I would never call myself a fan of racing games. I can only think of a handful I've played. I tried Forza back on the original Xbox, I've dabbled in some of the many Need for Speed games and I've spent a handful of hours with the Project Gotham games.
I've never loved a racing game as much as Need for Speed: Underground. It's still the quintessential racer to me. It launched as a pseudo-supplement to the blockbuster film The Fast and the Furious, at a time when everyone wanted an expensive tuner with secondary-colored window tints, side decals and bright neon underglow kits. With Underground, they could have them. I spent as much time customizing and painting cars as I did actually speeding through the slick, urban streets. Sort of like people (AKA, my brother) who masterfully build and design a house in The Sims and then barely play the actual game.
Perhaps my second favorite feature in Underground (second to the car customization) is the track layout. Unlike every other racer I've played that has X amount of unique tracks, Underground had X amount of track pieces, but they were sewn together in different variations to make the tracks themselves. Some might call this unimaginative and repetitive, but I call it a lower barrier of entry for nonracing fans and a way to keep me familiar enough with the tracks as a whole to lessen my temper from getting my tailpipe handed to me in races.
And that, I did. I remember getting far in the Underground campaign (which felt never-ending) before I stopped playing it. I can't remember why I stopped, either. It was probably because I had already spent tens of hours into it and new games started flooding in around me. Or because I finally reached an unbeatable race. Who knows?
Since I left Underground, I've played some of Underground 2, Most Wanted, Carbon and several Playstation Portable versions of the games.
I remember some of the PSP games grabbing me, because if that awkward handheld were designed for something, it's racing games. Other than that, I hadn't legitimately been excited for another racing game until I watched The Run's 2011 E3 trailer.
Something about it appearing to have an actual campaign, mixed with the objective of getting from California to New York had me intrigued. It seemed I'd no longer be racing for the sake of racing.
I received The Run in the mail from GameFly on a Friday, and I spent the weekend playing it. I sat 2 feet in front of the TV with the surround sound blasting for the entire experience.
Before I started playing, I started a timer on my phone to record the racing play time. According to some rumors, the campaign only consists of 2 hours of actual racing, and I wanted to set the record straight.
My findings led me to a two-fold answer. The first is, yes, the game clocked me in at beating the campaign in just 2 hours and 18 minutes. Although the game features additional races in an arcade-style mode and online offerings (only with EA's online pass, though), this was hardly a $60 product. Then again, most games aren't.
My second discovery of the campaign time is that the game only keeps count of how long it takes you to beat a race and adds that to the overall time. So if you mess up, restart or use checkpoint resets (more on that later), that lost time isn't counted.
But I counted it.
The official campaign might only be 2 hours and 18 minutes, but it took me 3 hours and 48 minutes to finish it.
I don't know whether to be glad the campaign is twice as long if you can't beat every race in one try or be sad that I spent an hour and a half fucking up in it.
As I played The Run, I learned why I don't love racing games more than I do. They're too black and white. You're either winning or you're not. Happy or mad.
In shooters, action games and adventure games, it's a lot greyer. Depending on the situation, you can salvage something from it, and carve a victory. In racers, it's pretty easy to tell if you're going to win or lose, no carving necessary.
And I lost, a lot. One of my new theories about racing games is — it's either one thing or another — that will cause your demise, that is.
If it's not an opponent's better car, it's a sharp turn.
If it's not a breakable guard rail on the side of a mountain, it's an unbreakable lamppost.
If it's not rear-ending a civilian car, it's running headfirst into one.
If it's not an empty nitrous bottle (which, after the years, I've decided does not actually increase your speed, seeing as I never get a leg-up on my opponents from using it), it's a police car ramming you.
There is always something that will keep me from winning whichever damn race I'm on. It always seems that way until, of course, I win.
The Run employs two systems that make sucking it up in races a little less infuriating, Resets and unnamed reset-like things that aren't explained. I'll call them Flashbacks for now, though that's not official.
You get five Resets per race and they are mainly automatically triggered when you crash or get busted by the police. You can also manually trigger them to reset you back to a checkpoint to redo a section if you didn't perform well. Resets require a short loading-esque screen before it sends you back to the last checkpoint (5-10 seconds), and it resets all the racers back to the exact moment that checkpoint originally hit.
Flashbacks are unlimited and get you back into the race immediately. Your car flashes and you're invulnerable for a short Super Mario-like time upon re-entry. These are always automatic and usually activate when you run off the road or accidentally take a wrong turn.
Both mechanisms have their ups and downs. Resets are great because you don't have to restart the entire race if you completely mess up one section. The downside is you only have five and you have to wait through a short(er) loading screen to get back to the race. Lastly, if you cross the finish line and aren't in first place, you can't reset back to the last checkpoint. You have to do the entire race again. I wish a finish line Reset existed for the hairier head-to-head finishes.
Flashbacks are great because the game doesn't penalize you heavily for accidentally going a wrong way or taking off into a field, and there's no loading screen before you reset. However, the flashbacks don't reset the other racers so if you're ahead of an opponent and you ride off into a Nebraska field toward the beautiful sunset, you'll most likely respawn back in behind your opponent(s). Also the period of invincibility sounds nice, but it made for some awkward situations when my car re-solidified while it was inside another car.
