Need for Speed: The Run Review (Xbox360)

As racing game plot lines go, having your protagonist engage in a cannonball run across the visually identifiable states of the USA isn’t such a bad effort. Hitting the road in San Francisco, Need for Speed: The Run tasks its bad-boy racer with reaching the east Coast of New York in order to claim a stake in a $25,000,000 prize fund, taking in the usual slew of race types and rivalries along the way. Standing between his glory and financial redemption are approximately 200 other cars, not to mention a few quicktime cutscenes and a ribbon of tarmac that’ll take him through all manner of dangerous ravines and mountain tops before releasing him back to the underworld; or indeed, the Underground.

After last year’s critically acclaimed Criterion-developed Hot Pursuit, EA’s franchise has returned to long-time servants Black Box Studios - as is immediately apparent from the handling characteristics of the various supercars at your disposal. Gone is the subtle Outrun-style drifting of Pursuit, and in its place is a half-way house between those mechanics and the more subdued steering and squirrely acceleration that characterised the likes of Most Wanted, Carbon and the ill-fated Undercover. This is a game that likes to rocket its vehicles forward at a ridiculous speed but doesn’t care a whole lot about what they feel like going around corners, and it might take a bit of re-adjustment for those who moved on to the likes of Forza or Shift in the interim.

Thankfully, ‘interactive’ cutscenes are brief

Before you all head for the nearest exit at that news, let’s not forget that up until ProStreet, Black Box had churned out some hugely entertaining arcade racers with more than their fair share of dramatic and cinematic moments. Indeed Most Wanted remains one of my favourite 360 games to date, with a baffling mixture of open-world racing and utterly ridiculous live-action video cutscenes (those of you that remember Sergeant Cross will know what I mean). Stepping into the way-back-machine for the purposes of this review, it was a pleasure to find out that those early games still perform decently once you adjust to the curiously lightweight feel of the vehicles and factor in some comparatively treacly steering. Their graphical engines might be a little long in the tooth, but a pedigree for easily accessible racers is clearly evident.

In broad strokes, those same plaudits apply to The Run - albeit without the open world to roam as you take on your opponents. Each linear stretch of tarmac is hewn from a small number of race types, and you might be tasked with overtaking a set number of opponents, making up time to the next checkpoint, or battling one-on-one with a rival through an obstacle-strewn death race. Indeed it’s those lonely face-offs that prove to be the highlight of the package overall, as they neatly showcase a clutch of environmental set pieces and flare for Split/Second style cinematic showmanship that’s unfortunately under-used.

The visuals are strikingly smooth

Indeed that criticism is true of almost every aspect of The Run. The racing itself is decent enough, with rubber-banding that keeps things challenging but never feels particularly obtrusive; but there’s simply not enough of it. With the campaign clocking in at around 2 hours worth of driving time (roughly translated to 4 hours when you factor in restarts, menu time and cut scenes), you’ll be left with a challenge mode and basic multiplayer offering to round out the experience, neither of which is particularly compelling in their own right. It’s certainly content to round out the package, but both modes feel undercooked and relatively apathetic in presentation and enthusiasm.

Likewise, the dramatic plot sequences are churned along with a few quicktime events that may as well be non-interactive, and whilst the delivery and acting isn’t particularly bad, you’re left to fill in most of the storyline blanks yourself. Each of your rivals is introduced with a photograph and a paragraph of text, but absolutely nothing in the way of back-story or video. Most of the time you won’t even see their character models (save for some ludicrous ‘sexy’ females - presumably there for marketing purposes than anything else), which makes the very notion of their existence almost entirely redundant. It’s as if Black Box had their usual plan for a full story and cutscenes ready to go, but then somebody chopped 80% of the budget in pre-production, and nobody stopped to wonder whether the remains could actually serve their original purpose.

It all clips along at a decent rate

On the flipside, if you ignore those storyline elements completely and play The Run as a straight arcade racer, it’s a supremely pretty and all-too-briefly engaging experience. The Frostbite 2 engine has been put to good use yet again, with each of the stages offering up their own sumptuous environmental visuals and occasionally stunning lighting effects. Autolog is also present and correct across the whole of the package, which may well lend the experience a little more endurance for those of you with a packed friends list and plenty of willing participants. Somewhat tellingly though, only two or three people from my list were actively populating the leaderboards this time round, compared with a high of 15-17 during the months following the launch of Hot Pursuit.

It’s something of a shame that The run ended up as the halfway house between Criterion’s efforts and the madcap racers that Black Box usually produce then, as the result is a curiously half-baked and tentative step forward for a developer that needed to find its feet after the technical issues and wayward pacing that plagued Undercover. What’s here is entertaining enough, but you can’t shake the feeling that the end product could have been so much more fulfilling with just a little more conviction and/or development time. Whatever their reasons though, I’ll be crossing my fingers for a sequel; the concept is brilliant.

Best Game Moment: Bursting into the great plains