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Need for Speed: The Run is an action story on four wheels. Effective and dramatic this delivers a real big screen experience.
As I crossed the great plains, steaming hot tires squealing along the highway, a cluster of racers had grouped, somehow. The 2000 miles still to cover faded into the back of my mind in comparison to that moment. There and then, all I cared about was pushing ahead of this group. I couldn't let up in my concentration for a moment. I could make quicker progress in the oncoming lane, but at speeds of 185mph I had only moments to avoid a almost certainly fatal collision. It was risky, but with my debts the only choices were to win or die. As the bright lights of a big truck appeared I ducked back into my own lane. A white Lambo pulled up alongside me, trying to overtake. They realised they couldn't cut in in time and blasted their horn in panic, pleading to be let in. Unluckily for them, my own precious seconds might mean my life. The last I saw of them was a flashing of headlights and the sound of crumpling metal, already so far behind me.
I'll be totally honest and say that I don't play a lot of racing games. Need for Speed: The Run caught my attention for one simple reason: it wants to tell a gripping story through a racing game, rather than through a thirdperson style like Uncharted 3.
A lot of racers pretend toward plot, but this is usually a thin narrative about a rags-to-riches driver. In The Run, our protagonist is already a success, but is forced to take on a high-risk illegal race from San Francisco to New York non-stop in order to pay off his debts to The Mob.
Need for Speed: The Run impressed me from the start. There can't be many racing games which begin with a series of QTE challenges to free the hero from a car-crusher, while two gangsters look on. From there it's into the nearest car and the first short introductory race saw me chasing through a scrap yard, trying to outrun my pursuers. This is narrative twinned to gameplay in a way I've never seen in a racing game before.
It's like a Bruckheimer/Bay take on Ridge Racer.
This is still a bona fide racing game, rather than an open-world driving game. The urban tracks feature neon arrows to highlight the route and aside from the occasional cheeky shortcut, this is about following the best driving line on a long track. What the narrative achieves so successfully is that it really feels as though each level played is part of the same massive race.
The story approach is also highly cinematic, with a dramatic score to match the action rather than club tunes. Crashes are replayed with jump-cuts and slow motion, especially when attacking police cars are knocked out of the chase. I loved the audio swooshes as I grazed through a narrow gap between two oncoming juggernauts and the camera adjusted to highlight the near miss. It's like a Bruckheimer/Bay take on Ridge Racer.
Wisely, the creators allow little to interfere with the driving, once a race has started. Early on there are a few pop-up tips which break the action (and once caused me to fly off the road) but generally once the car is in your hands you can be confident you'll be left alone to race properly until you cross the finish line. This is not Uncharted, where the camera could, at any moment, veer away from gameplay to show a cut-scene.
Taken as a whole, it doesn't develop its narrative a great deal after the first few races. Like a big screen action movie, the plot occupies a passenger seat very quickly only makes occasional appearances before the end of the story. As a storyteller myself, I would have preferred more character development throughout, but nevertheless the writers managed to drop a good amount of emotional context into the action, which had me far more connected to a racing game than I have previously been. It even managed to set me thinking about getting a steering wheel, which is a first!
There's no reason why a great story can't be enjoyed from behind the wheel of a fast car.
The beauty of this game is that it's still a great racing challenge. Car choice makes a huge impact on success or failure on the different tracks and this game will demand some pretty solid driving to win through, especially for the challenges and multiplayer. I found it easy to get stuck during The Run, as cars can only be switched at key points and I often found myself in a vehicle totally unsuited to the next stretch of the journey.
For racing fans, there's also a great deal to be enjoyed in the challenges and multiplayer, which is essentially the routes from the main game stripped of the narrative thread. Multiplayer is fast and brutal and the niceties of sportsman ship are left well behind.
For me, the highlight is the story context which keeps me returning to the race and routing for the hero. Need For Speed: The Run has proved to me its simple concept that - in gaming at least - there's no reason why a great story can't be enjoyed from behind the wheel of a fast car.
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