Racing onto Xbox Live and PSN is a demo for EA’s latest entry in the Need for Speed franchise, The Run. Developed by EA Black Box, The Run will hit store shelves on November 15th, making it the third Need for Speed title released in the past twelve months. Will The Run‘s blend of high-stakes street racing and on-foot action be enough to separate itself from its predecessors and competing racing franchises? I took the demo for a test drive to find out.
Need for Speed: The Run is a more narrative-focused than past titles, placing players in the shoes of Jack Rourke, a driver competing in a cross-country dash from San Francisco to New York, with a purse of $25 million being offered to the winner. The demo takes place along two legs of the race: Desert Hills, California, and Independence Pass, Colorado.
Desert Hills takes players through a Mojave-esque stretch of wasteland, tasking gamers to pass ten cars before the finish line. The desert course is fairly straightforward, with one or two shortcuts hidden throughout the track, and reminded me of a few courses from last year’s Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit. At the end of the race, the game showed me my time and overall standing in the cross-country contest, with a reminder that I need to pass a certain ranking by the time I reach Las Vegas—this could be an interesting way for players to progress though the campaign without necessarily placing first every time.
Gameplay in the desert was reasonably fun and arcade-y, but felt a touch off. Perhaps this can be attributed to the game’s being built on the Frostbite 2 engine; anyone who has spent time with Battlefield: Bad Company 2 or the Battlefield 3 beta can tell you about those games’ loose-feeling controls, and The Run seems affected by the same issues. Aside from the small control gaffes, the game handles similar to Hot Pursuit, with weighty cars and nitros boost that fills up by driving recklessly; coupled with the desert course, the experience felt a tad familiar to Criterion’s entry in the series.
The next race, Independence Pass, shook things up a bit—quite literally, in fact. The race opens with a scene of Jack stopped in front of a snowy mountain pass, warming his hand and presumably taking a breather. Another racers tears past him, though, and the chase is on. Players need to race down the spindly, icy canyon and overtake the racer before he reaches the bottom, all while trying to avoid careening off the end of the cliffs. Additionally, the local mountain patrol is blasting for avalanches, leaving gamers to negotiate falling snow and rocks.
I dig the concept of one-on-one races like this, and for the most part, the action compares favorably to 2006′s Need for Speed: Carbon‘s canyon runs. It starts to feel cheap near the end, though, when the race becomes less about competing against the driver, and more about memorizing falling rocks. Still, with Independence Pass, it looks like The Run will feature more racing variety than simple point-A to point-B sprints, and these event races could be thrilling in short bursts.
The canyon race also gave me the chance to try out Need for Speed: The Run‘s new rewind function, a feature that’s starting to become standard-issue in modern racing games. However, rather than acting like a VCR, similar to titles like Forza 4 or Need for Speed‘s own Shift 2, The Run‘s rewind system is more akin to Call of Duty‘s respawn mechanic: players cross checkpoints as they progress through the track, and each rewind sends them back to the nearest checkpoint. I’m a bit torn on this system; on one hand, it’s not nearly as seamless as rewind features in other racing games, often pulling me out of the experience. On the other, the checkpoint system places more of an emphasis on survival, rather than correcting small errors, which could lend itself well to other high-stakes levels like Independence Pass.
Graphically, The Run is solid, if unspectacular. Car models look about as good as one can expect from a triple-A racing franchise in 2011, though they certainly aren’t as jaw-dropping as the vehicles in the Forza 4 demo. Environments look exactly like what you would expect from a game built on Frostbite 2, and while they do look pretty good, I couldn’t help feeling like I was racing through one enormous Bad Company 2 map.
Given the demo, Need for Speed: The Run probably won’t reignite my passion for the series the way that Underground did back in 2003, but the experience still seems solid. Racing fans looking for a more non-traditional experience may want to give it a rental when it drops November 15.