chequebook. One financial misstep too many has seen Jack default on a loan he can’t repay and, unfortunately for him, the debt he owes is to an organisation whose approach to lending is even more criminal than Wonga.com’s.
With Jack seemingly as done for as the dead presidents who’ve deserted him, he’s thrown a lifeline by a mysterious female associate: an illegal, $25m, winner-takes-all race across America. A dash from San Francisco to New York faster than Jeremy Clarkson made it from The One Show studio to Heathrow airport.
While NfS’s past attempts at storytelling have all ended up floundering around like unofficial fan fiction for the Fast and Furious films, here, things appear different; at least initially. The opening cut-scene – which sees the Mob putting the squeeze on Jack in classic organised crime fashion – features some solid voice acting, cinematic camera work and, most notably, a series of quick-time-events in which you’re influencing Jack’s actions rather than controlling a vehicle.
It’s an intriguing opening. One that tantalizes a fresh approach for NfS where story drives gameplay and plot is as central to the racing experience as the white lines down the middle of the road. While QTE’s are rarely the best way to envelop the player in the moment, and the ones here are of the crude hit/hammer a button kind, they certainly help you feel more like you’re playing a human character rather than a car. It’s just a shame when the game seizes back control and you’re once again left as a passenger watching a cut-scene.
After a beginning that promises to take the series off in interesting new directions, however, it sadly isn’t long before The Run starts on a downhill slope into Michael Bay-dom. The story, along with the QTE sequences, are quickly left by the wayside. They do reappear sporadically, providing some dramatic on-foot interludes, but their role seems relegated to creating reasons to force you out of your current exotic automobile and in to the next.
In equally disappointing fashion, Rourke really doesn’t turn out to be much of a leading man. He looks like the ugly one from a million failed boy bands. A part man, part hamster with all the charisma of a second hand Vauxhall Vectra.
Of the 200 other racers, the few you do get acquainted with are the most shallow stereotypes; each one’s entire personality stretched to only a handful of sentences of backstory on a loading screen. Despite this, the game still finds room amongst them for that Bay staple, a leering shot of a woman bending over. Why do games persist in doing this? At current technology levels, it’s not the least bit alluring, with the model in question looking only a slight upgrade on a robotic Pete Burns.
Thankfully, where it matters most, The Run is at its most reliable. Aside from the odd moment of sluggish handling, the basic arcade driving model is accomplished, delivering all the necessary adrenaline hits as you weave in and out of traffic, unleash nitrous boosts that kick the car forward like a gun shot, and cause shuddering wrecks that turn million dollar supercars into a million shrapnel paperweights.
The Frostbite 2 game engine does a commendable job of recreating the various iconic landscapes through which the wide open highways and twisting byways pass. From the rugged, teeming wilderness of Yosemite National Park to the vibrant fall colours of New England, the roadside scenery forms an unbroken blur of picture postcard Americana to line your route. It’s like driving through someone’s holiday photos, with the travelogue accompanied by an urgent orchestral score constantly reminding you that time is of the essence.
With such impressive raw materials at its disposal, The Run should have been the ultimate road trip; an epic journey on which you’re always chasing an unreachable vanishing point on a constantly changing horizon. The sense of freedom should be overwhelming, but instead, developers Black Box’s decision to divide this automotive odyssey into a series of short, point-to-point stages with the most arbitrary and contrived of objectives makes the whole experience feel confining and restrictive.
The most memorable sections, including an explosive dash in the snow and ice of the Rockies and a helicopter chase through the streets of Chicago, also feel the most artificial and the least successful as a pure racing game, while the others are just forced and nitpicking. Why do I have to overtake 8 racers in the next 5 miles? What does it matter if I miss a checkpoint by 0.01 of a second? Why can I only leave the road for permitted shortcuts? Of course, we all know how illegal street racers are real sticklers for the rules.
Yes, these design choices do make the game more varied and digestible, especially for Bay acolytes with limited attention spans, and they do tie the action to the central premise, but it’s an extremely uncomfortable attachment. And it isn’t long before the game starts infuriatingly dispatching almost indestructible police cars, like the law enforcement offspring of Stephen King’s Christine, to try and stop you in your tracks.
In an attempt to extend its appeal beyond the two and a half hours it will take you to complete The Run, the game also crowbars in a completely unnecessary experience points system and an impressive playlist of online racing options centred around Autolog, the elegant conduit for competition Black Box have carjacked from last year’s NfS: Hot Pursuit. In fact, by the time you to reach The Run’s unbalanced climax, you get the distinct impression that it’s Autolog, rather than the story, the game has been designed around. And for this reason, it’s the Challenge Series, which allows you to replay stages purely as time trials, that turns out to be The Run’s most successful mode.
The chance to tell the tale of a coast-to-coast race across the States should have been manna from heaven for NfS, evoking memories of Cannonball Run and Gumball Rally-style action and antics. In practice, while The Run certainly isn’t a car crash, it is cut-and-shut job of a game where racing and narrative have been welded together in an obviously unsafe manner. The plot turns out to be a flimsily constructed vehicle that chugs back into view when the standard gameplay is about to run out of gas, and it’s all in desperate need of a few CC’s of Burt Reynold’s DNA. A real missed opportunity and a distinct case of bland on The Run.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary Microsoft Xbox 360 code was provided to Brash Games for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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