It's been a tight race against three rivals through the snowy mountains of Colorado. Hairpin turns have given way to some open, lightly curved roads with a bridge over an icy river, and the bright sun makes it a lovely day to tear through the treacherous terrain. Conserving boost, I've got the pedal floored to keep pace with the pack, and once I've got a good reserve stored up it's time to let loose. I hit the nitrous and clear the first two racers, no problem, although grinding against one drops my top speed a bit. The finish line is dead ahead but I'm making up the distance between my car and the lead, and I'm ahead by a nose a few very short feet before the finish line. The incredible feeling of a tight race honestly won quickly turns sour, however, when Need For Speed: The Run decides that it hadn't quite registered the overtake, and therefore I actually lost.
Need For Speed: The Run isn't a completely hopeless case, but it's not for lack of trying.
This was the final straw in a full haystack's worth of annoyance, aggravation, and incredibly poor design that permeates The Run. On paper it sounds like it's got everything: a cross-country race from San Francisco to New York City over the back roads, highways, towns, cities, mountains, plains, and every other bit of landscape that make up a continent's worth of racing variety. All that's missing to perfect the scenario is Burt Reynolds and Dom DeLuise.
The heart of the game, the physical control of the cars, also works well. Need For Speed has always done an excellent job of straddling the line between sim and racer, and The Run is no exception. Holding down the Go Fast button is satisfying, sure, but it's not the way to win races. Careful handling of speed around corners, incorporating familiarity of the individual car physics, is the only way to avoid becoming a pile of scrap at the back of the pack. Letting off the gas into corners and then carefully managing the recovery, maybe with a precisely timed boost of nitrous to help stabilize the car back into a straight line while making up the lost momentum, is going to do a lot more than just accelerating and hoping the handbrake drift will get you by. Try doing this while also working on overtaking a pack of rivals and you've got a nicely tricky situation that feels great when pulled off with style.
Getting to the point where you can pull that off, however, is a painful trek that goes out of its way to make as bad a first impression as possible. Things start going south instantly on getting the shrinkwrap off the game, revealing only an online pass and some legalese. There's no instruction manual to be found, which wouldn't be a big deal if there was some kind of indication it's hidden in the Extras menu. Expecting the player to explore every menu before playing isn't particularly reasonable. Still, flailing away to find out how things work is a time-honored tradition, so might as well choose the first option on the menu, The Run. And how does this racing game begin? With a quick-time event.
While Need For Speed: The Run is somehow infested with quick-time events, where the personality-vacant hero engages in random bits of derring-do without the use of a car, they're thankfully scarce. Starting the game with one is a baffling decision, but at least it's over quickly, and once things get underway it's time to choose one of three cars to start the cross-country trip in. You'd better guess right for a car to suit your driving style, though, because you're stuck with it for several races. Switching out cars is done at gas stations in the middle of the race, and it's easy to lose a position or two while doing it.
Seeing as it's obviously impossible to show every minute (or even a decent percentage) of a cross-country race, not allowing the player access to the garage between races comes across as a bizarre game of automotive keep-away. At the very least, it discourages playing with different cars to see how they perform, because who knows when you'll be able to change back?
That may seem a bit nitpicky, but small little things like that crop up throughout the game. You've got a limited number of resets, for example, which put you back to the last checkpoint with speed and opponents arrayed exactly as they were at the time, but The Run makes a game out of turning it into an annoyance. Go a couple feet of the road? Reset. Crash before the first checkpoint? That's a complete waste of a reset. Want to restart the race after a crash? Wait for the slo-mo crash animation to play out, reset, and then re-load the entire course from scratch. It only feels like it takes forever.
Despite all this (and there's much, much more left unmentioned), Need For Speed: The Run does have its good points. The races cover a huge variety of terrain, and while a group of tracks might share the same scenery type, they all have their own personality. The lovely gentle curving roads of the desert, with the winds blowing dust across the track, are as memorable as the same type of roads on the plains, where the sun tries to cut through a heavy grey overcast and the green fields stretch out forever. These are roads worth racing on, and The Run's online leaderboards give plenty of reason to visit them again.
While the primary game mode is The Run, there's also a secondary mode, the Challenge Series. As you complete chapters in The Run, those tracks become available to compete for best times with your friends list. Technically you're supposed to be racing the clock to earn a medal, but honestly, it's all about who's ahead of you on the leaderboard.
Need For Speed: The Run isn't a completely hopeless case, but it's not for lack of trying. It's got the basics of a decent racer but far too many issues to make digging for the good stuff worth it. The endless annoyances of long load times, unskippable crash animations, the inability to effectively experiment with different cars, finding out the car you decided against your better judgement to experiment with is actually - based on the handling - a walrus and having to restart the whole race and lose time to swap it out again, and many more eventually add up. Eventually little things that would be forgiven in a better game become maddening, like the way the car stats are presented. Petty, sure, but when you're already annoyed it's just more fuel for the fire. The basic idea behind Need for Speed: The Run is a great one, and hopefully a game worth playing will do it justice some day.