Need For Speed The Run got mediocre reviews at the time of its release, which is why I never played it at the time. I picked it up for $10 in a digital sale in 2015, and just shoved it into my backlog, but remained curious about the game’s concept of playing through a car chase movie like Cannonball run. Loading it up in 2020 for the first time I wasn’t expecting to love it but thought it might be interesting.
Instead I found that it alternated between mediocre and infuriating, with the infuriating portions sucking much of the fun out of the ‘better’ parts.
Need For Speed The Run starts with your character duct taped to the steering wheel a very expensive car that’s being dropped into a car crusher. It’s a very dramatic and cinematic, though not particularly good, sequence with close ups of the character’s face as he recognizes his predicament, intense music, and of course a series of QTEs as you escape, jump into another car, and drive off into the night, frantically trying to obey the game’s command to “Escape the Mob.” The escape itself features a bunch of mob cars chasing you and blasting your car with what seem to be uzis as you swerve to avoid them and get to the goal. It doesn’t really work. It’s very weird to get shot at in a racing game where you have no health or means of defending yourself, and the tone seems to be setting up for some kind of open world action game with racing components instead of what the game is, at least in structure, which is a pure arcade racer. After your character escapes the mob he meets up with a woman who appears to be a childhood friend and she fronts him the money to participate in “The Run” which is a race from “San Fran” to New York featuring hundreds of racers and an 8 figure prize. You then pick a car and the game drops you into the first stage of the race. Each stage is broken up into individual levels with various goals, generally to overtake a number of cars on a section of track (basically to come in first), or a checkpoint race against time, or a battle race where you need to be in front of your opponent when time expires. The woman character from the restaurant will occasionally chime in to tell you the objective but there’s very little story in the majority of the stages. You do get a lot of very dramatic music that’s unusual in a racing game, but it’s usually the same track over and over with only a few stages featuring different songs (none of which fit in a racing game), and one wonders if they just forgot to license a full soundtrack for this thing. It feels off for something that plays like a throwback arcade racer to be wrapped up in this hyper dramatic plot and trappings, especially because they don’t really factor in to most levels in any way.
The game itself plays…not great. It’s serviceable for 2011, but considering that it came out after 2010’s Need for Speed Hot Pursuit and just one year before the outstanding Forza Horizon and the very good Need for Speed: Most Wanted 2012, it feels even older than it is. Hot Pursuit and Most Wanted both ran on Criterion’s own engine while The Run is on Frostbite 2, and you can tell. The game looks mostly okay, though there’s a low resolution to graphics further down the track that can sometimes make it hard to tell what exactly is coming up, but the handling feels off. Cars slip and skid out too easily, and while the game encourages drifting it never feels good to do so and is far too easy to swing into oversteering. For a game that often requires you to weave and dodge through traffic while chasing down opponents this can produce a kind of out of control feeling that isn’t enjoyable. The races have checkpoints and if you crash you get reset, but you only get 5 resets per race and the game also has an XP system that gives you a bonus for finishing with no resets. Of course if you lose a race you can retry as many times as you want, but the game pushes you to be perfect and to get your time down, including through its leaderboard system, and then often leaves you feeling like your performance was due to random whims of traffic or quirks of the handling system. It’s also incredibly easy to wreck, including against obstacles that it seems like you should bounce off of or plow over, and small obstacles about fender height that are hard to see with the default camera angle. The whole thing feels like something from the late 90s or early 2000s. Not unplayable, but very unpolished from a time before racing games had perfected their handling and collision models. It also has very long load times even when installed to a hard drive, meaning you’re going to be sitting through 30-45 second loads every 5-9 minutes, and 10 second loads whenever you crash (you get 5 checkpoint restarts per race on normal difficulty), which is annoying.
Need For Speed: The Run is marketed as an intense story driven experience but leans harder into standard racing game tropes than it does into its premise. While you upgrade into new “classes” of cars through QTE laden cut scenes, you can also switch cars within a class by driving through gas stations that appear beside the track at random points in some levels. It’s both immersion breaking (the race “pauses” while you switch cars) and frustrating, because while the game tells you what kind of car you should use for each kind of track (high top speed for levels with straightaways, more maneuverable cars for twistier tracks) there’s no forewarning about what kinds of tracks you’ve got coming up and no way to know the best car to switch to. It’s as if you were playing an RPG where certain elements were more effective against different types of enemies, but you had to pick your load out before the game showed you what enemies you would be facing. In addition, the game unlocks challenges as you beat stages and features heavy leaderboard integration and online multiplayer racing. It’s not the first Need for Speed game to feature an overwrought story that it doesn’t do much with, but it is, to my knowledge, the only one that offers a totally linear story experience and QTEs, let alone tracks that have you being shot at. Given how much racing game stuff is missing from the game (no open world or car collection or tuning) it would have been nice to see that replaced with something else, or at least an attempt at a really strong story. Nope. Instead you get a few medium length QTE sequences between some of the stages, which are animated pretty well for 2011 but have a pretty short window for hitting the buttons (leaving you staring at the area where the button prompt appears instead of the fancy graphics) and should have just been cut scenes.
