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Need for Speed: The Run blends traditional racing with action-movie sensibilities, tense storyline and even some non-driving interactions to create an unusual driving game.
It's not the first time a racing game has attempted to inject some storyline into its main story campaign (ed: and not the first Need For Speed game). However, the kind of narrative spun by driving sims normally tells the story of a rookie driver working their way from the little leagues up to the big time (ed: oh the humanity!).
Need for Speed: The Run seems to take its cue from classic 1970's road-trip movies, Smokey and the Bandit, Cannonball Run and the like. The protagonist has to drive non-stop from San-Francisco to New York against the clock whilst being pursued by the police as well as other even more dangerous parties. It's far darker in tone than Bandit, to be sure, with the ever-present feeling that the hero's life is under threat.
I had the chance to play Need for Speed: The Run and I found it to be more exciting than I expected. The mission begins with the main character being instructed to steal a police car in order to evade an ever-closing threat. In a dramatic cut scene the protagonist jumps a cop and dives into the driving seat before his partner can respond and heads out on to the highway, pursued by a black helicopter.
With such a strong story element, Need for Speed: The Run becomes something new.
The driving itself feels pleasantly familiar to many other hi-octane racing games. With the strong plot-focus I had expected handling similar to Grand Theft Auto or Driver, but Need for Speed: The Run provides a one-way roller coaster through city streets with sweeping bends, chicanes and hairpin turns.
The action ramped up as the pursuing helicopter opened fire, forcing me to switch lanes regularly to keep under cover and reduce the substantial level of damage my car was taking. An underpass provided brief respite from the barrage, but as soon as I saw open sky once again, the onslaught resumed. It become clear that this car was only going to last until the end of this section, if that. Eventually the escape was made and as the race ended a cut scene showed the car flipping over a barrier to crash onto railway lines.
That was where I thought the demo had ended, to be honest. Having played many driving games, I usually look away from the screen once the cut scene kicks in but one of EA's reps prompted me: "don't you want to escape from the car?" I looked back at the screen to see my character upside-down with a set of button prompts on the display. It appears my adventure was not quite over.
Utilising the button-prompts I realised I was in a puzzle section where I had to figure out the correct sequence of actions which would free me from the seatbelt and exit the wrecked vehicle before the oncoming train brought my journey to a premature end. The movie-style presentation of this sequence reminded me of Heavy Rain's interactive drama. It's fascinating to be involved in taking part in the game in a manner other than driving.
It's still a racing game, however. In spite of the narrative drive of the missions, it's a race against the clock and I should reiterate that these are still racing tracks, complete with neon direction lights indicating upcoming turns.
I usually look away from the screen once the cut scene kicks.
However with such a strong story element, Need for Speed: The Run becomes something new. I've become so accustomed to story being delivered through first- or third-person action games I don't think I've ever questioned whether other genres could deliver an adventure story. With Need for Speed: The Run I am forced to challenge this assumption as the racing and story elements mesh to create a genuine motive for the driving.
It's not clear yet how multiplayer will feature into the strongly play-centred level designs, but at the same time it's hard to imagine EA releasing a racing game without a multiplayer component.
There's about 3000 miles of road between San Francisco and New York (and even more since the story apparently deviates to landmark-friendly Las Vegas and Chicago) although it's probably fair to say that with the episodic nature of the narrative it's unlikely that all of the miles will be playable in-game. However, the changing American landscape and climes should provide some great change in scenery and conditions across the races.
Need for Speed: The Run is due for release on PS3, XBox 360, Nintendo Wii, Nintendo 3DS and PC on the 17th November 2011.
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