Need for Speed: The Run Hands-On Multiplayer Preview -- Don't You Mean Cannonball: The Run?By Heidi Kemps - Posted Nov 07, 2011
Jack has some problems. I don’t mean like he dropped and broke the screen of his iPhone 4S right after he bought it type problems; I mean, like, he owes some very unsavory characters a pretty substantial amount of debt type problems. You know, the sort of things that inspire you to take part in a Cannonball Run-style underground race from San Francisco to New York City (though with far fewer comically exaggerated ethnic stereotypes and no amazing Burt Reynolds ‘stache) with a promise of a huge cash payout waiting at the end. Also, so you don’t wind up dead.
Well, at least Jack can fall back on his driving skills to try bail his ass out, right? But this race is anything but a straightforward dash to the finish. Hundreds of other drivers are out there vying for the same prize, the environments can become unforgiving at a moment’s notice, and cops around the country are trying to shut down these insane street racing shenanigans. Not to mention the whole “people wanting Jack's grisly death” thing.
This story drives (pun semi-intended) Need for Speed: The Run, the latest installment in EA’s long-lived and perennially popular racing franchise. Longtime NFS developer Black Box is back at the wheel of the franchise after three years, and that extra development time between 2008’s Need for Speed: Undercover and now has evidently been put to very good use. The Run is a fast-paced racer designed to replicate the spectacle and excitement of a Hollywood blockbuster. Everything from the elaborate story scenes to the hazard-laden environment set pieces you drive through feel as though they came straight off the reel of a big-budget theatrical production--only this time you’re the one behind the action.
The titular "run" cross-country race is segmented into several portions in-game. During the preview, I was able to play from San Francisco up until we were leaving Las Vegas. The goal was to rank 150th or better by the time we reached Sin City. It wasn’t all one straight drive from NorCal to Nevada – the route was broken up into smaller segments, each with a different goal – pass X number of opponents, reach the end of the section within a set amount of time, or defeat a particularly aggressive opponent on tough terrain.
Checkpoints littered each section, and when I screwed up and crashed, the game used one of a limited stock of rewinds to take me back to the checkpoint. (You can also opt to use these manually for various reasons, though since your stock is limited in each section, it probably shouldn’t be an impulsive choice). When you complete a set segment of the race, you’re given a breakdown of your stats and immediately ranked online against your friends playing the game thanks to EA’s Autolog tracking system.
And make no mistake about it, the racing was quite intense. While zooming past other drivers and deftly dodging high-speed traffic was quite a thrill, the real challenge came from the dangerous terrain.
Crossing into Nevada meant racing down snow-covered, mountainous slopes with tight turns and icy patches that could spell immediate disaster if they weren’t handled very carefully. But even though I’m not terribly experienced with driving games, I didn’t feel intimidated, thanks in part to The Run’s easy-to-grasp control scheme. While perhaps not as purely arcade-style as other games on the market (or even previous NFS installments), The Run’s intuitive steering controls had me soaring through shortcuts and blasting oh-so-satisfying Nitrous boosts out of turns past my hapless rivals in no time.
The ability to frequently change vehicles also helps: if you see a gas station, just pull on in and you can pick amongst a host of fabulous new licensed automobiles (including special editions from past NFS games), some of which are better suited for certain types of terrain than others. The combination of good controls and a variety of cars really helped me enjoy my racing experience. The driving could get tough, but the game made me feel like I was more than capable of taking on any obstacle that crossed the road.
One element of The Run that’s had people talking since its unveiling, however, are the out-of-car action sequences. At certain points in the game, Jack will need to leave the (relative) safety of his vehicle and deal with other threats to his well-being. Fans worries that these sequences will detract from what they want most out of a NFS title (white-knuckle, high-speed driving) should be aware that they will only make up a fraction of the action on hand in The Run.
During my entire drive from San Francisco to Las Vegas, I only encountered one such sequence. Jack was being pursued by police in Las Vegas, and through scripted QTEs, he was able to shake them off and escape to continue the race. While what I saw was a strict QTE sequence, executive producer Jason DeLong mentioned to me that players could likely expect to see some freer on-foot action-style sequences as well.
But the story mode isn’t the only single-player experience, either. NFS: The Run offers a series of skill-testing challenges in a special mode designed to take advantage of the Autolog online ranking system. I was able to test out two specific challenges: one involving a race to first place on an extremely slick, ice-laden mountain point, and another mad dash on an extremely narrow Midwestern two-lane highway beset by lots of oncoming traffic. By completing challenges, you earn rewards in the form of overall driver experience points (XP), as well as being able to see how your ability stacks up against friends who have also attempted the courses.
Finally, we had the opportunity to test out the game’s multiplayer mode. Getting into a race is easy. Tracks are grouped into “playlists” based around set themes, and selecting one will allow you to race against other players with the same choice. The goal here is, obviously, to place as well as possible on as many tracks as possible, but there’s also a bit more nuance to things than that. By completing certain tasks during multiplayer games, you’ll be rewarded with XP bonuses that carry over throughout all of the game modes.
These XP rewards seemed quite copious compared to the single-player modes, making it seem like the mode of choice to go through if you’re looking to grind a bit for some potentially helpful boosts. Other bonuses, such as new cars and profile pictures, could also be unlocked via a pre-race slot machine and satisfying certain requirements. It was a lot of fun racing against a pack, and given that some of the developers were on hand to play with our group in multiplayer, I found myself taking an odd (though perhaps not undeserved) sense of pride in placing second overall during both sessions our group played.
There was a lot to be impressed with in NFS: The Run. The game looked great (thanks to DICE’s Frostbite 2 engine), played fast, was easy to get into while still being challenging, and offered a wealth of additional content to see and unlock in both single and multiplayer modes. The only really iffy element is still the on-foot sequences, but seeing as our review is right around the corner, it shouldn't be a mystery for very much longer.