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Need for Speed: The Run preview: Action distraction


EA gave us a quick runthrough (sorry) here at E3 for their upcoming Need for Speed: The Run, a title being put together by Black Box Software up in Vancouver. The Run brings a number of new features to the series, including a deeper story than we've seen in most racing games, 325 kilometers of actual real world locations from San Francisco to New York City rendered with the hyped-up Frostbite 2 engine, and of course the much-publicized out-of-car sequences, featuring protagonist Jack running along to a series of button-press quicktime events.

So on paper, Need for Speed: The Run seems like a thrill ride, and that's what Black Box is definitely going for, with "racing" sequences that send Jack riding through the streets of Chicago while being chased by the mob, the cops, and even an attack helicopter. The problem? This is purportedly a racing game. Autolog is right here on display front and center, and if the whole point of the game is to set a great time on the leaderboards (certainly something any Need for Speed game should aspire to), then all of the explosions and over-the-top action end up distracting more than anything else.

Gallery: Need for Speed: The Run (E3 2011) | 14 Photos

Black Box certainly tries hard -- they loaded up the Chicago segment during the hands-on demo, and immediately, Jack and his car were thrown into the middle of the high-stakes cross country race, flying through the Windy City's streets with maybe half a dozen other racers. Not thirty seconds into the ride, Jack gets side-swiped by a black sedan, and in a short cutscene we see that it's the mob; apparently he's run afoul of the wrong people.

The race then becomes a chase, and Jack abandons the crashed car to run across the rooftops. The actual out-of-car gameplay will only make up about ten percent of the game, says Black Box. In their previous Need for Speed "action titles," the story of the game was portrayed in cutscenes, but in this one, "we're asking you now to play the story," I was told. As you've probably seen in the videos, the sequences are basically just button-press events -- tap X repeatedly to run, press triangle to jump this gap, pull both triggers to grab this ledge. There's no direct control of Jack, and it's unclear, so far, just what happens when you fail. Black Box told me there would be "failure states," but as far as I saw, there's no branching stories or decisions to make.

No matter what you do, in other words, Jack will jump off the rooftops, get caught by the cops, and eventually steal their cop car (press square to kick this cop in the stomach). In the cop car, the chase gets even more hectic, with mobsters still trying to take him out, and soon a police helicopter shows up on the scene armed to the teeth, firing down on Jack, who has to try to dodge a spotlight while flying through a respectably rendered version of Lower Wacker Drive.

Wasn't there supposed to be a race going on here? Indeed, despite all of the action, the whole stage is still timed, so Jack isn't just running for his life -- he's also running for the leaderboards. In fact, Black Box has included EA's Autolog service in the single-player campaign, so while you're personally running across the country, you'll also get updates on where your friends are, and how long it took them to drive the stage you're running.

The problem, though, is that all of the action seems like a distraction from the reason why you're there in the first place, which is to set a time and shave some seconds off of it. The explosions and action are indeed reminiscent of Split/Second, and that was a game that arguably combined precision racing with over-the-top spectacle. Even with the demolition, was still about the actual competition of racing. The Run seems to be crashing this story about Jack into what's supposed to be a competitive sport, and though the demo was still hands-off, it seems neither side is coming out well.

Finally, a gas truck appears on the road ahead of Jack, and the helicopter of course shoots it, causing it to explode and blow Jack's car off the road -- where it lands right on a train track with a locomotive bearing down in the background. Jack's in the crash upside down, and he's got to get out of the car, so you need to press the left stick forward and tap X. Wait -- that sequence didn't work, so try left stick and square. That didn't work either -- the icon just flares up in a flash of flame and disappears. Try left stick and triangle! That works -- Jack punches a window out just as the train hits and --

Black screen. Mission complete. And by the way, while you were running from the mafia and trying to keep your stolen police car from being hit by the gatling gun on that helicopter, you also hit second on the speedwall.

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