The backend of the charcoal black BMW M3 struggled to grip the loose gravel as I sped along the dirt path along side the highway. The bouncing rear axle of the Bavarian beast was a reminder that the car was meant for solid pavement and not loose country back roads. I had elected to take this back road short cut as allow me to quickly bypass several of the my fellow racers as I needed every second I could get.
Why would I endanger a car worth more than most houses in America? Well, as Jackson "Jack" Rourke, you have made some bad decisions in your life and now some mob related folks are looking to collect on some debts. To pay these debts you’ve been entered in “The Race”, a 3000 mile trek from San Fransisco to New York to try and win a $25 million dollar prize that will get rid of these problems. Staking me in the race is your long time friend Sam Harper, who has fronted the $250,000 entry fee so that I can compete against the other 199 racers for the grand prize (where the remaining $25,000,000 in fees goes is not specified but you have to imagine that large, illegal, events like this one have high overhead and logistics costs). Why is she fronting you the money? Well she knows you’re one of the best car guys in the business and she knows that you’re a pretty sure bet to win the race.
Need for Speed:The Run made a pretty big splash at E3 this year and what drew the attention of crowds was that we now had a Need for Speed game with a strong single player component and one that features QTE events. Last week I had the chance to go hands on with the game as EA flew myself and a smattering of other game writers out to San Fransisco to go hands on with the upcoming release.
If you’re a Need for Speed fan and are worried that the game is bogged down with a ton of walking around/interactive sequences you can relax. I was told that the on-foot/QTE portions of the game make up less than 5% of the total game. It’s also worth noting that the QTE segments are more of the Heavy Rain variety than the God of War type and there are occasions where failing one will lead to different story paths.
Before I get much farther I should cover the the Driver Level system that spans all three of the game's modes. As you play the various modes of the game you earn experience points for performing certain actions (drifting, passing another car, or completing an objective). These points go to your driver level which unlocks driver abilities (like being able to use nitrous), cars, and other items in the game. It’s a nice way to get you to try all three modes and it provides some replayability as you can always go back to sections and retry them once you level up in pursuit of a better time.
For the demo purposes we had most of the driver abilities cranked up so some of my experiences are going to be a little different than when the game ships. I don’t think it will be too significant but I am a bit concerned that nitrous wasn’t something that drivers get at the start.
I can’t tell you about the fairly cool mission that starts the game but I can tell you about the rest of the experience I had in my two hours with the game including the excellent second mission of the game.
The first thing you do is pick out your first car for the race. I picked the beautiful Bimmer mentioned above as it had the best mix of performance and handling in the cars that were available to me. Once I had my whip it was time to make my way to the starting line.
It’s at that point that the police radar (and the game) came to life. Police reports of exotic cars congregating in one part of the city blared across the radio. Now I not only had to get to the starting line but I also had to evade Johnny Law on my way there.
Once at the starting line there wasn’t time for a formal start as police started coming out of the woodwork. Here the game transitions to full on race mode as you and your 199 friends in fancy cars now have to evade capture and get out of the city.
As we raced out of the city (and through areas I had just passed through on my way to the event) the game began to sinks it’s claws into me. Sure this was largely the same racing game we’ve played before but the additional layers of context made it feel like something more than just trying to get from A to B. There was real motivation, an actual reason other than pure competitiveness to try and finish first.
Once I was outside the city limits and on my way to Las Vegas, the rest of the game started to unfold itself. The race part is broken into major checkpoints (Las Vegas and Chicago were specifically mentioned) which are broken into lots of little segments. Each city represents a cut down in the number of contestants. When you get to Las Vegas you have to be in the top 150 racers and by the time you get to Chicago it’s the top 50 . I would assume that you have to be number one by the time you get to New York but that was not explicitly mentioned in the briefing.
The segments I saw fell into one of the following categories/types:
- Pass X number of cars - These segments made up most of what I saw and tied directly into The Race meta-game. Like you would expect from the title you have to pass a certain number of cars (less than 10) in one segment of the course.
- Make up time- These segments force you to complete segments before a timer runs out and do not feature any of your competitors. Here you’re strictly trying to beat the clock. The hard part is that you have to use boost to complete these before the clock runs out and have to drive dangerously to earn boost.
