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How does EA Black Box’s final Need for Speed title, Need for Speed: The Run, stack up against the rest of the series, and the genre as a whole?

I grew up on Need for Speed. I played the first ten games, from Road & Track Presents: The Need for Speed up to Need for Speed: Carbon, before dipping out of the series in the latter half of the 2000s as the franchise stalled with a string of mediocrely reviewed entries.

The critical resurgence of the series under Criterion Games with their reboots of Hot Pursuit and Most Wanted deserve all praise. Despite sometimes being unfairly labeled as Burnout games with the Need for Speed moniker, the racing games under Criterion and Ghost Games (yes, even the self-titled 2015 Need for Speed) far offset the other junk releases of the series post-Carbon. Outside the games developed by Criterion and Ghost, these miscellaneous Need for Speed entries have largely been forgotten. Nevertheless, I felt compelled to try Need for Speed: The Run, EA Black Box’s final project in the franchise, given its odd narrative setup of a mad cross-country sprint.

Although hoping to discover an under-appreciated game deserving of a second shot, what I instead discovered was a missed opportunity for the series bogged down by blatant flaws and narrative shorthand. This column isn’t defending the game – as is usual for my Second Shot series – but reappraising it from a new perspective nearly six years later. By no means is The Run a good racing game, but it’s one of Need for Speed’s most offbeat efforts, and its flaws can teach us something useful in what video games value and cast aside.

Like EA Black Box’s previous game Need for Speed: Undercover, The Run attempts to expand racing game formulae with a generic crime storyline overlaid atop familiar driving gameplay. However, the developer’s endeavours to introduce features such as on-foot quick time events and encounters with armed enemies only connect the game with cheap, B-tier action/crime titles and away from the series’ racing game heritage. Unwieldy quick time events where protagonist Jack Rourke leaps across rooftops or driving sequences dodging enemy helicopters and SUV pursuers are overblown and ridiculous, suggesting that EA Black Box only aspires for unexceptional crime action undifferentiated from bargain bin junk.

The Run contains a barely sketched-in story that the developers don’t care about, but antagonists and Mafioso intrigue arbitrarily reappear during lulls in racing, with enemies begrudgingly raining down gunfire upon the player’s car mid-race. These action sequences support the game’s vague plot involving a vague debt that Jack must repay to a vague antagonist who we barely see in a vague opening cutscene devoid of context. The unfortunate story and insistence on bland crime action bogs down a decent experiment in point-to-point racing outside the more bloated efforts of Undercover or ProStreet.

Need for Speed: The Run

Need for Speed: The Run begins not by controlling a car, but a person. The aforementioned Jack Rourke must evade the clutches of the mob in a crime storyline lifted out of something like Gone in 60 Seconds (the Jerry Bruckheimer version, specifically). Mad Men actress Christina Hendricks serves as your earworm throughout the story, playing Jack’s confidant Sam Harper who negotiates business deals and provides coolly detached, GPS-like racing voiceover much like Jules de Jongh’s work narrating races in those of Criterion Games. In about five minutes flat, the game establishes these two main characters, the central debt conflict, the main storyline, and the eponymous race.

Jack must dash 3000 miles across the United States from San Francisco to New York City against over 200 other drivers in order to collect a neat paycheck to buy his freedom. This speediness isn’t a testament to Need for Speed: The Run’s narrative economy, but to the scant writing and flimsy setup that structures the rest of the story. While it may be severe to pick on the merits and flaws of a racing game story, comparable big-budget entertainment outside video games like the Fast and Furious movies or the Initial D anime reflect the possibility for satisfying racing narratives, and video games ought to be examined under a similar lens.

And how do racing games tell stories? My favorite series, Forza Horizon, filters the contexts for racing through a music and automotive festival. The lyrical opening cutscene of Forza Horizon 2 interweaves the mood, imagery, and textures of electronic dance music (EDM) culture to convey a sense of full sensory escapism, evoking hazy drug trips at a rave or late summer festivals. The Midnight Club series and the 2015 Need for Speed, loosely modelled after the Underground games, depict the player as an amateur driver immersed into the culture of illegal street racing, encountering miscellaneous racers alongside a curated aesthetic of hip-hop and electronic music, car customization, and nighttime urban spaces.

