Thursday, November 17, 2011

(Black) Boxed In.

Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit redefined the franchise from the moment of its release. The action was fast, furious, and brought back the cat-and-mouse gameplay the series was originally known for, after having spent the past few years as a surrogate Fast and the Furious game. Being able to step behind the wheel of either a cop or racer was a great twist, and the sheer variety of events kept things interesting with nary a need for a cutscene. With series-new developer Criterion at the helm, the visuals and control had also never been tighter. It also introduced Autolog, a persistent leaderboard system that inspired replay value through competition, and was such a success that it became a series staple from that moment. Whether intentionally or no, it served to trim the fat that mainstay developer Black Box had acquired over the years, and made NFS exciting again.

With this new game, you can imagine the pressure was on. Essentially, Black Box has two things to prove: That they can create a next-gen NFS game from the ground up, and that they can keep up with where the series has been during their absence.

I'll start by saying what the screenshots already do--Need For Speed:The Run is a very nice looking game. Battlefield 3’s Frostbite 2 engine is pushing some very large, detailed courses here, and the strange choice in engine is made all the more obvious when they start to come apart at the seams. Taking a page from Motorstorm: Apocalypse, what was a tricky slalom run can quickly turn into a race against the elements as an avalanche threateningly obscures your vision and litters the road with chunks of debris mid-race. Volcanic eruptions rattle the screen without warning, and impromptu earthquakes split the ground, creating makeshift ramps and barriers to be dodged. Forcing players to adapt on the fly is one way to shake up the formula and keep things new, but this focus on mayhem serves an even better purpose. It adds a layer of tension unheard of in a NFSgame, where the uncertainty of what may happen around you is at odds with your ability to finish the race in good standing. It's a rush.

..Or it would be more of one had Black Box not fouled up the controls.

(Quick history: When Criterion took the reins, they used their experience with Burnout and made a solid driving model that had the speed and precision of an arcade racer, but with the weight and inertia a longtime Need For Speed fan would recognize. The result was a control scheme that complimented the game’s sense of speed perfectly, and is apparently one of the most responsive games in existence as insinuated by DigitalFoundry during their tech analysis.)

Going back to NFS: The Run after Hot Pursuit almost feels like a time machine. The cars have a strange weight to them, feeling too light on straights and too heavy on turns. Turning feels like doing so with a rudder instead of a steering wheel, and handbrake is unreliable, as using it seems to do more harm than good. Even driving at a high speed felt twitchy and unwieldy, something that shouldn’t be in a game where your base vehicle is a low level supercar. I thought it had been because I hadn’t played in a while, but a quick return to Hot Pursuit confirmed it – they may have brought other aspects of the series up to par, but the driving feels like a step back. The many crushed guardrails and flattened vehicles I had to endure during races had me calling the game Need for Speed: The Boat Run under my breath. Suddenly, the new rewind feature seemed less like a caveat for the more questionably scripted hazards and more like an apology for the busted control.

Considering that it was Hot Pursuit’s superb control that brought this to light, I took another step, thought about the past year in terms of NFS, and came to another realization. I think Black Box needs as well if they haven't already. The series is evolving. Not just in providing better excuses to lead foot it arcade style, but in indulging both the realistic and over the top aspects of race culture, as evidenced by companion series like Shift and World. This increased scope means Need For Speed is a franchise with more than one active developer now, but that doesn't come without a catch. Critically, this means any new titles moving forward will be acknowledged not by sequel number, but by the pedigree of the team in charge of the latest installment and what they've brought to the table. It’s always the silent implication in situations like this, and how we as gamers treat any series with a split creator base.

This control issue wasn’t game breaking, but it was enough to cast Black Box's return in a negative light. I’m glad that they've taken all the appropriate visual cues from some of the more exciting racers this year. I’m all for the proliferation of Autolog, and I welcome the return to over-the-top theatrics, but it’s all for naught if they aren’t truly ready to keep the bar of quality as high as their contemporaries. We’ve been at this ascent for three games in a row. Slightly Mad Studios brought the in-car sensation of speed to new heights with Shift, Hot Pursuit brought Autolog, and Shift 2 Unleashed brought it all together in addition to pack racing and a broader career. While apocalyptic spectacle is the one feature I want to assign for this latest installment, It's a bit of a bitter pill if it feels like Black Box hasn't updated their racing model since Undercover.

No matter the innovations, it just takes one flaw to render them all irrelevant in memory, and open the floodgates for harsher scrutiny. Almost seamlessly, your game can go from having a sick narrow train escape, to a question as to why there’s a QTE in the middle of your race.

Then credibility falters as you begin to question what really was added to the experience.

Honestly, I’m already thinking of this title as the cool looking one where they improved everything but the driving.

Am I being mean? Perhaps not.

Black Box taking a vacation was for the good of the series and their team, but the home they've come back to is not the one they left. Colleagues have been improving their game while they weren’t looking, and expectations with each release are much higher. NFS: The Run doesn't meet them entirely, but it at least shows that while they have good intentions to keep NFS relevant on an intense level, they're still somewhat stuck in the past. Let’s hope they can keep up, lest a Treyarch/Infinity Ward style split of public design opinion happens at EA, and we start subconsciously marking their titles as the “inferior” ones.

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