Version tested: PlayStation 3
Given that it arrives at the end of a 12-month period during which we have already been invited to buy two excellent games in the same series, those marketing Need for Speed: The Run would surely be wise not to place too much emphasis on the first bit of its title. At this stage it seems like very much more of a want than a need, and it's not clear upon whose behalf that desire is being expressed in any case.
Then again, with this latest instalment, EA Black Box has done a reasonable job of suggesting an alternative to the fast, lean, sunshine sprints of Criterion's glorious Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit, and to Slightly Mad Studios' more serious SHIFT 2: Unleashed. This time you're racing from San Francisco to New York - a troubled petrol-head on a last-ditch cannonball run to wipe out his debts and start over.
It's one of the better ideas for a racing game to come along in a little while, and the developers have even been brave enough to wrap it up in cut-scenes and quick-time events that add some context in between more typical racing contests. If that wasn't enough drama, they have also borrowed Criterion's innovative Autolog, pitting you against friends stage by stage to create the impression of intimate, bustling competition while you hurtle across America individually.
Your journey begins in the city but quickly throws you onto narrow roads that snake and undulate through Yosemite, before climbing through the icy Colorado Rockies, across The Plains, into the underworld of Chicago and out through the many colourful autumns of the East Coast - all wonderfully diverse and detailed by technology derived from Battlefield 3's luxurious Frostbite 2 engine.
It's not one long run, however - a 3000-mile marathon could very well make for an interesting and unique racing game, but the developers evidently felt it shouldn't be this one - so each stage of your journey is broken up into half a dozen events instead. These ask you to overtake a set number of opponents in the 200-strong field, overtake specific opponents and hold them off for a few seconds to eliminate them, or make up time by racing against the clock to reach checkpoints.
Autolog creates the impression of intimate, bustling competition while you hurtle across America individually.
There are other one-off events, too, like duels down windy mountainside roads and - typically in the cities - more cinematic showdowns with intensified police opposition or, in Chicago's case, a lot of gun-toting mafia SUVs and a helicopter. At times, the action veers cheeringly close to that of last year's depressingly unsuccessful Split/Second: Velocity, complete with avalanches, explosions and dodging past trains under the streets of Manhattan.
The Run itself is over in around two hours (give or take a lot of time staring at load screens and menus) but Black Box hopes your interest will live on in the many Challenges it's concocted - largely events along the same lines as those in The Run itself, but in greater numbers and with medals to unlock and more granular scoring for Autolog - and the online races, with their many varied playlists. As is the norm these days, progress in every mode contributes XP to your driver level, and there are numerous unlocks associated with levelling up.
Whether you will want to continue with The Run much after you make it to New York, however, is another question, because for all its polish and apparently interesting central conceit, beneath the surface it is rather frustrating to play thanks to a combination of irritating problems with handling, AI and structure.
Need for Speed games have always been happiest when you're driving very fast in a straight line and trying not to fall off the road into a bush, and The Run does a decent job of living up to that legacy in a few places - the icy mountain roads of the Colorado mountains, most notably, and in the leafy approach to the outskirts of NYC.
Elsewhere, though, it can be a nightmare to coax entertainment from its sprawling highways. One of the main issues is that in order to keep you honest, the game also limits the number of times you can reset to a recent checkpoint to five per event. Fine in theory, but most of the vehicles steer horribly - exacerbated by poorly responsive controls - so you frequently smack into oncoming traffic or find the game handing out a mandatory reset because you strayed slightly off the track.
Meanwhile, as you fishtail around struggling not to be reset automatically, your computer-controlled opposition will wait calmly just up the road before shooting off into the distance when you approach. Then when you do pull yourself together and marshal enough nitrous to make an overtaking move, they often swerve into your path just as you go to pass them, stifling your momentum enough that you can't overhaul them again before the next checkpoint.
The worst of the game's technical sins is performance, with appallingly low frame rates in our patched PS3 retail version when you brake suddenly or drift through many a corner.
Once you're in front, they seem far better equipped to retake their place than you ever will be, although that's sometimes the least of your problems, because if the cops choose to get involved then you can look forward to them racing past you and then blocking or sideswiping you off the road. Or they may set up a roadblock with a nice gap in it for you to blast through, only to drive another car into it at the last moment so you end up in an unavoidable wreck and lose another life.
The Run is pleasantly diverse and interesting to look at out in the countryside, but someone has given short shrift to the cities, which look much the same whether you're in Vegas, Chicago or New York, and even seem to reuse road layouts and scenery from time to time. The worst of the game's technical sins is not repetition, however, but performance, with appallingly low frame-rates in our patched PS3 retail version when you brake suddenly or drift through many a corner - in other words, when fidelity surely matters most.
The narrative element of the game turns out to be poor, too. Indeed, after a rather functional introduction to your character Jack and Christina Hendricks' voice-on-the-radio Sam, the writers seem to have lost interest completely. There are some awful quick-time events built around foot chases and mafia pursuits, but no plot development of any sort. The best you can expect is a few clichéd sentences introducing your opponents on the loading screens. "Beyond winning, Marcus' primary motivation is to take Jack out of the race... permanently," it is said rather ominously of one of them, although nobody ever explains why.
All of which is a shame. The Run may be the third Need for Speed in barely 12 months, but there was still the potential here to present a legitimate alternative to the games on the other side of the garage. Somewhere in all these ideas is a fast and furious cross-country sprint with a neat back-story, clever structure and great technology. For whatever reason, though, EA Black Box couldn't find it, and instead The Run is a fractured, painful slog and its short, sharp races do little justice to the concept.
5 / 10