Rockets are being fired into the snow-covered peaks of the Rocky Mountains, causing a series of avalanches as I attempt to manoeuvre my incredibly expensive supercar down a snaking downhill road. Chunks of ice crash onto the track reducing visibility, followed by large boulders that block portions of the path and cause me to swerve violently from side to side. The Run's adrenaline-fuelled soundtrack could well make walking a puppy seem like high-octane extreme entertainment, but here it fits, raising my heart rate until near breaking-point before I just about manage to enter a tunnel as the rampaging snow swallows up everything on the mountain behind me.
This level comes approximately half way through Need for Speed: The Run's campaign, and perfectly highlights the kind of game I thought EA and Black Box was going to deliver. Sadly this stage is essentially one of a kind. While there are other blockbuster movie moments scattered stingily throughout, none come close to this standout few minutes. For the most part The Run is a series of point to point races, checkpoint challenges and overtaking missions. They are all carried out at incredibly high speeds, feature some of the most desired cars ever made, and take you through some gorgeous locations, but you are generally just driving from A to B.
There's no doubt that EA wanted The Run to be like a Hollywood movie, but has attempted to do so by delivering the racing inside a paper-thin plot. Jack is in trouble, gets talked into an illegal cross-country street race from San Francisco to New York City, and then finds himself not only on the run from police but also some very bad men with guns. The winner of The Run will receive $25,000,000, of which Jack will net 10 per cent if he wins, but with over 200 other drivers all equally desperate for the cash no one will be walking away unscathed.
While The Run's campaign isn't nearly as explosive as it wants you to believe it is, the constant high speeds and threat of traffic does result in some exciting racing. Car handling is a little heavy for my liking, with the cars not offering the kind of dexterity really needed in a game that requires so much dodging around innocent drivers, but you'll learn what you can and can't achieve before too long. As you race you'll earn XP, which in turn increases your driver rank, unlocking perk-like rewards that make your job easier - from multiplying your XP-earning to a faster nitrous refill.
The Run's main problem is that last year's Hot Pursuit (developed by Criterion) offers a similar high-speed experience, but does so with a better driving model and with more excitement on the track. AI rivals here do little to compete, more or less seeming like they're just coming along for the ride - the constant tussle felt in Hot Pursuit is sorely absent here.
According to the in-game timer that tracks your overall completion time, getting across the US takes about two hours, but that isn't really an accurate reflection of how long the campaign will last. For one, you'll crash a lot. The game's emphasis on long, straight roads allows you to reach some insane speeds that don't sit well with heavy car handling and oncoming traffic. Hit another vehicle head-on or at high speed from behind and your ride is wrecked, forcing you back to the previous checkpoint as you watch a hideous rewind symbol flash on the screen.
This rewind system feels incredibly dated given the slick turning back time mechanics seen in other racers this gen, but get used to it as it'll be on the screen a lot. It's not just collisions that cause this checkpoint reset, either. Veer off the road in a way that the game deems too much and back to the previous checkpoint you go - hell, at points you barely have to have four wheels off the tarmac before you're whipped back. Night stages make visibility very poor, resulting in a lot of smashes into road dividers, while machine-gun-toting goons turn up towards the end and simply opt to blow you up.
And I haven't even mentioned the out of car sequences. At numerous, but not frequent, points you'll be asked to take part in a QTE sequence, tapping buttons in time with on-screen prompts in order to escape from your car (more than once) or something equally exciting like run from the cops. These moments are bordering on terrible, but thankfully make up a very small portion of the overall experience.
Autolog is built into the core of the game and as such there is an added competitive element to every race you take part in, but I couldn't help but find myself caring far less than I did in Hot Pursuit, and can't see rivalries growing like they did in Criterion's title.
Outside of the campaign there are a series of challenge events based on the tracks raced in the 3000 mile run. Here you'll attempt to meet objectives as quickly as possible in order to earn medals, and try to outdo your mates' efforts posted through Autolog, but the heavy handling doesn't go hand in hand with an overly enjoyable racing experience.
The same is true of the eight-player online mode, which nicely integrates your XP and Rank, but fell flat due to my apathy towards the driving itself and the fact that increasing your rank doesn't reward you with much once you've unlocked all the driver bonuses. On the plus side, numerous cars can be unlocked by completing multiplayer and Autolog objectives, so completionists will likely find more reasons to keep playing.
Hot Pursuit is one of the slickest racers ever made, so Black Box had a lot to live up to in terms of visuals, and ever so nearly managed it. Built on DICE's Frostbite 2 engine, the environments on show here are diverse, colourful and vast, but there's always a nagging sense that things could break at any point. Never does the game hit the smoothness of Hot Pursuit, always driving the line between a juddering frame rate and 30fps. I'm not sure how much effort it took for Black Box to get the game running well using this engine, but I can't help but think that Criterion's engine would have resulted in a better game.
Need for Speed: The Run certainly isn't terrible, and a big improvement on Black Box's previous effort, Undercover, but it needed more moments like the avalanche and less monotonous freeways. With the campaign over in an afternoon and the rest of the package failing to offer anything to keep you playing, The Run is some decent throwaway fun that will be forgotten as soon as you move on to something else.