Need For Speed: The Run Hands-On Preview: Cannonballing Through the Snow

The last time EA Black Box handled a Need For Speed game, it was the poorly received Need For Speed: Undercover. The product was such a bust that Electronic Arts gave the long-time series developer a lengthy break, placing the future of the franchise in the hands of folks like Criterion, the makers of the Burnout games, and newcomers Slightly Mad Studios. In the time since Undercover, titles like Need For Speed: Shift and Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit have restored the legacy of the once-popular brand. However, while all this was going on, Black Box has been hard at work on this year’s Need For Speed game, dubbed Need For Speed: The Run. Due about a month from now, The Run is a departure from past games in the series, but at the same time, it matches the kind of “storyline-based” racing experience that the developer has been playing at since the days of Need For Speed: Underground.

Platforms: PC, PS3 (Version Played), Xbox 360
Publisher: EA
Developer: EA Black Box
Genre: Leisurely Cross-Country Driving… Not
Release Date: November 15, 2011
ESRB Rating: Teen

For those who haven’t been keeping up with the development of The Run, here’s a quick explanation. The Run is named after an “illegal cross-country race” from San Francisco, CA to New York, NY. If you’re aware of the movie Cannonball Run, you might have a general idea of what to expect. With a prize of $25 million, hundreds of eager drivers enter – including Jack, the dude who represents you while you race around. The demo that recently hit PlayStation Network and Xbox Live doesn’t delve much into the overall plot, but with EA Black Box at the helm, it’s sure to have some weird twists and turns. Just as long as they don’t reveal the big plot twist 10 minutes before the game ends, it should at least be tolerable and a decent backdrop to the most important aspect – you know, racing a car very fast.

The demo allows you to sample two different races at unique points in the game. The first one takes place in the desert of Nevada, on the way to Las Vegas. This race is a fairly traditional point-to-point affair, with the only caveat being there’s no real “first place” finish… even though there really is. Basically, your goal is to pass a set amount of cars before you complete the event, though if you mess up and one of your rivals passes you, you lose credit for the initial pass. So, basically, it’s still “race to the front and stay there”, only it merely increases your overall rank amongst hundreds of drivers. It’s kind of like how many old arcade racing games used to be – pass “x” amount of cars or insert a quarter to continue. Fans of the older NFS games will be at home with the handling of the vehicles – they’re a little heavy, but once you remember how they work, you’ll catch on fast.

In most respects that first race is fairly ordinary, and actually a little dull. The barren desert is too brown to show off much visual fidelity, despite running on DICE’s Frostbite 2 engine, and the course design is a little blah. But since it’s an early-game race, it’s to be expected. The second race, though… wow. Taking place at an elevation of 12,000 feet in the snowy mountains of Colorado, it starts out as a basic one-on-one downhill race… until the avalanche starts. It’s man-made, mind you: it looks like someone is shooting missiles at the mountains to make them tremor. Still, racing through the snow, dodging rocks, avoiding flying over the barricades (the guardrails won’t hold you like some racing games… you just fly over the edge)… it was one of the most intense racing sequences that I can remember. It was really, really fun. If the full game features events with similar insanity, The Run could very well be an absolutely superb racing game. The full version will tell the full story, but what’s in this demo is quite promising.

While the initial demonstration race left me with a strange first impression, the intense and exciting second event gave me very high hopes that Need For Speed: The Run will be a great entry into the franchise and maybe one of the best racing games this calendar year. EA Black Box has always delivered some solid gameplay, but the tired, recycled, silly plots and rushed yearly releases really hurt them. However, with almost three years to work on The Run, it seems they’ve found the right direction with a game that’s really trying something different.

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