Tuesday, July 12, 2011

E3 2011: Need for Speed: The Run competes with itself for your attention

Need for Speed: The Run is a departure from the recent Need for Speed titles Hot Pursuit and Shift series. Being developed by Black Box, who also worked on Underground, Most Wanted, Carbon, and Undercover. It’s a return to a more story-driven form. "One of the things we knew we wanted to do for this game was to provide more a blockbuster, action/driving kind of experience – more than just a traditional racing experience," said executive producer Jason DeLong. In between those blockbuster driving experiences, you’ll spend time out of the car on your own two feet. For the first time in the Need for Speed franchise, you’ll feel the need for speed without using a steering wheel.

However, it’s only a small part of the game, explains DeLong, "We wanted to get the character out of the car to tell the story, but it’s less than 10 percent of the game. Mostly it’s to switch cars, get into different race modes." The story he talks about is an illegal street race stretching from San Francisco to New York. Think of it as the Cannonball Run of Need for Speed (without Captain Chaos). You play as a character named Jack, who is chased by both police and the mob.

The race I played took place in Chicago, where Jack is pursued by the mob. After being side-swiped, Jack ditches his car and takes to the rooftops. This is the out-of-the-car experience DeLong was talking about. Jack leaps from the roof in a cutscene controlled by quicktime events. The demo I played was on a PlayStation 3 so a prompt to hit X appeared. Time it right and Jack lands to safety. Time it wrong and Jack falls, followed by the cutscene reloading to try again. Jack’s only means of transportation at this point is a cop car near the alley where he landed. Jack attacks the cop and steals his car, but is then chased by a police helicopter overhead, raining bullets down on the car.

The fidelity of Need for Speed: The Run is on par with Battlefield 3, literally. The Run uses the Frostbite 2 engine, the same engine created specifically by DICE to power Battlefield 3. The destructibility of Frostbite 2 transitions well into Need for Speed: The Run. Just as buildings can be destroyed in Battlefield 3, cars, walls, and barriers can take damage in The Run. Bullet holes appeared on the car in real-time as the helicopter chased me, and walls began to crack as I crashed into them.

Back to the race. To avoid getting another car destroyed, you have to swerve and avoid the helicopter’s spotlight. All of this happens while still being timed. The acclaimed Autolog feature from Hot Pursuit is present in the game’s story mode. This is where Need for Speed: The Run pulls you in different directions. Black Box wants you to experience the story, as evidenced by making cutscenes interactive, but timed races and Autolog still mean you’re competing for the top spot on leaderboards. That draws the question if the game wants to be a racing game or action game. Can you re-race the course for top time afterwards without having to avoid the helicopter? If not, that will seriously put a damper on leaderboard competition.

Need for Speed: The Run left me less than impressed. It might be because controls are one of the pivotal aspects of a racing game, and driving behind the wheel of a run-of-the-mill cop car made steering feel tight and unresponsive. The streets had many sharp 90 degree turns and using a vehicle equivalent to the Crown Victoria doesn’t seem to be ideal. Which begs the question, can you choose which car you drive in The Run, and if so, how? In previous Black Box Need for Speed titles, you could buy a car of your choice and customize it using a combination of paint job and body kits. From the demo I played, there was no evidence of player choice in vehicle look or drivability.

There’s also the issue of the camera. During segments of the demo, cutscenes would interject into the race. This happened when something cinematic occured, like drifting a corner, or when the helicopter appeared. The problem is that it takes control away from the player mid-race. The absence of a cue telling you this was a cutscene made the whole thing confusing. I only noticed it was a cutscene because of the lack of ability to steer my car. The cut back to the race and you controlling the car again is just as jarring. If Black Box can figure out a way to make cutscenes splice more naturally (like putting the cutscenes in letterbox), I’ll have less of an issue with their seemingly random appearance.

At the end of the demo, the police helicopter shoots a gas truck up ahead on the road, forcing Jack’s car off the road landing upside-down onto a train track where a train is headed in his direction. Using a combination of the left analog stick and X, you have to find the right combination to get Jack out of the car before the train strikes his car. Finding the right combination results in Jack kicking out a window and escaping just as the barreling train hits the car. This whole sequence shows what the team at Black Box wants an out-of-the-car experience to feel like in Need for Speed: The Run.

Need for Speed: The Run will be available for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Nintendo Wii, 3DS, and PC on November 15.

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