EA’s durable Need for Speed series has regularly been able to tread the middle ground between a serious racing-game experience like Gran Turismo and a more extreme, cartoon physics-type aesthetic later perfected by Burnout and its sequels (some even consider Need for Speed’s running-from-the-cops scenarios to be a precursor to the infamous Grand Theft Auto franchise, but there’s a bit too much discrepancy there for me to be fully on board with that idea.) Over the last few years, principal developer EA Black Box has passed the artistic baton to a number of different companies to oversee production on a couple of Need for Speed spinoff titles, and what resulted were two of the most notable entries the series had seen in quite awhile: Need for Speed: Shift and Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit, the latter of which was handled by Criterion Games, the folks who brought us the aforementioned seminal Burnout collection. Prior to Shift and Hot Pursuit, Need for Speed was decidedly in an innovative rut that seemed to only be remedied by removing the drawing tools from EA Black Box’s hands and allowing other companies to tinker with their established formula to reinvigorate the series from its creative coma. Given this track record, it frustrates me that Need for Speed: The Run, seemingly billed as a return-to-form for the franchise, was given back to EA Black Box to shepherd. Truthfully, they should have stuck with Criterion.
The Run’s most crippling aspect is its doltish, nearly unnecessary storyline, which consequentially mars the best features of the game (the wide variety of well-handling vehicles and the sharp graphics) to the point of no return. The player is cast in the role of a brash racer named Jack Rourke (he would likely fit right into the next Fast and Furious chapter alongside fellow greaser numbskulls Brian O’Conner and Dominic Toretto), who, after inexplicably stepping on the wrong toes, finds himself in deep with a bunch of mobsters. Jack’s female companion, Sam, convinces him that the only way to escape the growing shitstorm he’s found himself in is to enter into an under-the-table cross-country street race that has a considerable cash prize attached to it. The game attempts, mainly through horrendously staged cut scenes and unrefined button-taping on-foot escape sequences, to make us give even the slightest damn about Jack’s situation, but due to a clumsy script, weak motion capture, and the misdirection of Sean Faris and Christina Hendricks’s vocal talents, everything surrounding the main narrative that does its job even moderately well is weakened substantially by osmosis. (Following this and Drive, one could argue that in any piece of entertainment that involves nice cars, Hendricks will somehow be miscast and/or underused.)
Much of the time I spent with The Run felt like I was playing an updated, big-budget Hollywood-ized version of pizza-place arcade mainstay Cruis’n USA. The game’s cross-country journey promises to grab you with its many true-to-life locales, stretching from San Francisco to New York. For the most part the environments appear crisp and detailed, but as the game progressed I found myself yearning for a stylistic realism that these courses wholeheartedly lack. Each section of the race comes off as generally compacted and boxed-in, with supposedly hundreds of miles trying to emulate the geometrical distance and topographical layout of something far lengthier. I can appreciate EA Black Box’s desire to devote equal parts of the game’s enjoyment allocation to style as well as substance, but the way they implement their very all-encompassing illustrative approach, by catering to both casual racing game fans and metal-on-metal ramming enthusiasts, yields an end product that’s missing a proper angle and oozes genre disconnectedness.
In addition to asymmetrical AI that can quantum-leap from inbred to super-genius levels of proficiency at any given moment, The Run unwisely tosses in a number of stifling mid-race distractions that continue to dent this already junkyard-bound vessel. Oftentimes the vehicle you’re driving may not be the optimum choice for whatever landscape is being traversed (like guiding a high-end sports car through a zigzagging country road), and the only way to switch autos is via gas stations peppered throughout the map. These fueling stations are commonly awkwardly placed and spread thin; in fact, some courses are sans an oil lodge entirely, spawning moments of acute vexation when the car in your possession has been rendered an unripened lemon, totally unfit for the paths left to be traveled.
Back in the late ’90s, the Need for Speed series made it cool to mess around with the police on your TV in the comfort of your own living space; it was a fun challenge layered on top of an already relatively inventive take on a formulaic set of goals. Recent Need for Speed installments have done well to expand on this concept, and in the current day when Grand Theft Auto and its many copycats roam free, dealing with avoiding/destroying the 5-0 in games must be original and continually engaging. The Run puts forth the most lethargic set of uniformed peacekeepers the franchise has yet delivered, taking a more spiritless avenue by initially maintaining their distance by building road blocks and lying in wait with cornball brake checks (I almost wished they had tossed in a few sobriety checkpoints for the hell of it). These derailing devices are easily avoidable (simply charge right through them), and because you’re able to see forthcoming man-made hazards on your mini-map pick up police radio frequencies on your transmitter, there’s scarcely a reason for them to exist.
The excursion exhibited in The Run is, ultimately, not a long cross-country trek by any means. The trip from the City by the Bay to the City That Never Sleeps shouldn’t take you any longer than three hours. Replay value is either unwarranted or very limited; quick-jumping to previous specific racing routes is essentially impossible, starting over from the beginning of each stage is required, which means prolonged exposure to shitty cut scenes and those atrocious on-foot fleeing segments. Sure, some nifty cars can be unlocked when certain achievements are procured, but the tortured odyssey of obtaining said objectives just isn’t worth the reward. Oh, and the multiplayer? It’s phoned-in, with nothing to distinguish itself from any other PvP racing encounters, online or off.
The Run is a prime example of “If it’s broke, fix it. When it’s fixed, leave it the fuck alone,” and admittedly, Electronic Arts is looking pretty stupid right now. In their crusade to bring the Need for Speed series back to the height of its innovatory powers by reassigning EA Black Box to the reigns, it greatly tarnished the inspired renaissance injected into the franchise by other, incontestably more in-touch-with-the-times development teams.