At the center of Need for Speed: The Run is a fantastic idea. Maybe it's just because I've always been a big Cannonball Run fan, but the mere thought of a cross-country race is enough to get me going. So with that in mind, it probably wouldn't surprise you to hear that I was kind of pulling for The Run. But it's disappointing on almost every level. Aside from some occasionally nice graphics and audio, there aren't too many worthwhile things to be found in this year's Need for Speed. It squanders its terrific concept by saddling it with poor handling, insanely inconsistent off-road and crash behaviors, and straightforward, race-only multiplayer that isn't good enough to keep you coming back. If you want to play this type of light, arcade-like driving game, stick to last year's Hot Pursuit.
The setup for your cross-country race has you playing a driver named Jack. On the run from the mob, Jack needs to win this big race earn a high-enough stack of money to make those problems vanish. He starts in San Francisco and the race takes you through Las Vegas, Chicago, and plenty of other rural points as you try to beat over 200 other racers to New York City. But this isn't just some kind of crazy endurance run. Instead, the action is broken up into 10 stages, which are broken up further into specific events. In some cases you'll need to pass eight or nine racers before getting to the end of the section. In others you'll just be racing against a clock to "make up time." This makes the game incredibly linear and static, because if you don't complete those tasks, you'll have to retry that leg of the trip until you get it right. So when your female benefactor says you'll need to hit 50th place by the time you hit Chicago, you can be sure that you'll make it there... even though the story doesn't really say anything about needing to hit those milestones for, like, race rules purposes. It's contrived, but it's contrived in a way that at least serves the game by giving you a variety of things to do as you race.
The game also gins up ways to move you from one class of cars into a faster class by adding a few Quick Time Event sequences to the action. These normally happen in big cities, and they'll have you wrecking your car, running away from angry cops, jumping across rooftops, and stuff like that. It's a little silly because the cutscenes playing on the screen look pretty nice, but you'll be too busy staring at the little button prompts to notice. At the end of these sequences, you'll steal or find a new, faster car to continue on. Gas stations littered along the side of some tracks also give you opportunities to get into different vehicles, in case you aren't gelling with your current ride.
Cars are broken up into tiers to keep similar vehicles together, but they're also given different handling types, like "easy," or "challenging." In my experience, none of the cars feel particularly good. The easy and normal cars feel like they're stuck in the mud, incredibly stiff-steering, and weirdly auto-correcting. Dodging oncoming traffic on a straightaway becomes difficult because the controls simply don't feel responsive enough. The harder handling vehicles don't seem to actually correct this, either. Instead, those cars just get a bit more squirrely around curves, making it a little easier to drift around turns in some cases, but generally just making the driving feel underwhelming in a different way. EIther way, most of the game isn't especially challenging once you get used to the particular quirks in its handling models, though a few events throw curves at you that spike the difficulty in weird ways. When you're running from the mob, who are pursuing you through Cleveland with two suspiciously fast SUVs and a helicopter, you'll get shot at from all sides, forcing you to swerve around in vehicles that don't swerve particularly well as you try to weave your way through a track that seems to be exploding around you. The game offers the helpful tip of "avoid gunfire," but that sequence sort of felt more like luck to me. The constant rubber band AI from your opposition, which keeps everyone close to you at almost all times, certainly didn't help.
The Run's 10 stages will probably take most players between two and three hours of time, from the leaderboard's perspective. That time doesn't include resets and time spent looking at menus, so it's a bit longer than that, but it doesn't feel especially substantial. Despite there being some great little moments, like the dusky sky as you're leaving Las Vegas or the cracks of thunder and lightning as you blast through South Dakota, I can't say I saw too many reasons to go back. The game does fill every nook and cranny with Autolog leaderboards and race recommendations, but when the core game doesn't hold up, fighting over positions with your friends sounds kind of pointless. As you clear out the main mode, tracks are opening up in a "challenge series" mode that gives you medals and other unlockables to earn. Again, this would be a better proposition if the game was more interesting on its own.
Lastly the game has multiplayer, and this breaks the tracks up into several different playlists and builds three-race sessions out of the existing tracks. Up to eight players can race and, well, that's about it. You'll earn XP and build your persistent level, granting you more unlocks along the way, but the simple race style doesn't get much better when you throw in seven other players. The game already has a jarring problem with the way it handles off-road driving, as it seems to be overly sensitive about when it forces you to reset back onto the track. Marked shortcuts? Those are just fine. Cut a hairpin turn a little too close and get off the road a bit? Forced reset. Fly off the road around a turn? Sometimes it's totally fine and you'll be able to recover. Sometimes the screen simply fades to black and drops you back onto the track. Offline, this digs into your limited reserve of resets. Online it happens a bit faster but with unpredictable results. I managed to bump another human player off the road. We both respawned, but for some reason I respawned faster, letting me easily take the lead with no skill whatsoever. The whole system feels completely arbitrary, which is exactly the sort of thing you don't want to see in a competitive multiplayer game.
While there's certainly a great idea at the core of the experience, Need for Speed: The Run instead comes off like some kind of tragedy. The end may set up for a direct sequel to The Run, but unless that's going to include a complete overhaul of every single system, I can't imagine anyone wanting to see that come to fruition. It's a shame, too, because after years of slowly floundering, last year's Need for Speed breathed new life into the long-running franchise. Now, whoever's developing next year's game is starting out with the same depressing deficit we saw back in Need for Speed: Undercover.