Thursday, December 08, 2011

Need for Speed - The Run

RUN for your life!   *not recommended on foot*

The Need For Speed franchise is one that’s always been flying just underneath my radar. I’ve played through the first two games, but when Burnout was released I left it for greener pastures. Since then, I’ve become a casual fan of racing games and although most people enjoy driving high end cars around a circular track in order to get the best times, I have to admit that sort of play tends to get a bit dull for me. When Need For Speed: The Run was announced at E3, like many others, I chuckled at the notion of a racing game containing on foot quick time event sequences. I came into the game with not-so-high expectations but to be honest, I’ve found myself feeling pleasantly surprised.

Need For Speed: The Run is the first game in the franchise that is built around a story. After getting into trouble with a criminal organization in San Francisco, Jack Rourke barely manages to escape being crushed to death in car compactor. Fleeing from his captors earns him a bounty and now that he’s become indebted to his organization, Jack’s got to come up with some fast cash. Conveniently, Jack bumps into his cohort Sam Harper (modeled after and voiced by actress Christina Hendricks) who offers him a deal: participate in a cross country race and win enough cash to pay off the mob.

GAMEPLAY: For the most part, Need For Speed: The Run is a racing game, but instead of moving to various tracks in order to compete for lap times, you’ll start as the 200th car in a race from San Francisco to New York City. The game breaks the two thousand plus mile road trip into several different game types that will either task you with gaining a certain number of positions before reaching the next leg of the trip, overtaking and maintaining the lead over specific opponents and doing timed checkpoint races to make up time. You’ve got a sizeable collection of cars to choose from at the beginning of the game, such as the new Camero, BMWs and Porsche 911 (sorry, Forza 4 players). You’ll earn more cars by playing through several boss-style encounters with rival drivers. You can switch your car by pulling into gas stations, where you can also customize them with paint schemes, frame modifications and various spoiler types in case you get bored of looking at the car you’re driving. You’ll earn experience points for various actions, such as completing a stage, performing clean or dirty car passes and finishing a round with a fast time. These points will feed into your Driver Level, which will unlock various performance upgrades, such as nitro boosting.

Occasionally, there will be instance in which you are forced to get out of your car and play through a quick time event before getting back into the race. As silly as the concept sounds, I found them to be a nice way to break up the action a bit and really gives the game the theatrical flair it’s obviously striving for. However, as with most QTEs, they tend to wear out their welcome after you’ve missed the prompt for the third or fourth time and forced to start again. Whether you miss a QTE prompt or wreck your car, you’ll use up a Restart which will send you back to the closest checkpoint, which could either be a good or bad thing. There have been a few instances of rubber band AI allowing a car I spent considerable time trying to overtake and maintain my lead to suddenly pass me when I only had two feet left to go before reaching the finish line. I’ve spent the majority of my Restarts trying to recover from wrecking my car after colliding head on with traffic that tends to appear seemingly out of nowhere. On the other hand, I wrecked my car during a spectacularly failed run and was able to recover quickly after the Restart.

GRAPHICS: As far as cars are concerned, the game looks fantastic as the cars (clearly the stars of the show) have been lovingly rendered from their real life counterparts. All the curves you love of the Porsche are there as are the sharp angles of the modern Cameros. Pausing the game will give you access to a Photo Mode, where you can manipulate the camera and set filters in order to take some exquisite photos of your vehicle. The tracks are well done, providing you’re racing through the game’s major cities. Barrelling through the Death Valley or Yosemite Valley isn’t as nearly as exciting as tearing through the busy streets of San Francsico or Las Vegas. The initial race is incredibly exciting, as your car burns through the hills Bullitt-style while the police scream out APBs.

Where the visuals falter is in the designs of the major characters. Despite scanning the faces of Christina Hendricks and Sean Faris, they do not look very good. They suffer from Uncanny Valley, dead eye syndrome, which is a surprise because the last time EA used face scanning technology for 007: Everything of Nothing, the character models looked great. Perhaps I am spoiled by the likes of Uncharted and L.A. Noire, but the characters look like they were rendered at the last minute and could have used some extra polish. Especially when you’re trying to make them look sexy. During a fuel stop in Las Vegas (I had no idea the Porsche 911 had such great gas mileage!), the game introduces a pair of female races who bend over, wiggle their asses and writhe Michael Bay-style over their cars in front of Jack. The animations for these two women were wooden and stiff at best and not nearly as sexy as the animators were trying to make it out to be. If you’re going to spend the money to hire Sports Illustrated swimsuit models for your game, at least put some effort in their digital appearance.

I ran into a number of technical glitches during my playthrough, specifically the game would often stutter during particularly busy sequences (I doubt this is a video card issue, since the game normally ran just fine), the frame rate would drop in spots and there were some serious syncing issues with the game audio during the cutscenes. The character’s voices would play a second before their mouths would animate, reminding me of a poorly dubbed kung fu film. The icons for the QTE sequences could have been designed better, now that I think about it. Because I’m playing on a keyboard (since I’ve lost my gamepad), instead of having a button that says “SPACE” or “ENTER,” the game just brings up a blank, white rectangle or the shape of an old school Enter key. Because the arrow graphic on my Enter key is the same as the Backspace key, I’ve had several frustrating instances of pressing the wrong button during a QTE.

FUN FACTOR: Man, i haven't done this section for a long time. Need For Speed: The Run is a surprisingly fun game primarily because of its presentation as a Jerry Bruckheimer-esque thrill ride. Racing two hundred other drivers in a cross country road race is fun, especially during the instances in which you’ll have to battle highway traffic as well as your opponents. Because the game will switch between the different racing modes at random, it the experience is constantly changing. The QTE sequences suffer from the same irritants that are inherent to the gameplay mechanic, but it breaks things up nicely. As you race to New York City, you’ll unlock challenge maps to play through as well as engage other drivers in a multiplayer mode. There is plenty to do in the game, but honestly, once I finish the story, I really don’t see myself going back through it again except to try out the new cars. Even then, I would just limit myself to one particular level. If you’re the type of person who is always looking to improve race times, than you’ll come back to the game for that. EA’s Autolog feature from Burnout Crash! returns, which will rank your times against those of your friends.

One of the more significant gameplay issues I experienced was due to the use of a keyboard. For some reason, the developers associated the boost key with the accelerator and this was an absolutely terrible design decision. If you’re attempting to pull off a drift and happen to have a significant amount of boost saved up, pressing the accelerator to push through the drift would always activate the boost, which would send my car crashing into the wall and slowing me down, allowing other racers to pass, or send me off a cliff.

OVERALL: Need For Speed: The Run may not unseat Gran Turismo and Forza 4 as a top tear driving/racing simulator, but the Hollywood-style presentation has a lot more charm going for it than I initially expected. Granted, it has a number of issues but like a Jerry Bruckheimer summer blockbuster, The Run is good, mindless fun. Racing purists may thumb their nose at it, but if you’re the kind of person who prefers Burnout over Gran Turismo, you’ll eat it right up.

SYSTEM: PC, Play Station 3, XBOX 360, Nintendo Wii, Nintendo 3DS


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