The last time Black Box had anything to do with the Need for Speed franchise, we ended up with Need for Speed: World, and Need for Speed: Undercover. The latter, the studio freely admits, wasn't as well received as they'd hoped.
The announcement of The Run earlier this year revealed a new direction for the studio. Not only were out-of-car sequences touted, but the shift to Battlefield 3's Frostbite 2.0 engine sent strong messages about the ongoing commitment EA Canada has for this hallowed series. After all, it can't be easy rolling driving physics into what is essentially a first-person shooter engine, and as Black Box have seen fit to spend two years doing just this it would appear the future of the franchise is in safe company.
To learn more, we visited EA's Burnaby office, a sprawling campus situated a short drive from Vancouver's bustling city centre. Despite the requirement to refine their code – caveats included multiple bug warnings – our hands-on content mirrored that scheduled to be shown in less than 24 hours at the E3 event in Los Angeles. It's a small section from the Chicago chapter, yet it reveals much about the core attributes we can expect to see at release.
The code started with a cinematic cut featuring an airborne Shelby Mustang. This seamlessly blended into the third-person overhead camera as control passed over to the player; the downtown setting required immediate intervention to avoid a humiliating shop-front detour.
It's just as well the handling hasn't been finalised. The first attempt to avoid a park bench resulted in a worryingly high level of understeer, a sudden yet violent reminder of the pre-alpha nature of the code. By chasing other AI competitors around inner-city Chicago for a short distance, the first action sequence was initiated by what was clearly a work-in-progress cinematic. Control of the vehicle is surrendered to the game engine as a careening Mob-affiliated vehicle slams into the side of our ride, flipping us over and cueing a frantic foot race away from the trashed Mustang to the stairwell of an adjacent building.
These cinematic cuts have no user input. It's not until the protagonist races to the top of the stairwell and kicks open a door to the roof that any kind of user intervention occurrs. In what will undoubtedly amount to a hugely controversial decision, Black Box have passed control to the player in the form of a series of quick time events with branching outcomes.
By mashing the "X" button on the PlayStation controller, our driver runs across the roof, ducking bullets and dodging various rooftop debris until a ledge appears. Hit triangle at the right time, and he'll leap down to the next level. Repeat again until finally, by simultaneously tapping the bumper buttons, he'll latch on to an external fire escape and drop down on top of a garbage skip, ducking into cover before the nearest police patrol spots him.
In our play-through, outright failure to complete any of these quick-time events resulted in a checkpoint reload relatively close to where we messed up. The branched outcomes are generated when the player almost completes the event – instead of failing with a checkpoint reload, another quick-time option is presented which must be completed with a marginally wider window for success.
By skirting around the aforementioned garbage skip, our hero attacks the nearest Police officer in an attempt to steal his vehicle. We were prompted to kick the officer; failure to achieve this resulted in another event giving us the opportunity to escape a head-lock. Successfully completing these events allowed us to make good our escape in the Police cruiser, which then shifts the game back to in-car racing.
The Chicago level concluded with a high-speed chase away from Police vehicles, including a hovering helicopter with some serious firepower. By swerving your vehicle in and out of traffic to avoid the helicopters spotlight, it was just about possible to last long enough to reach the final cutscene. After wiping out, our character finds themselves upside down on train tracks, frantically punching multiple windows using the quick time mechanisms to escape an oncoming locomotive.
There's no question that the racing portions appear more or less in line with any reasonable expectations one can have for the final product. Arcade racing isn't exactly an arcane art form, and The Run is unlikely to disappoint fans of the "point and boost" genre. But the massive mammoth-in-the-room inclusion of quick time events will certainly disappoint many, despite the defensive insistence of Black Box that additional attempts were made to find out-of-car action sequences with more user input.
According to the development team, multiple focus groups were consulted, and the consensus was that any kind of free-roaming control handed to the player resulted in a total breakdown in the flow of the action. Fair enough, dropping a player in the world unsupervised is likely to result in a fair bit of unscheduled exploration, almost none of which is likely to have much in common with the direction the story intends. But it's still hard to accept that the only recourse – the only possible way of managing this particular problem – was to include a game mechanic that has a fairly high chance of breaking the action as it is.
Quite how arcade racing fans are expected to move from an environment that demands ultra-high steering accuracy, to one that espouses a positively compensatory button mash is difficult to comprehend.
With the extensive work Black Box have undertaken in order to present accurate motion capture during the cut-scenes, it's equally difficult to see why these quick time events are necessary at all. If I'd had an option to turn them off and merely enjoy watching the story unfold, I'd have taken it.
It's early days yet, with over five months to go there's bound to be numerous tweaks to the underlying structure of the title. We're yet to see any of the impressive AutoLog functionality promised to be reprised in The Run, and with over 300 kilometres of track to race through, we have faith that the racing experience itself will be solid enough to warrant close attention.