The big idea spans a continent: a street race from San Francisco to New York, featuring more than 200 drivers and the best cars in the world. The duels continue over deadly mountain roads, desert tracks, 12-lane superhighways, and the streets of Chicago. Along the way, you’ll battle police, bad weather, and even Mafia hit men.
Yet with 3,000 miles of highway at its disposal, and a fleet of the greatest cars the modern auto industry can offer, Need for Speed: The Run falls back on conventions of the racing genre that wore out their welcome 15 years ago. Instead of the open road, it offers an assortment of short, five-minute races; timed events where you have to reach checkpoints to keep moving forward; and “rubber-banding,” that cheat for computer-controlled drivers that ensures the AI is always nearby no matter how well you drive. These are all typical problems in racing videogames, but The Run‘s premise of a cross-country endurance race does not lend itself to short-track, short-attention-span racing.
Worse, yet, it manages to make its high-performance dream cars seem less capable than my mother’s minivan. Most cars swerve and shimmy down the highway like overladen shopping carts. They can’t even change lanes without making a drunken dive for the median strip or the ditch. Occasionally, The Run takes a break from this second-rate (if we’re feeling generous) racing action to offer third-rate, interactive cut scenes that serve no discernible purpose other than to make players look fondly upon the rest of the game.
It’s a shame to see The Run get its premise so horribly wrong, because that premise taps into some powerful driving fantasies. What if you owned an Aston Martin Vanquish, or an Audi RS8? What if the next time you got on the highway, instead of commuting downtown or into the burbs, you just put the pedal down and charged across America at 170 MPH? What if a thousand miles of expressways and country roads became empty playgrounds, and all the cops could do was tag along impotently behind you with their sirens wailing, the lights fading as you put the horizon between you and them, and the only sound was the roar of the engine and shriek of the wind? What if you were racing other drivers, and you’d settle it on the streets of downtown Chicago, or in an icebound mountain pass through the Rockies?
The idea sells itself. Too bad The Run wastes its inspired conceit on exhausted videogame tropes. Your character, Jack, is one of gaming’s lumpenproletagonists: square-jawed with close-cropped hair; indeterminate ethnicity; cocky, brash, and other code words for being an entitled dick. He has gotten himself into money problems with the mob and the only way out is to enter an illegal, cross-country street race (the titular Run) and win the millions of dollars that are on the line.
It just so happens his friend Sam has the money to enter the race, and it also turns out that Jack owns about a half-dozen $150,000 cars. And this is all we will ever know about Jack and Sam, which make it hard to care about his problems. I suspect that when the mob hires a helicopter and a machine-gunner to murder you in downtown Chicago, you have likely passed the point where you can still pay off your debts. Sam doesn’t seem particularly concerned about whether she wins the wager she has placed on Jack, either. Toward the end, she tells him to be careful, that no race is worth his life; thereby missing the entire point of the game.
But it’s the attempts to treat the gameplay as a blockbuster action movie that prove The Run‘s undoing. See, racing has to follow some logic. A car with better acceleration and a higher top speed should win in a straight-line race. A car with better handling should make up time in the corners. A driver who spins out in the middle of a high-speed race isn’t going to make up the lost time in a few seconds of racing. Racing sometimes ends in dramatic finishes, sometimes in blowouts. It depends on what happens during the race.
Every race in The Run, on the other hand, must end in a photo finish. No matter what happens, no matter how well you drive. Which means things that we all instinctively understand—speed and distance—stop making sense. You are going to beat that McLaren by a nose, and it doesn’t matter than you passed him two minutes ago, have a faster car, and have made no mistakes. Come the finish line, that car is going to be right on your tail. The opposite is not true, however. If you make a mistake, that McLaren will leave you in the dust and take the win. That type of cheating is bad enough, but the AI drivers also don’t make mistakes, and their cars are mostly immune to collisions.
Everything you need to know about The Run’s single-player campaign is contained within its New York City finale, which is also one of the longest races. Out of hundreds of drivers, it comes down to Jack and a Mafia princeling named something like Mickey Goombah whose motivation “is to take Jack out of the race … permanently.” So you race each other through a depopulated Manhattan, down the West Side Highway, and the wrong way across the Williamsburg Bridge.
