Need for Speed has done more than a few laps of the block. Debuting in 1994, the franchise is almost of drinking age in New Zealand, and given its erratic performance in recent years, it appears to have been sneaking the odd swig from dad’s liquor cabinet anyway.
2006’s Need for Speed: Carbon through to 2008’s Need for Speed: Undercover marked a kind of developmental puberty under the stewardship of developer Black Box. In these years, the franchise assumed and discarded several worrying identities as concerned fans watched on and reassured one another “it’s just a phase” – how’s this expanded adolescence metaphor working for you?
Need for Speed finally pulled out of its fishtail in 2010 with the release of the Criterion-developed Hot Pursuit.
This year, however, Black Box resumes developmental duties. Some could see that as cause for concern, but in its favour the studio has finally been given a full two-year cycle to turn out Need for Speed: The Run.
The Run might as well ask what would happen if Kerouac was a nitrous junkie rather than a wino. An underground road-trip in supercars, The Run tells the story of Jack, a racer who is being chased by cops and criminals alike. With the introduction of a protagonist, EA promises to add a level of personal engagement not yet seen in the series.
As a cross-continental competition, gamers can expect point-to-point races, and diverse settings as the game moves from San Francisco to New York. In between, players will drink in America’s vastness, beautifully rendered on DICE’s Frostbite 2.0 engine. It’s the same used to present the visual buffet that is Battlefield 3.
One such leg takes place in Nevada, and it’s on this beat that we went hands-on with The Run.
The goal is to pass ten other racers while weaving through civilian traffic before crossing a finishing line marked with smoke flares. The Desert Hills course has more than a few pitfalls that can snare a racer on their own. Adding to that difficultly is what appears to be a certain elasticity to the AI that entices a reckless driver to make a pass at an inopportune moment.
Einstein had something to say about repeating the same action and expecting different results, but then he didn’t have the gamerscore to back up his ageless trash-talk. Over several attempts I boosted the nitrous to zip past – and, presumably, flip off – a seemingly lethargic competitor, only to blast over a bump seconds later and watch the road gently bend away from my airborne trajectory.
Crashes result in resetting the race to the last checkpoint, usually no more than a kilometre or so back down the road. Those with a canine-like ability to anticipate disasters before they occur are able to press a rewind button and rethink their approach.
Overwhelmingly, The Run is a familiar experience. Take from that what you will. Handling is fairly sensitive, and over-correcting is a regular occurrence upon first picking up the controller. But The Run is, of course, an arcade racer and ultimately proves to be very forgiving.
Not available or demonstrated in our time with game was The Run’s key point of differentiation: it’s out-of-car sequences. These feature Jack legging it on foot; evading the pursuers in cinematics propelled forward by quick time events.
The Run’s critical success or failure will surely depend on the implementation and execution of these sequences, and whether they complement or intrude on the core arcade racing experience.
We’ll have a final answer to that question when the game launches for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC, Wii and 3DS on November 18 this year.