The real problems with Need For Speed the Run become apparent as you play deeper into the game. Racing games should aim for one of two things. Being fair, by which I mean being a true test of skill where the player’s performance is dictated by how good they are, or being exciting, by which I mean using tricks like rubber band AI to make every race come down to a thrilling finish, even if it means that the player’s performance early in the race isn’t very meaningful. Need For Speed The Run tries a mix of both, but ends up creating something distinct from either. It feels unfair and random.
The main problem the game has is its random traffic, which combines with its other issues like bad handling to create a game where your performance often feels like it is dictated by how lucky you are with traffic patterns. Sometimes the cars ahead of you will slam into, or have to swerve to avoid, oncoming traffic and you can easily blow by them. More often you will find yourself pinned into impossible situations. Need For Speed The Run isn’t a very hard game, but it’s far from easy, and you really can’t make many mistakes if you want to advance past your current level. It also heavily penalizes going off road, slowing you down significantly at the best of times and resetting your car on the track with a penalty if you go outside the thin permissible off road area surrounding the intended track. This means you will often find yourself on thin two lane roads, racing at the edge of control to try and catch up to the leader or hit the next checkpoint within time, only to find the road in front of you filled with two cars passing one another in opposite directions and no winning choices on how to respond. If you brake hard you lose more time than you can afford to. If you try to swerve off road onto the shoulder you get bounced around out of control and may crash or get reset. If you love being faced with unwinnable situations in a driving game then this game is for you. If you enjoy slowing down because one of your wheels is slightly up on the shoulder of the road and even though there’s no rumble or audio feedback for this you will find yourself decelerating, this will be a game you treasure. If you also love things like sliding around a hairpin turn only to smash into an oncoming truck, or cresting a hill after a turn only to whack right into the back of an RV you will also love this title. I can’t tell you how many times I found myself in a neck and neck battle against the last car in the level with the end of level gates approaching only to lose, or even sometimes win, because of random traffic rather than my own skill or even a move by the opposing car. I won the second to last race, where I was playing badly, because a random car t-boned my opponent towards the finish. That also happened in the final race but the opponent caught up to me because the last race is heavily scripted. I can’t list the number of times I got taken out by a random car while in the lead racing towards the finish, many of which I either couldn’t see or couldn’t avoid. It’s not exciting, it’s not fun, it’s just frustrating as hell. There are also other difficulty spikes in the form of very tight windows on some of the checkpoint races and overpowered opposing cars as level bosses, but at least with those you can practice and get better and learn the track and eventually prevail. The random traffic issue just feels grossly unfair and intended to artificially extend the length of a short and linear game.
The game also features aggressive cops who, to the game’s credit, try to stop both you and your opponents. These don’t appear on every stage, but when they do they’re kind of annoying but not as frustrating as the random traffic because their appearance and behavior is predictable, allowing you to either compensate in the moment or at least learn track well enough that you can avoid them. You can execute takedowns on the cops, but this is not advisable because the game switches to a Burnout style “takedown” cam while taking control of your car and you run the risk of losing time or, worse, being given control back in a situation where the random traffic is about to screw you over. You’re much better off just avoiding the police and focusing on the other racers. Taking down cops does, however, give you XP, which feeds into a stupid leveling system that walls off necessary mechanics like nitro boost or the ability to gain more nitro by driving dangerously behind arbitrary levels. The game tips screen even suggests you grind to unlock bonuses if you want to take on the hardest challenges, which…no. Just no. Hard no.
Need For Speed the Run isn’t without good elements. Some of the tracks, especially those that focus on broader highways where you can duck and weave through the traffic (though the handling makes that harder than it should be) can be entertaining. You can adjust to the handling quirks and learn to time your nitro out of corners and when the game is not being blatantly unfair it can be a pretty okay time. In 2020 this 2010 release obviously does not have “good” graphics, but it has competent art design and some of the tracks in the Colorado and Plains areas look good and are of a style that isn’t done much anymore, with long highways stretching out to the horizon or twisty mountain passes. The East Coast autumnal forests with bright golden leaves are another highlight and reminded me of one of my favorite tracks from the PSX version of Need for Speed III: Hot Pursuit. There are even a few gimmick levels, like racing through an avalanche, that aren’t classics or anything but offer a certain arcadey charm that modern racers could learn from. There’s also a lot of content in the game, with 10 stages each made up of half a dozen or so races on unique tracks, many of which are 10 kilometers long or more. The campaign itself is short, but since it doesn’t recycle tracks there’s a whole lot to do if, for some reason, you want to focus on perfecting your times. The game tried to encourage this through leaderboards but of course nobody’s really messing with this in 2020.
The difficulty spikes in NFSTR get worse and worse as you advance, and the highs do not compensate for the lows. As I played the game I kept getting mad at the designers for the way the various design choices (such as not letting you switch out your car at the beginning of each track, the handling model, the traffic and the tight windows for victory) clash with one another. Need for Speed The Run was never going to be worth its $60 asking price during the 7th generation, where both the PS3 and Xbox 360 were stacked with far superior games, including from the Need for Speed series itself, but it could have been a fun bargain bin diversion. Instead it is sometimes that and sometimes a frustrating slog. I would say that it was a missed attempt at inserting a real narrative into a racing game, except that they didn’t even really try. It seems like the game should have a lot more cut scenes, introducing some of the rival racers or showing your character traveling between cities, but instead it has very brief text descriptions in the loading screens. This could have been a playable car chase movie. It’s not. It’s just a mediocre old game that’s best forgotten. Which it mostly has been.