There once was a proud franchise called Need for Speed. They were car games that glorified the street racer, pampered the inner tuner in all of us, and allowed for aesthetic car modifications outrageous enough to make Liberace blush. Now it seems to be a brand without an identity. Hot Pursuit was a great entry from a studio that has proven itself on the Burnout franchise. The Shift part of the franchise tries to take a less arcade-style approach to the series, falling flat in its second outing. Now comes Need for Speed: The Run, an attempt to infuse story into a racing game. This isn't the first time the marriage of story and racing has been attempted in Need for Speed, and this one fails just as miserably as the previous attempts did, if not more so.
Need for Speed: The Run tells the story of Jack, a guy who's gotten himself into debt with the mob. How shall he cure his ills? He'll be convinced by his hot friend Sam (a girl) to enter in a dangerous race from San Francisco to New York City. If he wins, he'll be out of debt with the mob and walk away with a mighty chunk of change as well. The setup sounds logical enough, though a 250 car race from one end of the country to the other is about as ridiculous as any Michael Bay movie plot. An attempt to infuse a story into a racing game isn't in itself a bad idea, just look at the very profitable (if critically panned) Fast & Furious movies. However, if you're going to put a story in there, you should spend some decent time on character designs and animation, and perhaps even invest in a script writer to give you a story and dialog that makes sense. Just because a studio knows how to build a digital racetrack doesn't mean it can tell a story. What story is present is told through cutscenes with ample quick time events (QTE), and we all just love QTEs. They are as annoying as ever, creating a trial-and-error system just to progress through poor cutscenes and get to the next race.
Once you're in the race, the game is actually pretty good, if shallow. The racing mechanics are tight and show wide variety between muscle cars, exotics, and technical vehicles. However, they are a bit oversimplified. When Need for Speed: The Run tells me a MacLaren MP4-12C is harder to handle than a Lamborghini Gallardo, I have to wonder what drunken lobotomized monkey was in charge of researching vehicle handling. Need for Speed isn't a racing simulator, but if you're going to use licensed vehicles, they should at least be semi-accurate representations of those vehicles. Those oversimplifications aside, the driving is well handled, hearkening back to Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit with it boost tactics. The use of the handbrake for tight turns is also here, a must for an arcade racer with technical courses, which The Run has in spades.
The tracks in Need for Speed: The Run are some of its strongest points. The game faithfully recreates the look and feel of America as you sojourn from coast to coast at high speed. While not recreating actual roadways, it captures the feel of those roadways while creating tracks that challenge drivers from start to finish. The Run is the actual story section and is divided into ten stages. Each stage has a handful of events. Some of these are straight-up races in which you must come in first or "gain X places." Others require you to overtake only a few drivers, but one-on-one before the time runs out to overtake and hold the lead on each car. There are also events called "Make Up Time" in which you have to simply reach the end of the course before the timer runs out. Throughout the game, the police will try to end your run for glory and gold, but they annoyingly focus on you and virtually ignore your competition. At the very beginning, and towards the very end, you'll also be dealing with police and the mob shooting at you from their cars or helicopters, which proves to be more annoying than challenging.
Need for Speed: The Run relies heavily on "Resets." Depending on your difficulty level, you get a fixed number of resets for any event. Crash, run too far off course (which varies widely from event to event), or fail to overtake a timed opponent, and you'll use a reset. If all your resets are gone and you mess up, you'll fail the event. While this sounds like a decent idea, it shows off one of the biggest problems with The Run: load times. A simple reset takes 10-15 seconds. Want to restart the event? You're looking at 30 seconds of loading at a bare minimum. Considering this is a racing game, event restarts are the norm, so this gets really old, really fast. The load times get even longer when you first start up an event and are absolutely abysmal when you're waiting to get into an online race. What's absolutely infuriating is when you get reset near the beginning of an event. You'll have to wait through the reset load, then you may as well restart the event since resets take away experience points at the end, so you may as well catch some shut-eye waiting to get back into the action. This is Need for Speed, not Need for Napping.
Perhaps these vast load times are caused by Black Box's implementation of the Frostbite 2 engine. This is only the second game to use it and it does look brilliant. Particle and weather effects, collisions, physics, and everything else Frostbite 2 brings to the table are a great improvement to the series. It is the best looking Need for Speed game yet. However, most racers would rather have a game that doesn't look quite so brilliant and loads up races faster. The sound design is also well executed, particularly the soundtrack. It sounds like an AAA action movie from start to finish and the car sounds are guttural and great. Unfortunately, there's the horrendous story pulling down the presentation score. It's obvious Black Box focused the vast majority of their attention on what the game was like while you were in the car, making all the time spent out of the car feel tedious and cliched.
There is more to Need for Speed: The Run than the story mode. There are challenge modes unlocked by progressing through The Run. Each of these is a playlist of events in different parts of the country. They are of the same nature as the events in The Run though. Earning medals in these events unlocks better cars to use in The Run. The online play is more enjoyable than any other part of the game, though it's very shallow. There are ten playlists of races that have to be unlocked by completing challenges in multiplayer. They are each focused on a specific type of car or course, but all are just plain online races. Need for Speed: The Run is terribly shallow online compared to Hot Pursuit, which offered several online modes to choose from. Once again, there is no splitscreen in this Need for Speed game. The Run itself has arguable reply value, but if you want to retry an earlier event in The Run (like in that sweet new car you unlocked in a challenge), you can't just retry one event, but have to redo the entire stage that event was in. All these modes and events earn you experience points, though all the driver abilities are unlocked very early on and subsequent levels only earn you driver profile images and icons rather than cars, making the leveling underwhelming.
Need for Speed: The Run had a chance to do what no Need for Speed game has successfully done: align a good story with a quality racing game. At the finish line, it failed to do either. The story is equal parts ridiculous and boring. The racing game is good technically, but shallow in content and horribly paced due to ungodly loading times. Keep playing Hot Pursuit or Shift, give this one a pass, and pray that Electronic Arts doesn't keep driving the Need for Speed franchise into the ground with mediocre titles like this.