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PlayStation 3 Review: Need for Speed: The Run

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Once upon a time there was this thing called The Cannonball Baker Sea-to-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash.  Alternatively this event (which was run more than once) may be more widely known as the Cannonball Run.  The event was a race from the east coast of the United States out to the west coast and actually inspired several movies.  And now, it seems, it has inspired the newest game in the Need for Speed franchise, Need for Speed:  The Run (where they actually race from the west coast to the east, but we forgive them).

The story here is both simple and ludicrous (like that in the films) and involves a poor soul who owes a lot of money to the wrong people.  The only (read: quick) way out is for him to join a super-secret illegal cross country race.  You, quite naturally, are that poor soul and need to come in first to save your life and allow you to retire in style.

There are really two main questions one has about a game like this – how do they manage to break down the stages in a 3,000 mile race and what is the actual driving like?  The graphics and sound and multiplayer and everything else are certainly relevant, but the heart of the game lies within the answers to these two issues.

Dealing with the former, first, the main portion of the game, “The Run,” is broken down into 10 stages with several small races placed within each stage.  Rather than forcing one to sit down to race for hours and hours (and days and days) on end in order to do the 3,000 mile track, it’s broken down into these far more manageable levels which tend to run just a few minutes at a shot.

By making the game into these bite-size chunks, Black Box Studios is able to offer up several different types of races.  On one level you’ll have to pass 10 other racers, on another you’ll have to just stay ahead of a few racers for a certain amount of time, on a third you’ll have to get away from the police, etc.  Then there are levels where you’re outside of your car and just tapping buttons at the right time to beat people up or escape from something exploding or to kick a dog (really).   These outside the car, mini-game moments, feature stellar graphics but really do absolutely nothing in terms of gameplay.  They only serve to detract from the driving experience and would have been better handled as pure cinematics.

On the whole, it is an interesting, but not a terribly successful way of splitting things up.  The genius of a race like the Cannonball Run is the pressure of having to keep going for an extended period of time.  While you can’t ask a gamer to sit there for several days and play nonstop (even if some of us do), here the races regularly feel too small.   With levels being just a few minutes long, while your character’s nerves may grow raw and he may seem more frazzled, the player doesn’t feel that at all, and some of that emotion ought to come across. 

Beyond that, while there sometimes is the sense that you’re actually going from place to place, more regularly it feels as though the game has just kind of fastforwarded the race a little bit in order to drop you somewhere new so you can do something different.  In short, it’s a cross country race without much continuity. 

But, when looked at separately, each of the individual levels are spectacularly fun.  In terms of said levels, The Run is well paced and well laid out so that things are constantly being mixed up and changed.  The XP you earn, too, feels well orchestrated – points are given for different kinds of passing (be they clean passes, dirty passes, many people passed at once), and you’re constantly unlocking new and better things.

Then, there’s the actual racing.  This is, most definitely, an arcade style racer, and it remains one even if you ignore the resets you’re allowed mid-race when you crash your ride (and you will crash your ride).  Cars make turns which shouldn’t be possible, fail to make turns which ought to be easy, and take way more damage than any car possibly could before they actually get wrecked.   You also auto-regenerate your nitrous boosts which probably isn’t the sort of thing you see in any car save KITT.

The Run features a pretty sizable list of cars (and more if you buy the limited edition version of the game… not that you get KITT with that).  You’ll get the chance to race everything from an Aston Martin V12 Vantage to different Dodge Challengers to a Ford Police Interceptor Concept to a Toyota Supra, and even a couple of different Paganis.  Cars fall into three main headings:  exotic, sport, and muscle, and do act somewhat differently, but not hugely.   You will find that certain cars work better on certain courses, but you ought to be able to get by the courses on most difficulty levels in any of the vehicles.

Changing cars is done at gas stations scattered throughout the game.  It is something of an awkward mechanic as it requires you, while racing at 180 mph, to identify the fact that a gas station is coming up (there’s a little HUD message that says as much but it is unobtrusive as is the gas station bell sound) and then identify which of the objects rapidly approaching you the station is, and then to slow down enough to actually get into the station and select a new car.  Consequently, although time stops as you make your selection, you still lose position as you’ve had to slow down to make it to the selection process.  But, gas stations aren’t regularly available anyway (which may be why even if a car isn’t ideal in a certain situation the game lets you get away with it).

Keeping with the arcade nature of the game, you’ll find that The Run has officers of the law act in a fashion which is unbelievable at best and wholly ludicrous at worst.  Police in the game have a tendency to set up roadblocks despite the obvious knowledge that the supercars approaching them are traveling at inordinately high rates of speed and can’t possibly stop in time.  The police do tend to leave holes in their roadblocks which further calls into question their competence.  Then, when you add in their particular enjoyment of placing these roadblocks around blind corners and at odd points during nighttime driving, well, the AI hasn’t been set up for reality even when such a setup might allow them to get their man and not lose their own (virtual) life. 

As with other titles in the Need for Speed franchise, The Run tries to spur on multiplayer by utilizing the Autolog feature to tell you how you compare with your buds on different levels.  There is also a multiplayer feature so that you can go race against those you know, or those you don’t, all over the country.  The Autolog can be annoying as it increases the already slow load times the game has, but if you have a bunch of friends with the game it certainly adds to things.  A single player challenge series exists as well (and has Autolog).  Rewards earned here carry over to the main story mode.

In the end, the good with Need for Speed:  The Run tends to exceed the bad.  Each individual level is exciting but the concept of the race as a whole gets lost; driving is fun and truly gives you a sense of speed; the courses and locales are many, varied, and beautiful; but then you’re not really in any of the locations for all that loving.  The game as a whole features great graphics and some really good driving tunes but there isn’t enough time in the car.

Combine all that with some less than satisfying crashes (and in a game where you’re going to crash, crashes need to look good), and you end up with a relatively enjoyable experience.  You are going to definitely like some moments in the game, but you’re going to also be frustrated by others.

The folks overseeing the Need for Speed franchise certainly set their sights pretty high with the title, but they didn’t quite get where they were aiming.

Need for Speed: The Run is rated T (Teen) by the ESRB for Language, Mild Suggestive Themes, Violence. This game can also be found on: Nintendo 3DS, PC, Wii, Xbox 360 and Mobile Phone.

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About Josh Lasser

Josh has deftly segued from a life of being pre-med to film school to television production to writing about the media in general. And by 'deftly' he means with agonizing second thoughts and the formation of an ulcer.