Talk about shooting yourself in the foot. After a two year period in which EA Games has worked hard to reboot the Need for Speed franchise, Need for Speed: The Run is an unwelcome reminder of what wrecked the series’ reputation in the first place. Having given the reigns to the Burnout team at Criterion for the excellent Hot Pursuit and Slightly Mad Studios for the under-rated Shift and Shift 2, EA has returned Need for Speed to EA Black Box, the brains behind the much-loved Need for Speed: Most Wanted, but also the disastrous Need for Speeds Carbon, Undercover and ProStreet.
Like those games, The Run is a kind of cinematic, action-packed arcade racer, though one that ditches any open world ambitions for a much more linear stream of events. In a way, EA’s decision is the gaming equivalent of Warner Brothers saying to Christopher Nolan “Hey, we like Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, but we’d like to give that Joel Schumacher another chance. After all, who doesn’t like nipples on the Batsuit?”
The surprise is that Need for Speed: The Run isn’t anywhere near as bad as the execrable Undercover. The frustrating thing about it is that it’s nearly very good. Unfortunately, that nearly covers a multitude of faults that combine to make it one of the most irritating games we’ve played this year.
What’s good about it? Well, the free-roaming urban exploration of the Most Wanted/Carbon/Undercover cycle has disappeared, along with those hideous video cut-scenes. Instead, The Run is the tale of an illegal race from the West coast to the East coast of America, beginning in San Francisco, crossing the desert, the Rockies and the mid-western plains before ending in Chicago and New York. The downside of this is that you’ll have to suffer an unbearable street-punk hero, some lifeless voice-acting and some wretched quick-time-event action sequences, but the upside is a glorious high-speed road trip across the varied terrain of the USA.
With DICE’s Frostibite 2 engine in charge – as used in Battlefield 3 – Need for Speed: The Run frequently looks magnificent. Forza 4 and GT5 might deliver more detailed cars, but nobody has crafted tracks that look this stunning, and races through national parks and down treacherous mountain roads are full of lovely vistas with abundant trackside detail. The race is broken up into sections, each consisting of several individual races, and while some of the urban chunks get a little generic, each section has its own look and feel and its own standout moments.
Whether you’re racing opponents and an avalanche or dodging the cops on a stormy plains road, The Run does a nice imitation of a car-chase heavy movie, and the crashes and general vehicle wreckage are brilliantly done. It’s no wonder Michael Bay could deliver such an enticing trailer; The Run is right up his street.
And it can be hugely exciting. While the events are basically limited to straight races, checkpoint races, elimination events and boss battles – all with or without chasing police – the high speeds, strong course design and obstructing traffic do a good job of raising the adrenaline at times. In fact, there are periods when The Run is a joy to play.