Need For Speed: The Run is built on that most enduring of ideas: the cross-country road trip. Of course, central protagonist Jack isn't just out for a booze-fuelled cruise filled with frat houses, prostate milking and buses for the blind...he's on the lam and is running for his life, from both the cops and the Mafia it would seem. Why? We don't know at this stage, but we do know his journey will take him from San Francisco to New York very quickly - if the player is sharp on the shift and swift in the drift - indeed.
The game will feature over 325 km of track, something that veteran series developer Black Box (they worked on NFS: Undercover) are very proud of, and understandably so. It's three times more than that found in Hot Pursuit. The scale of this thing will be massive. Whether it fulfils the tagline of making us feel like we're in the race for our lives (our rather, Jack's life) remains to be seen. We're withholding judgement on that one for the time being.
The demo we got our hands on was the same section, based in Chicago, shown at the EA press conference. Jack starts off engaging in a normal street race in downtown Chicago and all is good with the world. Until, that is, he gets T-boned by a vehicle from the right and his car is smashed to bits and Jack...*gasp*...gets out of the car! Sirens fill the air and it's not long before the fuzz arrive, the boys in blue are after Jack and he takes flight on foot, busting his way into a nearby building and taking to the roofs.
You probably know what comes next if you've watched any of the trailers. Quick Time Events, everyone's favourite way to deal with an interactive cinematic experience! No Mirror's Edge-style free running as some few may have hoped, no simple chase mechanics of any kind in fact, you just interrupt the action occasionally for a camera cut or a crunching kick at a policeman. You know the score. Whatever happens on the controller end, the sequence finishes the same way each time: Jack drops down a fire escape, smacks around a cop and drives off in a squad car, chased by a chopper.
Frostbite 2.0 looks fantastic. We've already seen it in the previews for the spectacular-looking Battlefield 3, but as Need For Speed: The Run puts DICE's engine through its paces in tyre-burning high speed, bullets pinging off of bumpers, explosions occasionally popping up like in Split/Second, a helicopter's spotlight zigzagging in front of a car pushing three digits and drifting aggressively around corners. It looks like it's pretty thrilling stuff...
...or it would do if we hadn't just had a double dose of series-saving shenanigans from Criterion and Slightly Mad in the last eighteen months.
The emphasis is on speed: you have a certain amount of time to reach the end of the course. It's a race rather than a chase, and this is part of the problem I'm perceiving with the game. We've been spoiled, really. Hot Pursuit gave the player so much freedom, so many different routes, that you never felt restricted. That was a different game, of course, and to compare the two straight off the bat is a little unfair. But the tension created in The Run's sequence seems too contrived, too clinical and too scripted to really engage.
Part of the problem is the lack of alternate routes. Giving you a fixed point on the map and challenging you to get there by whatever route you choose, with a chopper on your tail, would have been brilliant. Instead, you're forced into a somewhat unnatural situation, funnelled down a singular path by track markers. It's fine for street racing, it sort of makes sense that there'd be a pre-planned route for a dedicated race, but here it just seems restrictive. Everything's a little too binary for my liking. There's not even a variation in terms of the vertical; Mario Kart is less linear than what's been shown here.
There's a point to this, of course, which is The Run's emphasis on shaving nanoseconds off of your times. The incorporation of Autolog into the game means in every city, for every stretch of track, there'll be notifications telling you just how well your friends are doing and challenging your honour, pride and driving skills. Need For Speed has always been something of an umbrella series, incorporating a number of different driving sub-genres under the same roof. But with each game, one thing has been paramount: Everything is about the race. The trouble with The Run is that the action and the racing just appear to sit so uncomfortably side by side rather than complementing one another.
The reason for this is that Black Box appear to have taken too much control, and on the fly decision making is a part of that, away from the player. You only have to look at Split/Second and Motorstorm Apocalypse to see examples of a well struck balance between action and racing, with an emphasis still place on the latter. It's a game perched precariously on a number of fences, walking tightropes between action and driving, scripting and freedom, arcade handling and sim sensibilities - Black Box say that The Run will occupy a handling space somewhere in between Hot Pursuit and Shift 2 Unleashed.
The developers have opted for more 'cinematic' stylings, wanting to tell a 'strong narrative', and the technology they're using will certainly help in that respect. For the first time, NFS will have a central protagonist, aided by full performance capture. But whenever someone begins to throw the word 'cinematic' around I worry. Too many times have we seen the word 'cinematic' accompany a gameplay model that is tantamount to hand-holding linearity. There's talk of the game opening up in the rural areas outside of the cities, and I really hope that is the case, because I don't want Call of Duty on four wheels or a game that's basically lots of examples of the driving bits from Blood Stone. It looks great, sheer candy for the eyes from Frostbite 2.0, but we're not sure if we've got the need for this instalment just yet.