While simulation racers like Forza Motorsport 4 and Shift 2 Unleashed coming soon to gamers everywhere, it’s a good time to like your racing action as close to realit as possible. But for those who enjoy a bit more story and fast-paced action to go along with their driving, the proposition of Need For Speed: The Run is likely much more enticing. The newest installment in the classic franchise is bringing some Hollywood storytelling to the racing of the past, hoping to provide a new experience that fans didn’t realize they were missing. We got a chance to speak with the developers and play the game ourselves at this year’s E3, so read on to see if we think they’re on the right track.
From the release of the first announcement trailer for The Run, it was clear that the live-action elements of past Need For Speed titles like Carbon, Most Wanted, and Undercover would be making a return.
It’s no surprise then to hear that Black Box, the creator of those more cinematic titles is also behind The Run. Whether you were a fan of those titles or not, it was a safe assumption that given the success of the recently released Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit, any game in the series would be adopting that game’s approach to both simulation and arcade elements.
Battlefield 3 developers DICE did some work on Hot Pursuit‘s environments, and their impact is being increased with The Run, with the entire game being built on the company’s Frostbite 2 engine. But make no mistake, that’s where the similarities end.
Because The Run is not about simulation, but storytelling. The game follows the protagonist Jack, and while the developers may be keeping quiet on many game details, what we know is that for one reason or another Jack is compelled to race from San Francisco to New York City, avoiding both other racers, the police, and the mafia. Given this unique take on ‘racing,’ the developers feel that The Run will bring a new narrative and chance to grab players with races that actually mean something beyond putting up the best lap time.
The same concept was at work behind the studio’s take on their previous titles, but with the Frostbite 2 engine, the developers think the chance to create engaging characters is even greater. Along with the extended gameplay section we were shown, The Run‘s Producer Alex Grimbley was on hand to give a look at the motion capture work being done for the parts of the game outside of the car. The new engine was given credit mostly for its ability to bring the game’s actors to life, and while the graphics can’t be denied, fans hoping that the engine would be bringing Battlefield 3-quality visuals will be disappointed.
Don’t get us wrong, the game looks spectacular. All of Black Box’s titles have found their own style that works for the type of game they make, and The Run is no exception. The stage we were shown was an extended version of that seen in the released gameplay video, and the night setting definitely delivered the best look for the game. The lighting effects and explosion animations made possible with the new engine are fantastic and subtle, but it’s the camera work that will be most striking to players.
There’s always been a bit of movement in the series, used to emphasize hard turns or the sensation of speed, but The Run takes it to a whole new level. During a hard turn the camera pulls as close as possible to the rear and side of the car, really making you feel like you’re not just feeling the movement of the car, but watching a high-speed chase at the same time. The effect was on display in the gameplay trailer, but to actually have the controller in your hands when it happens is something else.
Exhiliration is what’s key to Need For Speed after all, which is part of the reason that following one person in a race across America seems like an odd choice for The Run. That’s why the developers have come up with a few ways of bringing action outside of racing, in the form of QTE’s and intense cinematic cutscenes. Jack is driving for his life, which means that he’ll be doing as much fleeing on foot as he will be behind the wheel.
The idea of having vehicles break down or be destroyed in intense crashes is satisfying to watch, but also serves an important purpose in terms of gameplay. The developers openly admitted that while they believe in their story, driving across the country in the same car would not be the best possible racing experience. So along the way, Jack will find himself in need of a new set of wheels. From the demo it seemed that quicktime events would be the means of acquiring a new ride, but those fearing that The Run will turn into a third-person action game can rest easy, since cars are still where the game is at.
Although, actually playing the game seems to cast some doubts on that idea. The driving is as solid as it had been in past Need For Speed titles, but for one reason or another didn’t feel quite as exhilarating. It’s not easy making a racing game that provides its car models with weight without making them feel heavy, and there were moments in the playable demo that seriously struggled with the difference. The camera angles definitely provided a strong feeling of momentum, but not in the direction desired.
Slamming up against a wall or opponent caused the camera to sweep in towards the car, giving the sense of having slowed considerably. Unfortunately – and this may have been a symptom of the specific stage in question – there was never really a sense of incredible speed. It’s in the game’s title after all, so I was hoping to feel like I was traveling blisteringly fast at least once. Sadly, that wasn’t the case.
The idea of giving players a concrete goal like ‘Get Out of the City’ instead of simple races really does work in practice, but having the actual driving broken up by cutscenes and preset animations didn’t help the feeling of not driving fast enough. The driving itself was competent enough, even if throwing the car around wasn’t as much fun as in Hot Pursuit, so hopefully the feeling of being restricted isn’t indicative of the entire game.
Having the moment-to-moment driving broken up by exploding cars and having to avoid a police helicopter’s spotlight certainly added some depth to the racing. The additional challenges aren’t just entertaining, but sure to irritate players determined to beat their friends across the country through The Run‘s Autolog system, the Hot Pursuit innovation that Black Box has adopted.
Walking away from the discussion with the developers and hands-on time, the overall feeling is one of curiosity. Not just to see how the rest of the game shapes up with more than a few new ideas at play, but also to find out who this game is aimed at. The action scenes, QTE’s and not-quite simulated physics will likely irritate the Shift 2 crowd, so perhaps that’s not who Black Box is going for. If the developers are aiming at people who prefer a dark and action-packed experience along the lines of Fast & Furious, then the cinematic delivery and more forgiving driving makes perfect sense.
Hopefully the finished product will be able to deliver something to everyone, and it’s hard not to be confident that Black Box can pull it off. There’s plenty of skeptics who are already attacking EA for once again returning to the ‘one a year’ development cycle for Need For Speed titles, but the developers explained that they’ve personally been working on The Run for over two years. Regardless of how the rest of the series shapes up, that amount of time isn’t something a studio simply throws away on a mediocre game.
We’ll keep you up to date on any more looks at gameplay for The Run, so feel free to share your thoughts in the comments, and we’ll do our best to answer any question you may have about this or any other game on display at E3 2011.
Need For Speed: The Run will be putting you in a race for your life on November 15, on the Xbox 360, PS3, PC and Wii.
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