In Need for Speed: The Run, the player is tasked with driving across the good ol’ U.S.A., from West to East Coast, in one long race (“The Run”) that consists of multiple legs with multiple sections. Each section pits the player against one of four stage types: overtaking a certain number of participating cars (with or without police/mob interference), executing non-driving quick-time events as driver Jack Rourke, making up lost time on the road for said quick-time events via time trials, and one-one-one battles with more personalized rivals. This Snapshot focuses on the latter, specifically the last boss duel, because there are two instances therein that utterly negate the feeling of causality and thereby ruins both faith in gameplay and engrossment in narrative.
For me, Need for Speed hasn’t employed an engaging, narrative-driven single player campaign (on any Xbox) since 2005’s Most Wanted. A return to half-arsed, cheesy writing and shallowly developed, overdramatic rivals was exactly what I was looking forward to with The Run, and neither of those aspects were too disappointing. After all, I wasn’t in need of great drama — just a reason for racing punctuated by bits that let me break in the shoes of the racer with whose feet I am vicariously pressing the pedal to the metal.
Even though they are annoying, the quick time events largely help with “being” Jack. Brief cutscenes every now and again as well as intermittent audio banter and updates with race sponsor Sam Harper keep the narrative in the player’s mind during the course of the game. Instead of some random tasks used to earn street cred, time trials are integrated as necessary parts of the story. They provide a sense of regaining momentum by making up for time spent running from cops or criminals in cutscenes/quick time events while also relieving players’ “why am I not racing in a racing game” anxiety.
During the last race, a one-on-one-for-number-one event, Jack is trying to complete The Run ahead of his highly skilled and malicious main rival, Marcus Blackwell. The player races through Manhattan towards (and through) Brooklyn via streets, bridges, and tunnels (in remarkably light traffic … whatever), and doing so is engrossing and a lot of fun. At one point in the race, there’s a split in the road. If the player is next to him, a cutscene plays wherein Marcus shoots at Jack’s car and sends him careening into the subway. The problem is that even if a player isn’t side by side with Marcus at that particular juncture, the same cutscene plays out with the same consequence. If the player is way ahead of the rival, then suddenly, at that turn, theeeeeerrrrrrre’s Marcus! If a player is lagging behind with No. 1 nowhere in sight, he sure will be after the player finally gets around to rounding that corner.
While the route that follows, dodging trains in the subway and running through platforms under construction, is absolutely thrilling and quite inventive, it should be up to the player to take that route or not. Breaking the realism of something as linear as a race with an event set in time and space negates everything racing is: consequence. Resetting a player in the lead is a gigantic middle finger to their skill and luck during the level. Rewarding a lagging racer by allowing them to catch up to the main rival, no matter how great the distance was between them formerly, is a cheat to the essence of competition. But even if, by some lucky chance (as happened to me originally), the player finds their car beside Marcus’s at the crucial turn, there’s still one disappointing moment to come.
Because of the previous cutscene, the final leg of The Run turns into a nitro-necessary game of catch-up through the treacherous valleys of the container-filled Brooklyn Navy Yard. The course is challenging on its own, even if the player manages to obtain the lead, but having to overtake a seemingly unreachable adversary does admittedly get the blood pumping all the faster. But what does the player get for their hard work of catching up, not crashing, and maintaining the lead but another cutscene. This one puts Jack and Marcus side by side down the final stretch. Once again, the player is robbed of all their effort or rewarded for lagging sufficiently behind in favor of setting up a scene that has most likely already played out multiple times during the event itself. Sure, this sets up a climax within the climax, and the race gets won, but it was because of the director and not the player.