Remember back at E3, when EA revealed the debut trailer for Need for Speed: The Run, and we saw some dude in a hoodie jumping over rooftops to a background of QTE prompts? Yeah. One month down the road and I can still hear the collective groan of the games industry ringing in my ears. While Hot Pursuit and Shift have taken the series down interesting new avenues, this appeared to drag the series back to the boy-racer days of the PS2 era.
"On foot sections just looked like QTEs. Hello another disappointing NFS game." said VideoGamer.com forumite Neon-Solider32, reacting to the news. But Jason Delong, executive producer at EA Black Box, explained to me the thinking behind the move:
"It's in the interests of telling the story. The intention with those was really just to keep the player engaged with the story. They're a very small part of the game - less than 10 per cent of the game as a whole."
Comforting news, but my concerns have yet to be quashed. What I was shown at a recent preview event wasn't QTE's, however, but a small section of the cross-country race drivers of The Run will be taking part in. The idea behind the game is to race from San Francisco to New York, with a huge monetary prize waiting for the winner at the end. As Jack - the leather-jacket-with-a-hood-wearing protagonist - winning is more than just a financial gain: his very life is at stake.
Again, this was not something that was elaborated on when I saw the game, but suffice to say, Jack has a shady back story that is revealed over the course of the race, and winning that money will keep him alive. Starting at the Golden Gate Bridge, The Run takes place over a 300km stretch between San Francisco and New York, which, Delong told me, is four times the amount of road seen in any previous Need for Speed game.
From the deserts of Nevada, to the Rocky Mountains, to busy highways and built-up cities, The Run has an impressive amount of variety to its locations. "For anybody that's driven across America before, they're going to recognise a lot" boasts Delong.
In comparison to the urban sprawl of Chicago (where the E3 trailer took place), the demo I played was in Canyon Peaks, North Dakota. There are miles of open desert with a road weaving through the middle of it, interrupted by the odd cluster of rocks.
The benefits of the Frostbite 2.0 engine are immediately apparent. Particles of dust kick up underneath your tyres, wisps of cloud roll across the sky, and big open environments are brought to life with much more detail than before. The engine also allows the developers to weave the narrative into the gameplay itself - unlike the series' former trick of playing cheesy movies every now and then.
You begin the game in 200th position, and during each section of the journey you'll need to reach a certain position in order to qualify and continue - kind of like a classic elimination mode. In my race, I had to pass 10 cars in order to advance, which didn't prove too troublesome. There's a degree of rubber-banding at play; I played the track about ten times, and in most instances, I passed the front-running car on the same stretch of road, regardless of how quickly I'd tackled the track.
Even though I've yet to experience how Autolog is being worked into the game, Delong was on hand to explain how The Run will be using the social platform. "In Hot Pursuit and Shift, every Autolog time was isolated and individual to that single race." he explains. "For us, we're doing a cross country race, so we wanted to make sure we're integrating those times race by race, stage by stage all the way across the country. On your HUD, in every single race, you're going to see your closest competitor, your closest friend, your split times, in real time, all the time. It makes the single player experience not quite so lonely. It's not just about you."
This is exciting. I'm a huge supporter of Autolog and what it's doing for the racing genre, and tying it into The Run's story seems like a great move - not that I care about Jack's plight in the slightest, as this is a racing gaming after all.
I imagine there'll be other additions, too, possibly similar to the new Autolog Challenges coming to Burnout CRASH!, but we'll just have to wait to see how else Black Box is planning on using the tech. After all, there are new game modes that have yet to be announced, I was told.
Need for Speed: The Run still has a lot to prove. What I've played of it so far, however, is looking robust: the cars handle well (although things were a little too arcadey for my tastes), the tracks look great and the cross-country nature of the race itself is epic in scale. Criterion did a fantastic job with Hot Pursuit, and Slightly Mad followed suit with Shift 2: Unleashed - here's hoping Black Box can keep up the pace.