Friday, November 25, 2011

Review - Need for Speed: The Run

Jack Rourke is in a spot of bother. He’s upset some powerful people and needs to come up with some cash fast. Just as luck would have it, he’s able to line up for a race across the US from San Francisco to New York. The prize? A cool $25m! Imagine an interactive Fast and Furious movie and you kind of get the kind of idea of EA's Need for Speed: The Run. The story is never going to win any awards but it sets up a mad dash through the various US states and throws up all kinds of varied environments and challenges. It's cheesy but good, clean fun.

Before playing this, a 3000 mile race across the continent conjured up the notion of a hardcore driver's dream; it would take you or I several days to traverse the US so, in these days when realism plays such a vital role in gaming, you'd expect a decent challenge - perhaps a WEC Le Mans style race requiring a couple of days of constant playtime. You'd at least expect to dedicate some 30+ hours to crossing that finishing line. Not so. In fact, after all the stages are complete, you're informed that your total race time - excluding cut scenes - amounts to a total of just over two hours!

Still, The Run is an entertaining game and, unlike some of those more realistic hardcore racers, it kept me glued to the screen throughout thanks to its fast cars, police chases and mobsters...

After a pretty feeble attempt at QTE in the opening few minutes, when our hero's plight is explained and we have to mash the controller's buttons to escape a car crusher, you hit the road in an attempt to thwart 200 other drivers who are also eyeing that incredibly lucrative prize.

You start by picking from a handful of vehicles – each with different styling and handling – and before long will be zooming along the highways, taking in some spectacular vistas. Stop off at a nearby gas station and there’s the option to switch your car for something that may be more suited to the current race and the road conditions. There are plenty to choose from: sports cars, muscle cars and exotic cars can be accessed, with more available as you overtake rivals later in the game. From Lotus and Porsche to Audi and Nissan, there are loads of lovely looking vehicles packed in there. Their handling varies greatly and they all look suitably shiny and authentic. Light shines off their bonnets, the engines emit a reassuring roar and damage is shown - albeit temporarily - as you pass each stage's finish line.

They can be tricky to drive too. Run over leaves in the autumnal stages, or linger on your handbrake a little too long in the snowier settings and your car will slide about as you try to regain control. Shoot off the road or hit an obstacle and you're confronted by a short replay of your crash and encouraged to try again from the last checkpoint.

But although collisions, crashes, roadblocks and mobsters' gunfire result in damage to your vehicle, it's all a little pointless as the car undergoes some rapid maintenance between stages so that you're driving a shiny new model seconds later. It all seems like a bit of a missed opportunity, as driving with a fender hanging off or a wonky bonnet would have discouraged me from using walls or passing drivers to slow down and corner rather than my brakes.

Each stage is split into challenges, some requiring you to gain position, pass certain opponents before the clock ticks down or reach checkpoints within a time limit. If you fall too far behind or screw up in some way, there's always the option to restart that section - although replay attempts are finite. This sometimes makes stages tricky, especially when the game is overly fussy about how much you can stray off track. Be warned, lengthy loading times can be frustrating and the regular restarts do prove a slightly irritating.

QTE raises its ugly head occasionally to explain some of the plot, requiring a button press when prompted. It’s tedious and little fun but does break up the unavoidable repetitiveness of driving. It certainly didn't grate as much as some critics have suggested - it's only employed on a few occasions afterall.

XP is awarded when you complete each section of the race, as well as for jumps, near misses and overtaking rivals in a dirty, clean or rapid fashion. The points total sees you regularly rank up, earning you new vehicles, speed boosts and so on. It also helps you climb the leaderboard, with EA again using its fantastic Autolog feature so you can compare your performance with that of your friends.

On this occasion Black Box (of Need for speed: Undercover fame) replaces Criterion (responsible for Hot Pursuit) and does a fairly decent job. The Run makes good use of DICE's Frostbite 2 engine for the car physics and damage, and it all looks really great as you swerve about at high speed. Problem is, there's very little to keep you coming back once the core campaign is complete.

Online multiplayer offers some replayability, and then there are harder difficulty settings and plenty of separate Challenge modes, with medals awarded depending on your performance. But I wonder how much time you'll spend on this when you've finished your first playthrough.

The latest addition to the Need for Speed lineup is a fun but brief experience, and one that this reviewer certainly enjoyed. But although it pretty much ticks all the boxes, it comes up a little short seeing as you're paying full price for only a few hours' play.

Reviewed on the Xbox 360