I often say that the secret to the voluminous menus in Chinese restaurants is that, when you get right down to it, there are only four items prepared eighty different ways. Note that I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that; it’s all good and the variations in sauces and vegetables provide for a welcome variety in choices. I mention this only because it is the way that I have taken to thinking about Need For Speed games. Strip away the extraneous details regarding how you happen to arrive at any given race and you are left with four key “ingredients:”
-- Race against a large pack of cars, often in a “you must finish first” setting.
-- Race against a timer, often with multiple checkpoints.
-- Race against a small pack of cars, again often with the requirement to win.
-- Deal with a bunch of suicidal/homicidal (an odd personality disorder, that) cops.
It’s a time-proven formula and it must be successful given that there are nearly two dozen variants (counting sequels) of the title, each having a different mix of the four base ingredients and each having a different overarching theme. Naturally the four basic categories and the games themselves have benefited from years of incremental improvements in both game play and look/feel, but if you were to go back to the very first version in 1994 you would easily recognize the basic fundamentals of the game.
The latest in the series is Need for Speed: The Run and, while it certainly includes the same four basic tenets of the series, this offering is arguably the most revolutionary of the collection. The entire “wrapper” around the core racing introduces multiple changes from what veteran players have come to expect. First and foremost, there is a linear storyline that ties the widely disparate geographies into a logical progression. The crux of the story is that the player takes on the role of Jack Rourke (played by Sean Faris), a noted racer that has somehow managed to get in the bad graces of a criminal organization. The only way out of his financial mess (other than, perhaps, forgoing personal hygiene and hiding out with the Occupy San Francisco crowd) is to enter a coast-to-coast race from San Francisco to New York. The entry fee of $250,000 is fronted by Sam Harper (played by Christina Hendricks), a female acquaintance of Jack’s, as an investment - she believes he can beat the other 199 participants and win the $25,000,000 prize, of which she will claim 90%. That’s a pretty good deal for her, one must say, considering that she’s not even providing the cars or taking the risks, but Jack doesn’t seem to have many other options.
The Run also has some significant changes under the hood, so to speak. The most noticeable, perhaps, is developer Black Box’s decision to use the Frostbite 2 engine, marking what may well be the first time that said engine has been used for something other than a shooter, and certainly the first time it has been used in a driving game. Personally, I suspect that the primary impetus behind that move, when one considers the effort that must have gone into re-purposing an entire game engine, came from the aforementioned story mode. With animated characters and real-world environments playing such a central role in the overall feel of the game, it may have been the case that the engine used in previous Need For Speed iterations simply wasn’t up to the task.
Whatever the reason, the results justify the effort. Racing through the spectacularly resplendent Rocky Mountains reminded me of a conversation I recently had with an airline captain who is only a couple of years from mandatory retirement. I had asked him what he hopes to do in his retirement, and I was surprised at his succinct answer: “Travel.” After a pause to think about his response, I still had to ask why, after a few hundred thousand miles in the air, he hadn’t had enough travel to satisfy even the strongest wanderlust. “Well,” he replied, “I’d like to slow down and really see the stuff that I’ve been flying over all of these years.” The Run is like this. I drove through some of the most beautiful scenery our country has to offer, but I was so busy racing that I never had a spare moment to really look at it.
Gorgeous scenery could probably have been found in easier ways, but the selection of an action-oriented game engine also allowed for yet another innovation for the series: action sequences out of the car. Hopefully without spoiling the game for anyone, I have to say that I have never been happier to leave Las Vegas. The reason for that wasn’t the same as when I go there in person (three days of the smoke and cacophonous clanging of casinos is all I can bear), though. The reason I was happy to finally get out of Vegas in The Run was solely to do with the out-of-car experience Jack had there. I’ve never been a fan of quick time event gaming since I think it requires no real skill and provides no sense of accomplishment, and I was even less enthused with the violent nature of what’s in store for Jack in Vegas. This was my least liked part of the entire The Run experience, and I found its inclusion in what would have been a fairly benign game gratuitous, completely unnecessary, and unwelcome.
Other than that, though, the single player campaign moves along nicely and the progression through the various types of roads and surroundings definitely gives the player the feeling of progressing in the transcontinental race. In the west, it will be tight, twisty roads winding their way up into and down out of the majestic Rocky Mountains, with the risk of being wiped out in an avalanche or flying though a guardrail into a deep, rocky abyss ever present. Once through the mountains and into the plains states, the roads become flatter and straighter but no less dangerous; avalanches are replaced with thunderstorms and slow recreational vehicles are replaced with slower and heavier trucks. In all environments, crashes are common and can be rectified either by burning one of the limited number of “rewinds” available to the player, which will return to the most recent checkpoint, or by enduring the load time required to simply reset the level back to the beginning.
Each race comes with the opportunity to acquire copious volumes of XP by meeting dozens of ancillary goals, ranging from clean or dirty passes of opponents to how far you were able to fly your car over a hill. The XP is applied towards driver level ups, which in turn grant you more and better capabilities such as faster nitrous recharges, the ability to draft, or in some cases the ability to gather even more XP.
It is also possible to unlock new cars by defeating rivals in certain races. The cars come pretty much as-is, but there are opportunities for customization to be had with unlockable body kits and performance upgrades. Given the nature of the premise of the game, though, tricking out a car isn’t the primary focus. You’re in this thing to race (and to survive, which is no mean feat), not to strut about town showing off your pretty car. The selection of which car to drive in any given segment matters, too, since each has its own set of strengths and weaknesses. Muscle cars are poor choices for the twisty mountain segments, for example, but work nicely in the wide open plains states where top speed is more important that nimble handling.
It’s a connected world we live in, and The Run is no different. Even in the single player campaign mode, your progress and best times are being automatically uploaded to the Autolog where they can be seen (and in my case, ridiculed) and compared to those of your friends. Beyond that, there is a strong multiplayer component too. A number of new features have been added to the standard multiplayer fare to make it more accessible to new players, the friendliest of which is the ability to jump immediately into an active race without having to cool your heels waiting in the lobby. Navigation to available races is made easier through the concept of playlists, each of which has a theme (muscle cars in a brawling style of racing, supercars where clean racing is preferred, etc.) and a preselected set of tracks.
Even within a multiplayer race there are plenty of chances to beat goals and earn XP or unlock new cars. At the end of each session, a bonus wheel reminiscent of the big Price Is Right wheel spins and distributes even more goodies to the players that completed the session. The in-race challenges, the bonus wheel; and certain competitive advantages given to the players trailing the field are all intended to keep players in the race rather than have them drop out as they wreck or fall behind.
Falling somewhere between the campaign mode and the multiplayer racing, there is also a Challenge Series. Events in the challenge series are unlocked as the player progresses through the campaign. As with the multiplayer, the challenges are great for wracking up XP and posting times to Autolog without being locked into the linearity of the campaign. Cars unlocked in both the challenge series and multiplayer become available for use in the campaign, which is yet another example of the way each mode interacts with the other throughout the entire game.
So, while the ancestry of Need For Speed: The Run will be readily apparent to veterans of the series, The Run breaks new ground in a number of interesting ways. The adoption and adaptation of the Frostbite 2 engine allows for far more spectacular scenery and action, while the supporting campaign storyline provides an interesting way to serve up the standard race types in a new and compelling way. The multiplayer is strong and user friendly, providing just enough subtle assists to keep even rookie players involved. At the end of the day, it is an impressive achievement to bring such a fun and fresh look to such a mature product.