- Battle – This mode is a variant of the Pass X cars mode as you have to pass and then stay ahead of a car before a timer expires.
- Pass named driver – These are essentially the boss battles of the game where you have to battle it out with drivers with enhanced cars and driving skills. I only saw one of these in the game and that’s when I finally made it into Las Vegas.
I will admit that just as I was sick of getting of passing competitors the folks at Black Box started adding police to the missions which instantly made things more interesting. I’m interested to see if they add any more types of segments after the two hour mark of if they just continue to change the structure of the existing types.
Each segment of the race has a certain number of resets that you can use. Resets are burned when you wreck your car and can also be used as a last minute way to salvage a segment that you are about to fail as it will reset the race to the last save point. This is very handy in that it allows you to avoid re-playing an entire segment because of one missed turn or just missed passing that last car.
As I mentioned in the multiplayer preview
the game has invisible walls in certain areas of the maps to prevent you from taking overly aggressive shortcuts. This leads to the instant burning of a reset and some forfeiture of progress in a segment. In some areas this was almost "controller throwing" frustrating as I was battling it out for position and just managed to nick that barrier and was hit with the instant reset. If anything is going to annoy gamers when it comes out it’s going to be this.
The game allows you to switch cars at Gas Stations that are scattered throughout some of the maps. Sure this doesn’t make a lot of real world sense but it does allow you to change cars and rectify a bad choice. The game does provide you with a chime and an indicator on your mini-map but I still missed one or two which was a bit frustrating. Of course I could have used a reset to go back and change cars but I hated to burn such a valuable commodity.
Sitting on top of the segments is the now ubiquitous Autoblog, which tracks your performance in each section and allows you to see the times your friends have gotten in each section as well as their overall progress in the game. This wasn’t enabled in our test build of the game but every time you finished a segment you could see your time and a box where your friends time was. This applies not only to each segment but the overall race. I’m guessing there are going to be a lot of people using this feature to track who finishes the race first when the game is first launched.
Another thing that will annoy people is the game can feel choppy in places as you are moving from segment to segment. There were a few sections early on in the game where you transition from race to cinematic to short race to cinematic and then back to another race which felt a bit on the choppy side. This wasn’t helped by the longer load times that playing on a not final build produces (when the discs go to the manufacturer they are optimized for speed, something you don’t get on non-final builds). It’s not a major concern and it’s certain not as choppy as Killzone 3 but it was a bit distracting early on.
Graphically The Race is gorgeous but then again the racing genre made the jump across the uncanny valley a few years ago. There’s even the chance to race through a desert dust storm which was a pretty cool experience.
The game does have a few plot holes that require some suspension of disbelief. The first is that Jack has a warehouse of cars that would make Jay Leno jealous and still can’t fund his debts? The second is that the folks at Black Box have put a lot of cool, exotic cars into the game but some of them just don’t fit. The biggest culprit is a 1980’s era Golf GTI that sticks out like a sore thumb amongst all the Porches, BMW’s, and American muscle cars. Seriously, who invests $250,000 into a race like this and then drives a Golf GTI?
We also weren’t given a lot of background info on Jack or Sam which I’m hoping is fleshed out later in the game. Sure the context is nice but fleshing out the characters a bit more would help to make the characters more engaging because what we got in the demo was enough to give us the size and the shape of the characters but there wasn’t a lot of depth to either.
There’s one other single player component in Need for Speed:The Race: the Challenge Series. These are re-purposed segments with a twist and or theme. There’s one called Double Diamonds which has you racing through a snowy mountain pass in rear wheel drive muscle cars. While they are single player only they do allow you to accumulate single player XP and are tracked on Autoblog so you can compare times with others. They don’t sound like much but there are a lot of them and they are fairly clever in their construction.
I will admit that I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the single player side of Need for Speed:The Run. It was a lot of fun and while there are some new segments, they don’t detract from the overall "Need for Speedness" of the game. The only concerns I have are around how they pace the segments after the Las Vegas area and some of the choppiness that I had early on in the game. Other than that there’s a lot of game to love and it’s nice to have a reason to get from A to B as quickly as possible.
Thanks to EA for providing me with the airfare to the event, a hotel for the evening, two bottles of war, and four delicious cheese burger sliders.