The banana peel under my wheels about these two features is the lack of line between them. Sometimes when I ran off the road, a Reset would be used and other times a Flashback would. I never knew exactly what I was risking if I made a bad decision mid-race. Also the grey area between the road and the surrounding track area is vast. Sometimes, My entire car wouldn't be off the street and I'd flash back in. Other times I'd be 30-feet off the track before the game noticed. I could never wrap my head around it.
If you play The Run, make use of these instead of pausing and restarting the entire race because, I promise you, I spent just as much time racing as I did looking at loading screens during the game. If I had thought ahead, I would've recorded how long those were. For a game that's based entirely on speed, Black Box and EA didn't bother speeding up the load times.
Speaking of loading screens, I've made a new rule for racing games. The rule is, if it offers car color and body type options, don't make the game take forever to load in my car under each individual option while I scroll through them. Make the switch instantaneous. I often would scroll through my cars, then scroll through the paint colors and body types while deciding exactly how sexy I wanted my car to look. Every time I scrolled to a new color or body type, it would take 5-10 seconds to load in my car model. For each option! Are you kidding me?
And when you select what car, color and body you want, you better make the decision as if your life depends on it because you can't switch out cars between each race. Because the game is supposed to be one long race, you stop at gas stations mid-race (almost like pit stops) to switch out your car. There aren't gas stations in every race, and the game barely warns you before you zoom past one at 120+ mph. At one point, I was stuck with a Lamborghini I could barely control for an entire leg of the campaign because each race in it either didn't have a gas station or the warning before it was so short and unnoticeable that I didn't slow down to pull into it in time. And if you miss it, your only options are to use a valuable Reset to checkpoint back to before it or restart the race and sit through an eternal load screen to hit it the next time.
That's some excellent game design right there, Black Box and EA.
I certainly hope when they decided on that system, realism and flow were the deciding factors, as if the rest of the game follows suit. Expecting every gas station across the country to have all of your cars in their garages is pretty realistic, though. What is this, Resident Evil?
Last, but certainly not least, I'll end with some notes that encapsulate how infuriating I found many of the game's races to be.
In the last quarter of the game, a race takes place on a wide-open highway. I'm going 150+ in a Lamborghini I can barely control because I haven't encountered a gas station in several races. I'm behind a car I can't seem to pass no matter how long I hold the nitrous button. I'm weaving around what seems like an infinite number of cars on the highway, and if I hit any of them at the speed I'm going — I'm toast, for sure. This highway also has, like any normal highway, hairpin turns. As if this isn't difficult enough, someone I'm racing against hires mobsters in black SUVs to kill me. So, to add insult to injury, one or two SUVs ride up alongside my expensive exotic and pump machine gun bullets into it. If I'm under fire for more than about 3 seconds, my car explodes and a Reset is automatically used. So not only am I racing in a very difficult race, I have to dodge machine gun fire and try to ram these SUVs (which slows you down), that can miraculously race up in an instant next to my Lamborghini that completely outclasses them. And sometimes I was lucky enough to get a mob helicopter to shoot at me, too.
The police seem to only be worried about the street racers, not the rifle-equipped mobsters who are offing racers. I came to the conclusion that the police and mob must be working together because they largely employ the same strategies to stop you. The most baffling of which is driving head-first toward your car and then E-braking in front of you so that you T-bone them, because nothing says, "We win" like letting an exotic car going 150+ mph ram into the side of your halted vehicle. These cops and mobsters really put their lives on the line to stop you. Bravo. Spike strips are overrated anyway.
Another thing that baffled me during the campaign were the Rival Races, which give you somewhere between 5 and 10 miles to pass an "aggressive" boss-type driver before the end. During the game, there are about four or five Rival Races throughout. At the end of the game, when you're in the top 10, you race almost all the rivals that you beat way back in the game a second time. So somehow, racers you beat around the 150 mark got back in front of you for you to beat again. It made no sense.
Despite the downfalls, I cannot let this game go without a small recommendation. It's not worth $60. Hell, it's not worth $20 unless you love playing online — but it is worth something.
The tracks are all sprint-style (my favorite), there is great variation in them, lots of car and body options (though it lacks deep customization) and for every 10 frustrating experiences, there's a moment of pure bliss as you're passing opponents in tight turns, barely dodging civilian cars as they pull out in front of you and avoiding the police when they try to ram you off the road. However, in a genre that is so black and white, these thrills more often than not end up turning into disasters that send you permanently to last place or cause you to restart the race or use Resets. Throwing away 90 percent of a race to T-bone a car in the home stretch and having to restart the race or reset a checkpoint (if you have Resets left by the end of it) is not fun.
It might not sound like a recommendation, and it's not the next Need for Speed: Underground, but if you're not looking for something as taut as a driving sim, such as Forza or Gran Turismo, The Run has some golden moments. They might be buried under the grime of difficult races, unfair opponents, machine gun-wielding mobsters, ruthless cops, a short campaign and QTE-laced cutscenes, but they're there.