I must have tried to cross that bridge a half-dozen times, foot on the floor and still helpless to close the distance, even though his car was supposed to be slower, based on our stats. My high speed caused constant, race-ending collisions with the oncoming traffic. Meanwhile, the wise guy’s car would just warp between the oncoming cars, occasionally fishtailing in a nod toward credulity, but never so much as trading paint with the cars or the guardrail.
Finally, I cleared the bridge right on his heels, almost out of retries but gunning hard to make the pass. We shot down into Brooklyn, and now his speed advantage seemed to disappear. I threaded around traffic and blasted through some tight alleys before we came to a fast right-hand turn. Neat as could be, I slammed on my brakes, put the car into a power-slide, and swooped through the corner. At the apex, I slammed him into a wall, then blasted out the turn while he tried to get his car back on track.
Then a cut scene broke into the action. No longer was Jack in front, where I had so painfully placed him. The cars were side-by-side. Fredo Fanucci opened fire on Jack with a pistol and Jack swerved off the road and into a subway construction site. I watched myself dodge trains through the tunnels, then emerge to come flying off a bridge and land right behind my opponent. Now the race resumed.
Which is to say: The mission is scripted to make most of this lengthy race utterly pointless. You cannot pull ahead, and you cannot fall behind. I tested my theory by driving across the bridge like Miss Daisy was napping in the back seat. I calmly sidestepped the oncoming cars while the overwrought soundtrack gave itself a heart attack. Nor did I push too hard through the subway tunnels. No matter what you do, Jack and the wise guy will end up side-by-side in Brooklyn, and Jack will be forced to escape into the subway. And no matter how quickly or slowly you go through the subway tunnels, Jack will always come flying off the tracks to land a few car-lengths behind his opponent. Nothing you do makes a difference.
Only at the very end, as Jack and Jimmy “The Antagonist” Ferengi drag race along the docks, does the game finally release you from following its script. After dozens of races across several hours, The Run ends with about 45 seconds of actual racing between rows of shipping containers. Mostly in a straight line. Has there ever been a worse payoff?
This is Call of Duty on wheels, where the player is a tertiary concern next to the late-period Michael Bay action sequences (don’t even ask about that helicopter I shot down in Cleveland with a flying Audi). But a shooter can always find some way of justifying the obstacles you encounter. It’s a trap! Snipers! Man that turret! Nobody ever expects combat to make any real sense, and we are used to enemies who just emerge from the ether at the most inopportune moments.
Racing doesn’t lend itself to these kinds of tricks. See how the other drivers never make mistakes, and seem to teleport past traffic that would leave you smeared across the pavement. Or the way the traffic pattern on a two-lane highway always seems to have two semis passing each other in opposite directions just as you reach them, so you have to thread the needle between them. Or how the cops are always a few miles-per-hour faster than you, no matter what car you are driving or how fast you are going; and show no interest in any of the other speeding cars. Or the El Camino that is faster than your Lamborghini Aventador. It is a racing game without player agency, and the contradiction proves insurmountable.
It’s a waste, because The Run’s cross-country premise sets up some terrific sequences. Racing along Lakeshore Drive at 160 MPH is a dream come true for anyone who grew up near Chicago. An icy race through a mountain pass and a series of avalanches is unforgettable, with tons of gut-check moments as you put the hammer down to go charging into a wall of ice and falling rock.
But as an experiment in scripted, cinematic racing, The Run fails to produce anything more entertaining and exciting than a roughly fair race. The proof is in the multiplayer game, which is essentially the story with no script. The result is honest-to-God insanity. As you play, the other drivers slam each other off the road; you stalk each other down winding mountain roads, trading positions at every turn; you swerve to avoid a guy who just launched his Porsche into the night sky by glancing off a telephone pole at 190 MPH. It’s the kind of chaotic fun that can happen when everyone is playing by the same rules: prone to the same misjudgments and the same laws of cartoon physics. It is what happens when you are in an actual race, instead of a diorama designed to look like one.