You know, scientists have taught pigs to play computer games. Of course, they’re extremely rudimentary games – moving an object across a screen with a joystick, or pressing a button when a certain symbol appears on a screen, that sort of thing. While it’s no doubt very impressive for a pig, I can’t help but feel a little defensive as a gamer. Sure, the pig is interacting with a computer to get a reward, but it’s hardly Shogun 2: Total War, is it?
But hold on a minute. Pressing a button when a symbol appears on the screen? That sounds alarmingly like a quick-time event to me, and these things are EVERYWHERE this year. In fact, the EA demo for Need for Speed: The Run at E3 this year spent as much time showing a QTE-driven on-foot action sequence as it did any high-speed driving. You could feel the apprehension in the press conference: is the latest instalment of the popular NFS series going to be watered down with QTE sequences you could teach to a porcine gamer?
The game opens with Jack – your character – struggling to escape from peril through the power of – you guessed it, a QTE. Once this scene-setting set-piece scene (crikey! Try saying that after a bottle of Sailor Jerry) is out of the way, it’s all driving sequences, all of the time, from San Francisco to Las Vegas, before another short QTE appears.
Yes, the truth is that the QTEs are few and far between, and in their defence, they’re pretty good action scenes that offer you the bare minimum of interactivity so you feel like you’re still in control. These sections take place when Jack is forced to abandon his car and set off on foot, pursued by either the police or assorted bad dudes.
Ah yes, the bad dudes. The story of NFS:TR revolves around an illegal coast-to-coast car race, with an improbably high first prize of 25 million dollars. Jack needs the money because he’s in trouble with the aforementioned bad dudes, and there’s your plot. Playing NFS:TR feels like taking the role of a stunt man in an action movie. You’re given just enough story to understand what you’re supposed to be doing, but no more. “OK, your character, Jack, is being pursued by a helicopter full of gangsters. I want you to run across those rooftops while the helicopter shoots its machine guns at you.” If the stuntman was to ask who the gangsters are, or why they’re mad at him, the director just sneers incredulously and says “Listen, buddy, I don’t pay you to worry about the story. I pay you to do the stunts!”
But this is an action racing game. You’re not really here for the plot. ‘Something about illegal street racing’ is basically all you need. What matters is what kind of a racing game it is.
Well, if you’re here because you actually have a Need for Speed, you’re in the right place. The cars scream along the tracks at insanely high speeds – your average speed is going to spend the entire game above about 120mph – and even after a slow, technical corner there’s always a blast of nitro in your ever-replenishing tank to boost you back up to the top end of the speedometer in a jiffy. While the plot follows your ascent through the positions of the 200-odd racers as you make your way across the country, you need to come first in every stage in order to progress to the next, so your overall position is really just a gimmick. The tracks are varied in style from street races to perilous switchbacks and wide open highways, and despite the fact that you’re supposed to be racing one big race there’s variety in your approach to each stage. Sometimes it’ll be a straight-out 10-car race to the finish line (with or without police), and other times you’ll be trying to hit a number of timed checkpoints (under the guise of ‘making up some time’ on the other racers). Once in a while you’ll have a battle race against a handful of other cars who will doggedly duke it out with you, usually while you try to deal with some additional environmental challenge such as a dust storm or an avalanche. Or maybe just a ton of cops.
The boys in blue themselves are a worthy challenge without ever really getting too annoying – you can somehow listen in on all their radio chatter, which really keeps the tension up as you follow them madly racing around setting up roadblocks or trying to get more cars into the chase – but they tend to focus their efforts solely on you, a little unfairly if you’re tailing another five street racers.
You simply can’t have a videogame without experience points and levelling up these days [D&D Ed. - Thank you Gary Gygax. Your legacy will live on] – I wouldn’t be surprised if those pigs are all level 20 by now. As you overtake cars and pass checkpoints, you’ll pick up experience, and level up at the end of races. Some of the perks for gaining a new level are at the kind of level of cereal box free gifts: profile images and the like. But many levels net you fresh abilities or bonuses such as an increased nitro canister or, interestingly, new ways of earning more experience points, such as finessing police roadblocks. The system brings enough reward for you to actually care about getting more experience, and therefore to drive like more of a maniac.
The biggest problem with NFS:TR is that it’s a little unforgiving. There are times where you’ve picked a suitable car for a level, which you finish, and are then not given the chance to change to another car before setting off on the next level – and finding yourself all of a sudden in a completely inappropriate car. And if you pass a checkpoint when you’re well behind, you may as well just quit and restart, because you’re doomed. Even when everything’s dropping your way, there are particular levels where any little bump or even a badly-taken corner can pretty much take you out of the running altogether. And when you’re whizzing up a two-lane highway with your nitros on full burn, and fate decrees that traffic in both directions will coincide at the exact moment you need to pass, there’ll usually be a massive crash and – in my case – plenty of foul language. Also, I’m not certain about replayability. True, it’s a pulse-pounding experience when you’re ahead by a whisker and the finish line is in sight and the police are bearing down, but once you’ve beaten the game I’m not sure if there’s much to come back for.
NFS:TR is a game that needs to be played fast. Fortunately, the Chillaxe handled the system requirements without any fuss, but it’d be a shame if you had to have to turn down the settings. Graphically the levels have a good sense of their environments, from the golden hills of California through the snowy switchback of Aspen, Colorado and on to the crowded streets of Chicago and New York City. If you’re a fan of the series – and I believe here at Game Debate we have at least one – then Need For Speed: The Run is a lightweight, forgettable but fun diversion for a couple of weeks. If you require realism and customisability in your cars, perhaps give it a miss.