Can Plots Run on Fumes?
HIGH Race that avalanche!
LOW What, you again?
WTF Man, I'm killing way too many people in this racing game.
So they decided to make a serious attempt at adding story to a racing game. Nothing wrong with that in theory—giving players a character with a motivation to win can raise the stakes. Adding foes with their own reasons for needing to win can create conflicts and—in a truly well-designed story—maybe even make the player question whether rolling first across the finish line is the result they're actually hoping for. A truly well-implemented narrative could bring racing games up to a whole new level... Which is why it's so sad that Need for Speed: The Run is utterly lacking one.
Let's begin with the player's motivation for driving cross-country.
Things start off with a bang, as the player is tasked with getting free of a car crusher, then escaping from a pack of bloodthirsty mobsters. Why do the mobsters want the player dead? Who knows! How will him winning millions of dollars in a cross-country race change their opinions of him? Got me! The game utterly fails to establish the stakes it's dealing with, and then raises them so high that any resolution becomes impossible. At one point in the game literally dozens of people, criminal and civilian alike, are killed as a helicopter chases the player through Chicago, machine-guns blazing the entire time. What are the consequences of the monstrous act of domestic terrorism committed during the race? None, of course—it's never mentioned again!
So the overarching plot is a wash—people don't care about plot so long as the characters are compelling, right? Again, sadly, the game neglects to have any of consequence—and even the named foes who appear in the game are used in bafflingly ineffective ways.
In the first half of the game, a little video pops up before certain key races, introducing a foe, and then a loading screen establishes their backstory. Then the player defeats them, and their story is over. No depth, no follow-up, nothing. The strangest part is that every single foe turns up a second time later in the game. This isn't just anticlimactic, as the player has already beaten them once, but actually something of a plot hole—since I'm winning literally every leg of the race, how are these people getting ahead of me?
At every turn, video game convention trumps storytelling. In the developers' rush to make their game as broadly appealing as possible, they've crafted an America that makes no temporal sense. I would pay real money to anyone who could explain to me when this game is set.
Although the race takes place over a single continuous 48-hour period (one might think that exhaustion would factor in as a gameplay device at some point, but no) the following incompatible locations appear: a mountaintop race through a blizzard and avalanche, a drive through red and gold trees losing their autumn leaves, and a blistering speed through midwestern cornfields at the peak late-summer height of their growth. How can any kind of a coherent story be built when the developers are seemingly selecting their tracks based on a checklist of every possible gametype?
Perhaps the game's biggest problem is that it never manages to feel like a large-scale race is actually happening. As The Run begins, I'm told that there are over two hundred cars competing, but no more than eight or ten are ever in evidence. More importantly, there's no sense of the various kinds of strategy that might be employed during a real competition of this scope. An actual cross-country race would be an endurance event, with competitors battling fatigue and avoiding the authorities. The most skilled and dedicated drivers would be battling their way to the top of the rankings as the scrubs are sidelined by the fuzz and fatal accidents. Not so in The Run—here every single leg of the race is treated as a sprint that must either be won or repeated. This is roughly the equivalent of a NASCAR game requiring the player to not only come in first in every event all season, but be leading in every lap. It's absolutely as ridiculous here as it would be there.
So the game's main reason for existing is a complete disaster, which leaves just one question: how's the racing?
Well, solely considering the time trial and multiplayer portions of the game, it's actually pretty fantastic. The focus on highway driving is a nice change for the genre, and having to deal with thick and randomized traffic provides a nice equalizer for players at all levels. An easy-to-navigate matching and playlist system assigns players a set of themed tracks and lets them choose from similarly-powered cars, ensuring a fair race every time. Even though players can upgrade abilities using the game's experience system, the boons they're awarded aren't so unbalancing that that they can stop a dextrous player from defeating someone who's spent hours grinding out levels with no real skill. Even better, all of the sprint tracks that make so little sense as legs of a cross-country race work just fine when players are matched against seven humans.
I love QTEs more than any other game reviewer, but even I'll point out that simply pulling the driver out of his car and having the player tap a few buttons doesn't magically generate any empathy for the main character. Need for Speed: The Run was designed to raise the bar for the racing genre, but while setting up the supports, the game must have slipped and wound up with the bar clonking it on the head. While there's great fun to be had in online competition, everything that was supposed to be different and special about The Run is flat-out garbage. That's not to say I'm unhappy they made the attempt—in doing so they've given the world something completely new: a racing game full of giant plot holes.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the Xbox 360. Approximately 8 hours of play was devoted to single-player modes (completed 1 times) and 10 hours of play in multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains language, mild suggestive themes, violence. You might want to restrict this to your older teens. Not only does it overtly glamourize dangerous street racing, the cavalier and consequence-free depiction of brutal violence was troubling, to say the least. Also, because it's an American action movie-themed game... gratuitous lesbians!
Deaf & Hard of Hearing: You should be just fine. In addition to the presence of clear, informative menus and detailed HUDs, the dialogue is subtitled. So you won't miss out on the extremely questionable story!