E3 2011: Need for Speed: The Run hands-on preview

Was I the only Need for Speed fan groaning during EA’s E3 press conference once it was revealed that The Run’s racing cache would be… quick time events? So… instead of falling back on the good favor you’ve earned from SHIFT and Hot Pursuit, you’re making this your flagship racing franchise into The Fugitive?! Okay, let’s get calm… While I can report that the cineractive events are in fact a little lame, they make a helluva lot more sense within the context of something far more interesting and exciting The Run is looking to pull off.

Behind closed doors, the developers were incredibly quick to point out that cineractive, on-foot moments encompass only 10% of The Run’s gameplay, so they’re obviously aware of the impending backlash. Yet, it still begs the question: Does Need for Speed need a story?

As a racing fan who found the NFS: Underground era’s grating Cholo Saga to be the absolute worst part of otherwise great games, my eyes were a’rollin’. And like most other people, I disliked the NFS cop tale in the NFS: Undercover, the only series misstep in an otherwise great showing this generation, but not for the reasons you might think. In that case, it was the antiquated open-world aspects of the game that were the stale sugar in the gas tank. The storytelling, however, was actually quite elegant. And in The Run’s case, plot makes for something altogether impressive, in that it strings together a full-blown narrative experience unlike anything you’ve ever played before.

The saving grace here is that The Run’s seemingly unnecessary plot is directly responsible for moving the NFS series beyond boring tracks, single-city racing and fictional locales. The title references a cross country race, stretching from San Francisco to New York, which as you might’ve guessed, opens up a wealth of yet unseen options for a racing game. Playing as Jack McRaceguy (I didn’t get to know him that well), you’ll barrel through around 300 kilometers of road, more than any other NFS game of this generation, and you can bet on frequent stops at some gorgeous, recognizable destinations in between.

If you’re not familiar with IRL, Cannonball Run style races, know that it’s not a nonstop drive. With over 100 racers participating in a high stakes, coast-to-coast, multi-day event, that’d be insane. You move up the ranks via smaller races, one at a time. Finish a leg, take a break/nap/meal, and then start the next race in from the pole position you last finished. Unfortunately for Jack, this structure leaves ample time for “The Mob” to prevent him from winning the race (for reasons I’m not entirely sure of, yet totally willing to embrace).

Our hands-on kicked off in Chicago, for a visual treat that’ll instantly trigger fond memories of The Dark Knight in almost everyone. I’ve got no problem invoking that blockbuster film, because I’ve certainly never seen a game with this much cinematic flourish. The cops are after Jack, as are bad men with guns and the camera whips, snaps and lassos around vehicles in ways that the Fast and Furious franchise wishes it could pull off. And it’s all carried out seamlessly with no load times, no less! In particular, I loved that the camera yanked itself behind an approaching helicopter, yet I was still controlling the now tiny car in its sites.

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