Need for Speed: The Run shares its story and namesake with the notorious Cannonball Baker (or Cannonball Run) cross-country race via the United States Interstate during the 1970s. However, The Run shies away from fully embracing the conceit of racing on a countrywide scale by necessitating players to pass a certain number of cars before reaching an arbitrary finish line on the Interstate in order to continue staying qualified for the run. By segmenting the race with these individual events separated by loading screens, The Run divides the full breadth of the trip into small, digestible races even though players could foreseeably pass rival cars at a later point in the game. The game is thus scripted in such a way where passing the 150th racer can only occur in Las Vegas because it’s a boss battle. If only the game were more honest with its scripted nature devoid of the pretense of the “openness” of a long drive, Need for Speed: The Run would at least benefit by not undermining expectations of a seamless road trip.

Need for Speed: The Run

This lack of a unified experience is easily the biggest problem with Need for Speed: The Run. Since the game is split into discrete events, the game abstracts the geographical scale of a countrywide race. Reward/XP screens at the end of each event break up the forward continuity of the grander run with meaningless points and flashy animations, eliminating any sense of momentum. Moreover, by allowing players to seamlessly switch between different cars in their inventory by passing through gas stations scattered throughout the map, no forged relationship emerges with a specific car. The game also relies on ellipses that abstract the natural progression of the American landscape. In no time at all does Jack reach Yosemite from San Francisco, and the entire prairie midsection of the United States is reduced to a single sequence when in reality could comprise the bulk of a cross-country trip. The game shifts drivers towards the winding scenic sections of American roadways such as the Altamont Pass, even though the Interstate system is largely comprised of straight and long roads devoid of scenery.

These earthy, flat expanses of field and farmland are occasionally set to the game’s commendable blues-rock soundtrack from artists like The Brian Jonestown Massacre, Gary Clark Jr., and Canned Heat, evoking heartland radio stations along Route 66. However, The Run all-too frequently defers to a bland orchestral score for the duration of the game, casting aside licensed music for select sequences and not providing an ongoing playlist. The lack of an engaging soundtrack would benefit from better rapport between Jack and Sam, but the game fails to play off on the inevitable boredom of a long drive. Christina Hendricks is a talented actress, but rather than feed her lighthearted banter as an offscreen passenger, the game merely uses her as a vessel for relaying objectives: “need to make up some time, Jack.”

Need for Speed: The Run

Instead, the game fills in downtime with its incomprehensible story of repaying mob debts that is neither adequately established nor fully resolved, remaining a burdensome flaw that lingers and reappears throughout the drive. The few sequences evading the mob are profoundly absurd, including one in which the protagonist plows through a burning factory littered with exploding red barrels, only to jump the car through glass windows to take out an attack helicopter midair. These Michael Bay-esque flourishes clash in tone with the racing portions of the game and can be excised completely. The main antagonist barely matters either, because it’s unclear by the epilogue of the game if Jack is fully forgiven by the mafia or if his troubles are only temporarily delayed.

Even the other racers are barely present in the story, with only two female racers receiving a cutscene (but only so the game can indulge in prepubescent male gaze as Jack ogles them from a distance). If Need for Speed: The Run weren’t so cynical in its writing and embraced goofiness and enthusiasm like the underrated 2015 Need for Speed reboot could the game actually be endearing. At the very least, the game’s runtime is whispery brief, lasting only about four hours, with the drive itself only totaling around two hours minus the numerous restarts and loading screens.

Need for Speed: The Run

What Need for Speed: The Run ultimately feels like is a contemporary reworking of arcade cabinet racers like Cruis’n USA. Unlike track-based games like Burnout Revenge or open-world expanses like The Crew, The Run values an authored, linear experience trimmed of excess. Its tightness is commendable in a sea of overstuffed video games, recalling the original Need for Speed game’s emphasis on point-to-point racing in a variety of settings. The gorgeous Frostbite 2 engine certainly helps in establishing a vibrant world of rain-slicked roads snaking underneath waterfalls and backwoods turnpikes blanketed by yellow and orange leaves along the Savage River State Forest.

