"Need for Speed: The Run"
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Wii, Nintendo 3DS, Windows
From: EA Black Box/EA
ESRB rating: Teen (language, mild suggestive themes, violence)
If "Need for Speed: The Run" was a sitcom plot device instead of a game, it'd be that one where a character makes a list of pros and cons and fills out both sides of the paper doing so. Great mechanics and a cool premise - a coast-to-coast, "Cannonball Run"-esque race - do battle with some regrettable design choices, and while "The Run" ultimately comes out ahead, the final score is closer than it should've been.
The benefits of driving cross-country are obvious, even if the story that creates the opportunity is drab. (Happily, the much-maligned on-foot chase sequences - interactive cutscenes that look flashy and push the story but aren't fun to play - are so short and infrequent as to not even factor.)
"The Run" takes place in the United States as we know them, and while it's doled out in stages instead of as a single, uninterrupted cruise, the recreations of numerous locales are extremely visually impressive. The premise also provides some considerable terrain variety, with San Francisco's hilly streets and Colorado's slippery mountains demanding different disciplines than South Dakota's straightaways, downtown Chicago's sharp corners and New Jersey's perilously tight alleys.
"The Run's" breadth of vehicles and tuning options is narrower than the norm, but it offers a satisfactory array of cars built to handle different surfaces and weather. The tug of war that ensues between responsive handling and the perennial sense of being one twitch away from disaster will strike some simply as less-than-optimum handling controls, but it does make for an exciting (and visually impressive) time on the road. The opposing driver A.I. is similarly polarizing: It brazenly rubberbands at points where a close finish makes for good drama, but you may not appreciate driving a spotless race that still finds an opposing driver cutting a 10-second lead down to nothing in seemingly no time.
"The Run's" boldest idea comes with its attempt to treating a racing game like an action game. You get a limited number of resets (lives, basically) per event, and each event has a handful of checkpoints that you'll revert to if you wipe out. Considering every event is pass/fail - if you don't outright win that stretch of the race or complete the event's objective, you have to redo it - it's a novel, sensible approach.
Occasionally, though, you'll get pegged for a reset simply by driving a little bit too off-road at the wrong time. Other times, the same offense doesn't trigger a reset. "The Run's" definition of out of bounds is frustratingly arbitrary, especially considering most tracks have approved shortcuts that reward you for going off the track.
This wouldn't be an issue if the reset process wasn't so obnoxious. "The Run" has deflatingly long load times between events, but it also frequently takes forever to load your last checkpoint in the middle of a race. Couple that with a supremely annoying reset loading graphic that flashes like a strobe while you wait seemingly ages for a chance to try again, and the mechanic's intentions of maintaining momentum completely backfire.
That seemingly innocuous issue is the spark that ignites the fire that will polarize those who find "The Run" exhilarating and those who find it antagonizing and frustrating.
"The Run's" story is fairly brief, but the game complements it with a lot of challenge events that reward medals instead of impose pass/fail restrictions. Online multiplayer (eight players) is pretty straightforward, but the inclusion of the Autolog social network - a persistent interface that makes chasing friends' times in single-player events as much fun as racing them directly online - gives the game plenty of legs for those who like its methods and wish to master them.
(Billy O'Keefe writes video game reviews for McClatchy-Tribune News Service.)