We've all got an idealised image of the great trans- American road trip. Flooring the throttle down an arrow-straight road in a thunderously powerful V8 muscle car, perhaps, with On The Road Again by Canned Heat playing on the stereo.
In that regard Need For Speed: The Run nails it – you can recreate that experience perfectly, even down to the masterfully-pitched, twanging country music. This would be brilliant if the game didn't replicate the realities of a road trip as well, which include repetitive scenery, the boredom of maintaining a largely constant speed and the realisation that at most of your stop-offs there isn't a great deal to do.
You play as the excruciatingly smug Jack, a man so fist-gnawingly in love with himself he probably announces his own arrival in a room. He's in trouble with the mob in San Francisco, but after QTEing his way out of a near-fatal conversation with a car crusher he's offered the opportunity to race his way to freedom, which lies 3,000 miles away in New York. And that's about it. For a game that's apparently about reintroducing a plot to racing games, there's embarrassingly little to the narrative. There are only two and a half characters in the entire game and the dialogue is rare and entirely functional. It makes the script of The Fast and the Furious look like A La Recherche du Temps Perdu.
But while the cutscenes are lacking in scripting, the action itself more than makes up for it. Unlike the vast majority of racing games, The Run is an enormously regimented experience. Each stage either requires you to pass a specific number of vehicles – the penalty for failure being a complete restart of that section – or simply beat timed checkpoints. The competition is choreographed as well: cars rubberband in relation to yours, meaning you can wear your finger out on the boost button and still end up watching an opponent nipping past on the run to the finish line. It always feels like you're competing against the designers of the game, rather than 200-odd other drivers.
The real crime is that the game so rarely takes advantage of its tightly controlled environment. There's a brilliant sequence that has you careening along a winding, snowy pass, dodging patches of treacherous black ice as an avalanche explodes around you. It's a glimpse of the game The Run could have been, if it had fully embraced the art of the set piece as Call of Duty has. It's also the only glimpse.
Instead, what's left is a racer that claws its way to mediocrity using features we've come to expect from the series. There's a huge and varied selection of cars, handling is predictable and grippy, and the engine (in this case Battlefield 3's Frostbite 2) whips up some impressive vistas as you hammer across the US. All of these add up to a game that's absolutely playable, but pales in comparison to Hot Pursuit's achievements with the same tools.
The organic nature of Criterion's chases in that game meant that returning to beat your friends' times on Autolog was a pleasure. Not so here. After the two hours it takes to complete The Run, there's little incentive to return to the track and watch the same things happen all over again.
There's a good idea buried under the enormous drifts of tedium, but even EA's signature polish only manages to panel-beat this into passable game. This should have been a modern-day Outrun, instead it's an obvious misfire.