Back at E3, I got to take on the role of Need for Speed: The Run's lead character, Jack, as he battled and raced through the downtown streets of Chicago. While I thought it was an exciting, graphically stunning experience packaged with solid driving mechanics, it also felt a bit too linear. A whole game based around these Chicago-style races where I'm running from the cops on a singular path with interactive quick-time events sprinkled in seemed a bit shallow to me, especially when Autolog is the best thing EA has going for it today in its racing games.
However, my fears have been eased a bit after getting a chance to play the title again at a recent EA press event. It looks like Need for Speed: The Run wants to be the Cruis'n USA for the modern era.
Chicago and Beyond
Before getting my hands on a controller, I received a brief PowerPoint presentation that helped to illuminate the scope and ideas going into this game. The game is based around a race from the "Golden Gate to the Empire State" but that had not really sunk in until this presentation. Being able to see in-game pictures of Yosemite, the lonely roads of Kansas and so on helps to paint a picture that you really are traveling across the US. Even with all the traveling I do, it still is easy for me to forget how vast and varied the landscapes are in this country.
Whether it was skylines or just the sky and clouds being shown in the presentation, it's easy to say that The Run is beautiful. As for what the game is trying to accomplish, the idea really seems to be to create a Tour de France of car racing where you are racing through these settings in stages. As for the narrative behind why you are racing, I'll continue to be skeptical of it simply because racing games and storytelling do not have a great track record in video games; the ideas usually are just too at odds with each other to really co-exist.
You will be taking part in events like Sprint, Time Attack, Rival Battle, Cop Pursuit, Survival, Big Action Moments and more. Most of those events are self-explanatory, but just to be clear, the "Big Action Moments" equates to the Chicago-based race at E3 where there were quick-time events (QTEs) scattered between the car racing.
The Desert Hills locale that served as the backdrop for the race at this event immediately set out to be different from the dark and rainy city streets of Chicago where your only goal was to flee down a clear set path. A bright desert setting that had alternate routes, an objective to pass 10 other cars before the end of the race, and a car that was far more back-end heavy and unforgiving than the car used for the Chicago event all helped to shine a light on the fact that variety is going to be here event to event. (Also, if anyone was freaked out by the QTEs in the Chicago level, I was assured that they are not going to show up in many stages; they are simply there to add something different to the mix.)
As I tried to pass 10 opponents before getting to the finish line in this event, I crashed a couple times. This gave me the opportunity to see the action shots of my crash, as well as the rewind/checkpoint system at work here. The rewind system is nothing out of the ordinary, rather a quick cinematic cut before your car appears back on the track. As of now, it appears this mechanic is completely automated and tied to crashing your car. In addition, it was possible to fail this race if you crashed too often.
Using a more heavy back-end car caused more intense moments on this stage, even though it was relatively abandoned being in the desert and all. Quick, twitchy movements were a recipe for disaster, and while the AI cars felt more like pylons than opponents as you approached and passed them, they were more than eager enough to ram you from behind or simply cruise by you all over again. I was able to use some alternate routes during this race, but I classify them as alternate routes and not shortcuts because using them did not always lead to me passing other opponents. In one case in particular, the alternate route was really dangerous and led to me crashing in glorious fashion off the side of the road.
Even with these alternate routes, depending on what type of gamer you are, you might still be disappointed by the restrictiveness of stages like Desert Hills. It's one thing to see this beautiful wide-open vista, but it really is quite another to race on every part of it. It's a common problem in games such as these where you have to accept that you can see but not touch everything but the asphalt. The stage did a relatively good job of not allowing my mind to wander and think about "what if I could ride over there," but it still is worth mentioning.
One other aspect of the stage-to-stage design decision for the single player is that your totals in each race do matter and count towards a ranking. If you are not keeping up stage to stage, you will not advance further. Again, this is supposed to be a marathon not a sprint. The developers don't want this to be an unforgiving mechanic, but they must want it to add a layer of suspense and cohesiveness to the experience.
It still seems like EA might be cannibalizing its own games by releasing so many racing titles on top of each other, but this play session and discussion with the developers at least helped to quell some worries I had about the game finding its niche alongside Hot Pursuit and Shift 2. I still want to see what is going to happen with the multiplayer, and we still don't know the full extent of what's happening with Autolog in the game, but with time comes answers.
If EA is focused on using Autolog as a way to create various different racing sub-genres within its own portfolio -- creating an environment where certain gamers just associate themselves with a certain franchise and continue to play it throughout the year -- then this title looks on track to meet that goal.