Runnin’ down a dream
EA Black Box – the studio behind the biggest racing franchise in the gaming world – has something special up its sleeve. Need for Speed: The Run takes risks in a series already marching to the beat of its own drum; past iterations have swapped their leanings from simulation (Shift) to pure arcade fun (Hot Pursuit), while also playing around with how much you could customize your cars. The Run has broad appeal by sitting comfortably in the middle of these spectrums. Add to that the tasteful introduction of both an outside-the-car protagonist and the new Frostbite 2 engine, and you have the makings of a game well worth the ride.
Storylines weren’t exactly absent from previous Need for Speed games, but they kind of unfolded as you watched from the back row, driving when you needed to and keeping your mouth shut when you didn’t. This time around, Black Box gives you a face and a pair of shoes. You’re Jack Rourke, a goofy and indebted youngster with the not-so-goofy prospect of making $2.5 million – I know, I know, you’ve heard $25 million, but your sponsor’s taking the lion’s share… if you even make it. For that, you’ll have to come out on top in a race from San Francisco to New York.
What Black Box does well is keep the walkabout elements light; nothing here to liken the game to a cleaned-up version of GTA or anything. Rourke’s appearance is limited to plot-driving cutscenes – script solid – and high-octane moments where quick time events usher him along to the next race.
Yes, the driving gloves stay on. The Frostbite 2 engine, heavily tailored by the development team, makes for a genuine feel of your car’s momentum and the motor running behind it. Brian Lindley, the producer behind the game, had this to say about the engine: “We had to pull in our traditional physics systems and make those work in the Frostbite engine… trying to get it feeling right, like a Need for Speed game.” Black Box has made Frostbite its own. In other words, don’t look to Battlefield 3 for a pre-release driving lesson.
I broke the seal on my cross-continental trip with a Nissan Fairlady 240ZG. This thing has class; a three-door hatchback in production right around the time Stevie Wonder started making the funky music we all love him for (the spirit of the time must count for something, right?). But class comes with age, and age with vulnerability. As I sped the Nissan across the rough highways of America, rickety sounds reminded me of the fact. If Black Box puts that amount of loving detail in each and every car, The Run will stand out from the pack all the more.
The sound captures you in more ways than one. As you peel around a corner and the camera’s inertia brings it closer to the side of your whip, your ears move with it. Similarly, there’s a sharp increase in volume when you hold the “look behind you” button, as the perspective shifts to just above the hood. You’ll coax all kinds of noises from your vehicle as you drive it – or wrestle with it when it comes to tougher handling. Cars come with a difficulty class for their handling, making for an overall difficulty level that you can tweak on two fronts, seeing as the game also features your standard easy, normal, and hard modes. These scale up the skill of the AI and reduce the time granted to reach the next checkpoint.
An hour and 20 minutes into the game, I’d driven 188 miles and put Yosemite National Park behind me, completing the second stage out of the game’s ten. It’s probably unfair to extrapolate the time it takes to get through the game from that, as the races only get harder. Totaling your car or getting far off track brings you back a few hundred yards back, and you’ll appreciate the extra practice.
It’s not just the events within single-player that are varied – though they are, from passing ten opponents before the time runs out to reaching checkpoints on your own – it’s the challenges they throw your way. At times you’ll be taking hairpin turns down an icy mountain (played the demo yet?), at others wary of oncoming civilian traffic in desert flatlands.
Finally, it might be The Run’s sustained habit of starting each race in a natural, seamless way that makes the experience memorable. Each event kicks off in a different context: maybe Jack is starting from zero after having lost out on the lead in a tight turn, or is already off at well above 100 miles per hour. Either way, the camera pans to the car’s rear as you realize that, yes, you’re taking over the reins.
You can look forward to Need for Speed: The Run’s release for Windows, PS3, Xbox 360, and Wii on November 15th, 2011.
So what do you folks think? Are you amped for the single player mode? Or will you wait to find out more about the multiplayer? Are you fans of the franchise? Let us know with comments below!