The objective of Need For Speed: The Run is compelling: Finish first in a 200-driver, 3,000-mile road trip from San Francisco to New York City, à la the 1981 movie The Cannonball Run. The game opens with the star, Jack Rourke, trapped inside a vehicle as it’s being lowered into a junkyard crusher, his hands duct-taped to the steering wheel. After a series of frantic button-presses, Rourke wriggles free of the deathtrap and sprints for his life.
The Run doesn’t permit him to run very far. This novel moment of freedom—players are rarely allowed outside their cars in driving games—lasts all of three seconds. Like a goldfish without its bowl, Rourke apparently can’t survive outside the confines of a car. Likewise, every attempt The Run makes to step outside of the timeworn, 17-year-old Need For Speed formula leaves this uneven racing sim gasping for air.
The game consists of a series of arcade-style heats in which, true to NFS tradition, you outrun not only your fellow street racers, but also the cops. Multiplayer allows up to 16 players to race together online, but the bigger draw, as it was in 2010’s Hot Pursuit, is the offline Autolog, a leaderboard-centric meta-game which taunts players endlessly whenever someone on their friends list bests one of their race times.
There are moments of Zen-like driving bliss here: zigzagging elegantly through dense traffic as your index finger cramps results in the sort of white-knuckle excitement that inexplicably makes phantom itches appear on your face. But as soon as the game hits its stride, Rourke—a blank-faced man who looks like he was voted “Most likely to star in a Need For Speed game” in high school—stumbles from his vehicle again, and it’s time for more X, X, Y cutscene monotony.
The Run operates with a surprising amount of swagger, as if it’s a better game than the miserly experience it actually is. While racing around San Francisco early in the game, an alarmingly large font instructs players “GET TO LAS VEGAS!” It’s hard not to feel giddy at the prospect of the surreal, great American road trip that lies ahead. But less than a minute later, before players have had a chance to dream about the open road, they bump into the technical limitations of the game world. A more accurate directive might have been “GET TO THE NEXT LOAD SCREEN!” Playing The Run is akin to hanging around the worst sort of braggart: It makes promise after promise it knows it can never keep.