The game excels as a series of set pieces, including a police chase along the outskirts of Las Vegas in shadowy dusk and a spectacular mountainside descent during an avalanche before the exit tunnel is sealed off by snow. These high stakes moments are what make the game worth playing, but so much of The Run is saturated with the filler of humdrum racing.

Need for Speed: The Run

Still, a worthwhile point lingers in the mind: driving across the United States is a tedious affair and doesn’t make for thrilling action gameplay. The Game Informer review upon Need for Speed: The Run’s release argues, “San Francisco to New York is a long haul, and it’s even longer when not enough happens in between,” but perhaps the monotonous reality of a road trip could be worthwhile in the right hands.

Driving long distances may not be suitable for a Bruckheimer/Bay-style blockbuster, but it can produce thoughtful stories like Little Miss Sunshine. Perhaps a different kind of driving game is necessary; not a fast-paced racing game, but games such as Wheels of Aurelia or Kentucky Route Zero. While the blockbuster demands of the Need for Speed franchise would never yield that kind of slower, observational gameplay, they represent the artful direction driving games can take in pushing the medium forward.

  1. I respectfully disagree with this article mostly. In my opinion, NFS The Run is as of right now the best recent NFS game and one of the closest racing games similar to Porsche Unleashed and Hot Pursuit 2. Many fans need to understand first off NFS is NOT about jdm/urban car culture tuning. NFS is about racing high-end foreign/domestic sports cars around country-side/urban inspired technical tracks around the world. I will explain why NFS the Run is great

    Track selection: The track selection (especially in the challenge series) is some of the best designed and funnest racing courses in the genre. Tracks like “Entering Chicago” or “Porsche Attack” are great examples. The tracks go from a 1-5 techical rating. The higher the rating the more curvy and techincal the course is such as the ones I mentioned. The environments are really nice and are a good representation of their real life counter parts.

    Car Selection: The car selection is superb. Isn’t it odd that a game that is nearly a decade (Development started in 2009) has a larger car and more diverse selection than it’s latest game?

    NFS The Run has over 174 cars and 29 manufactures. NFS 2015 only has under 60 cars.

    Another thing you did not mention was the driving and car handling if I’m correct. The handling of the cars behave like their real life counter parts as well. Hop in a e30 ///m3 and the car drives like it is on rails. Hop in a ford mustang shelby you’re going to have a tough time at first trying to handle the car. Also the engine sounds and graphics are great as well.

    Multiplayer: The multiplayer has one of the most competitive racing I’ve played in a racing game. And racers and crews still play until this day. Go to a muscle car lobby or mixed competition and race against a lobby full of rank 40’s….getting good at this game takes a lot of time.

    I agree story isn’t the good and there’re a few bugs but thats pretty much it. The racing, car selection, multiplayer, and track selection are superb. One might argue the game is linear but do racing games need to be open world? In my opinion, racing games don’t need to be open world; it never engages anyone to race. Need For Speed 2015 is a perfect example. Most of the time people are just driving around doing nothing instead of racing.

    Lastly if Need For Speed The Run was truly so bad, how come out of all of the racing games in the series, they choose The Run to base the debut movie of? I personally believe The Run needs a sequel with an addition to a remaster of Porsche Unleashed and Hot Pursuit 2. Games like Underground deposit the popularity ruined the series and tarnished the true identity of NFS which is about sheer driving pleasure…

    1. I appreciate the feedback, thanks!

      I agree when you say that NFS is not about JDM/urban car culture tuning, as my favorite NFS games are NFSII, NFSIII: Hot Pursuit, High Stakes, Porsche Unleashed, and Hot Pursuit 2. That said, I’m not a fan of how The Run presents itself, such as how it chops up the geographical scale of the race with flashy menu screens in between races that undermines the idea of an ongoing race. And despite the massive car selection, I’d rather forge a relationship with a specific car if this were a single race across the country.

      One of the things I actually liked about The Run was that it was linear: it is clearly an authored game with certain ideas about setpieces, though it often falls into generic crime action instead of interesting racing. If we’re also talking about car handling/driving, I much prefer the gameplay of the Forza Horizon series, which finds a nice compromise between arcade and pseudo-sim controls. I think Criterion Games made a better NFS game in their reboot of Hot Pursuit in 2010, which evokes those earlier NFS games of supercars in point-to-point races across a variety of ecosystems

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