I had a lot of hope for Need for Speed: The Run, because I had some hands-on time with the game at PAX Prime and was really surprised by how the game looked running on Frostbite 2. Although the car models don't hold up to Gran Turismo 5 standards, they are still impressive, as are the damage models, lighting and environments. Damp roads, rocky canyons, and snow capped mountains are all rendered with very pretty textures. The Run also features a system called Autolog, which tracks the performance of your friends so you can compare your times and compete for top spots as it ranks individual stages and overall Run time. Known as the "Speed Wall" it will show where you rank between each stage during The Run. Like Most Wanted and Undercover, The Run is centered around a story campaign.
The story is about what you're probably expecting: light. Basically, main character Jack borrowed money from the mob in order to fund his professional racing career, which never panned out and left him in a bit of debt. In order to save his own skin, he enters the cross-country race with the hope of using the winnings to pay off the bounty on his head. The story doesn't get in the way of the game, but it also doesn't lend itself to improving the gameplay experience. All the characters, including Jack, feel flat. The minor characters, or rivals as they're referred to, are given the tiniest bit of exposition with a small write up on the load screens. None of the rivals have a single line of dialogue, unlike previous story-based NFS titles, Carbon and Most Wanted.
All of the races, as I'm sure you would expect, are point-to-point. There are no racing circuits in The Run. The stages are either checkpoint races against the clock or a race requiring the player to pass a set number of opponents in order to advance. Vehicle physics should be familiar to NFS players as they still feature that arcade action the series is known for. New to the series is a leveling system. As each stage is completed, experience points are earned based on player performance. XP is given out for clean passing, hitting top speed, drifting and number of resets used. With each level of progression, new abilities are unlocked like: Nitrous, slipstreaming, and XP bonuses. Resets will allow players to jump back to the last checkpoint if they wreck or are unhappy with a section of a stage. Each stage starts the player off with five available resets and each reset used lowers the XP awarded at the end of the stage. Run out of resets and the stage has to be restarted from the beginning.
In between the stages, there are cut scenes that try to advance the story. The problem is that many of these cut scenes are pretty insignificant or button mashing fests as Black Box went bonkers with quick-time events. As much as they tried to make the game like an NFS Michael Bay film, I couldn't take the time to appreciate the looney action sequences since I was too busy mashing the X button to run away from the cops and mobsters chasing after Jack.
It's not the worst game ever, but I was certainly expecting more. I was hoping for a fun arcade racer with large levels and exciting action as I raced from San Francisco to New York. Instead, I was left disappointed by long load times, segmented levels and a dull story full of even less interesting characters. While you could do a lot worse when picking up a new game this month, you could also certainly do a lot better. Temper your expectations if you're a Need for Speed fan. It isn't another Hot Pursuit and it certainly isn't the second coming of Most Wanted.
[Screen shots courtesy of: GamePro.com, Gamerzines.com, and VideoGamer.com]