Need For Speed: The Run should be great. It's got everything it needs to hit the highest of highs: an excellent 3D engine, high quality motion capture, some great actors, facial graphics that convey emotion, and what feels like a ton of money behind it. But I'm not really enjoying it that much. So what went wrong?
After taking the Need for Speed franchise in a slightly more sim-like direction with the excellent Shift, and then recapturing the magic of the original 90's games with the absolutely brilliant Hot Pursuit, it seems that EA have found a third contemporary spin on the series: one that combines a movie-like story with racing that has a clear beginning, middle, and end. The result is kind of like a driving version of the Uncharted series. I certainly get what they're doing, and they almost pull it off. Almost.
Where The Run fails to hit the mark can be seen almost as soon as you boot it up. The game opens with a dramatic QT sequence, where you watch events unfold, waiting for the moment when you become involved in the action in similar style to the Uncharted series. However, where Uncharted succeeds by drawing you in with its sparkling dialog, dramatic moments, and great gaming cinematography, The Run feels obvious and predictable: you just sit there watching the cliches play out. It seems like it's trying too hard, a feeling that is echoed when you encounter the game's overblown dramatic set-pieces. They're supposed to be thrilling "Michael Bay moments," but often feel contrived to the point of silliness. I'm sure if I was a lot less cynical, I might sit there and say "wow," rather than simply rolling my eyes. But I'm not, and I did.
Another thing I rolled my eyes at was the game's main character. If you're going to make a plot-heavy, cinematic game, the main protagonist has got to be appealing. The benchmark Uncharted series does an amazing job of getting you firmly behind its characters thanks to their superb, witty dialog. Unfortunately, The Run's hero pretty much comes across as a douche from the get go. Consequently, I really didn't feel much empathy towards him or his plight, and nothing really happened during the game to change my mind.
I could live with all this if the gameplay itself was good enough, but even there The Run is uneven. The game is essentially a linear journey across the US from San Francisco to New York; a long series of point-to-point races interspersed with plot moments. Each stage has an objective, such as passing a specific number of cars or beating a particular opponent, and there are a plethora of environmental and man-made hazards to avoid.
The action is at its most fun when you're racing through thick traffic trying to overtake opponents, or are playing cat-and-mouse with pursuing police cars, which become increasingly difficult to shake the further you get into the race. However, that fun is punctuated by moments of frustration that come in the form of difficult-to-avoid hazards. Once you know where they are, you can avoid them. The trouble is, the first time you encounter them, unless you're lucky, you get nailed.
The game's handling just isn't very responsive. Since The Run is an over-the-top, dramatic race game, I was expecting its cars to be arcadey and larger-than-life, capable of lurid tail slides that make you feel like you're driving on the edge. That's what makes Hot Pursuit so good -- it's tuned for maximum excitement and exhilaration, yet at the same time it's also responsive and predictable enough for you to be able to pull off some sweet moves at high speed. Surprisingly, that's not the case here. The Run's vehicles all feel pretty much the same -- they go fast, but they're sluggish and don't change direction quickly enough. Because of that, they can be frustrating to drive, particularly when you see a hazard coming and you react immediately, but the car doesn't.
The other thing I found was that the deeper I got into the game, the more repetitive it became. The storyline's twists and turns try to sustain interest, and there are set-pieces that are supposed to provide excitement and drama, but after a while the stages blur together, and it feels like a bit of a grind. A grind punctuated with fireworks and explosions, but a grind nevertheless.
And that's such a shame, because graphically and technically, the game is terrific. The journey across America is beautifully rendered, capturing the varied landscapes spectacularly as you travel over the Sierra, across the Great Plains, and head towards the East Coast. The quality of the movies is very good too, and the characters' faces are nicely rendered to convey emotion. Sadly, the story and the gameplay just don't hold up their side of the bargain, and The Run ends up falling short of its considerable potential. I certainly tried to like it, but in the end it just reminded me of some of the worst aspects of the Underground/Carbon/Prostreet NFS games: lots of noise and flash, but lacking soul and true racing excitement.
That said, I'm hoping the Need For Speed developers can take a second crack at this format, with less focus on the wannabe Michael Bay silliness, and more emphasis on good storytelling and quality handling to match the looks and tech. Perhaps even doing something novel like setting it in the 70's or 80's. That would certainly help dial up the fun, excitement and originality -- something that unfortunately didn't quite happen here.