Need for Speed: The Run is a bit of a misleading title. Sure, you do plenty of running in the story mode, but that story is incredibly short. You’ll likely spend most of your time playing the challenges or in multiplayer.
Basing the story mode around a cross-country race is certainly interesting, but The Run doesn’t do much with this premise. It offers a great variety of racing environments (the deserts of Nevada, the Rocky Mountains, the plains of Middle America) and one or two interesting one-off events like racing an avalanche down a mountain, but that’s all. Most of the time, the premise conflicts with gameplay.
You spend a lot of time racing against others, but you’re not racing for first place since there are 150 people in The Run. Instead, you have to pass a certain number of other racers before crossing an arbitrary finish line. This moves you up in rank so that you’ll reach 1st by the time that you hit New York. What this means from a gameplay perspective is that there’s no second place because then the math won’t add up. If you come in second, you have to restart. It’s extremely frustrating, and you can easily get stuck on a single race, since there’s no other way to progress forward.
There are still police chases, but without the gadgets from Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit, they’re pretty toothless. You can’t pick a car before each race. You can pull into gas stations to change cars during a race, but this system is awkward at best since you can easily miss the gas stations. Supposedly, the race is paused while you pick a car here, but one time I entered a gas station in first place and left it dead last. I didn’t enter them anymore after that.
The rubber band AI isn’t fun to race against. It feels unfair—for both them and me. During The Run mode, I could I kiss a guy’s bumper at 120mph, and then he’d start to pull away, quickly leaving me in the dust even if I use nitros for a boost. And yet, those same crazy fast racers always seem to slow down or crash near the end, allowing me to win in the last mile. It happens so often that it gets painfully predictable.
But the worst part of The Run is the rewind mechanic. You don’t really rewind time, the game just puts checkpoints throughout a race and reloads one of those when you crash, so you’ll often have to replay long stretches of a race. When the game rewinds/reloads, the screen fades to black and a symbol flashes. This fading and flashing kills all sense of momentum and excitement, since what you’re seeing is literally a loading screen stuck in the middle of a race. Topping it off, the game will automatically reload a checkpoint if you go too far off-road, but there’s no consistency in what it considers “off-road.” Sometimes it reloads if I cut a corner, other times I can drive through a corn field and nothing happens.
The Challenge mode is slightly better, suffering from many of the same annoyances while fixing at least one of them. The challenges are broken up into 12 playlists with three to five races each. They’re all essentially time trials, but in addition to racing against the clock, you might be also be racing against police, a few opponents, or several opponents. Like in The Run, if you come in second place you lose. Even if you set a record time, it doesn’t count if you aren’t in first place. But at least with the challenges there are 12 other ones that you can do at any given moment, so unlike The Run, you’ll never get stuck on a single race, unable to progress at all
As a result, the multiplayer saves this game. It avoids all the mistakes of the other modes while adding some engaging new features. Most importantly, you can get second place (a novel idea according to The Run). Second, you reset almost instantly after a crash. And while the game is still inconsistent with when it will reset you, still its new found speed makes it far, far less frustrating.
The multiplayer is also broken into playlists based on car types. From there, you and others vote on a separate playlist of maps that you’ll race on. These Sessions can vary in focus: Some are all about speed, with you racing down fairly straight highways, while others are more technical, filled with hairpin curves on mountain roads. Sometimes both. You only get one car for the whole Session, so it’s important to choose the right kind of car for the tracks. Thankfully, (and unlike in The Run) the game shows you each track’s technical difficulty before you have to pick a car, allowing you to make an educated decision.
But these improvements just fix what was already broken about the game. It’s the multitude of bonus objectives that raise the multiplayer up from “not broken” to “genuinely fun”. There’s a lottery wheel that spins before each Session, offering various rewards for those who rank in the top three for the Session. It’s an extra incentive to do well and lessens the frustrating of losing. The best bonuses are reserved for those who come in first, however. The game was at its most exciting when I was racing for a bonus Achievement and won by 7/10ths of a second. That kind of photo finish isn’t possible with the story’s rubber band AI and that kind of reward isn’t in The Run at all.
Each playlist also has 20 solo objectives for you to complete. Some ask you to complete X number of races with Y car or to pass X number of opponents or to not take shortcuts, along with several more parameters. They encourage you to play differently, more recklessly, and for once, the point of a race isn’t simply to get in first. Only three challenges are available at any give time, and you must complete those first before others will unlock. It’s an awkward system, but forgivable since they add another layer of reward to the game.
The idea behind The Run is good, but it’s not executed well. The conceit fights against the gameplay in too many ways to be fun. You should always be able to come in second place in a racing game. Thankfully the multiplayer shines. The game’s odd insistence in breaking everything into playlists pays off since it forces players to choose a car that’s good for multiple tracks, and the many bonus objectives offer an addictive metagame. There’s a lot of wasted potential in The Run, but at least Black Box has proven they can still make a great multiplayer racer.