Content Tourism and the Value of Gaming

Is Need for Speed: The Run a two-hour game? Digital Foundry on why games are being defined by how long it takes to beat them

The headline is damning: "Need for Speed: The Run in Two Hour Completion Shocker". Could it be true? Could the game that EA/Blackbox spent two years developing actually be completed in just over 120 minutes? And in an age where a game is so much more than the sum of its single-player parts, was the fuss justified any way?

The notion of games being judged by how it takes to complete them is a phenomenon I like to call "content tourism" - a phrase I first encountered on the Battlefield: Bad Company 2 difficulty selection screen. Easy mode was for "content tourists" who presumably just wanted to sail through the game, see what it had to offer, extracting the easiest Trophies/Achievements and then either replay for more challenge, move onto the online mode or more likely just skip ahead to the next game. There's an implication that for some, games have become a "disposable" form of entertainment, judged not on the quality of the content but on the amount of time they keep the player occupied.

There's an implication that for some, games have become a "disposable" form of entertainment, judged not on the quality of the content but on the amount of time they keep the player occupied

The debate surrounding Need for Speed: The Run kicked off when Gametrailers mentioned that the basic single-player racing mode could be completed in just two hours, causing a wave of forum outrage and website headlines, when the reality is that players would need to be in full "speed run" mode, skipping all cinematics, on-foot quick-time events, and on top of that, handing in a completely flawless gaming performance.

In short, it's actually physically impossible to finish Need for Speed: The Run in just two hours - and even if you do count just the racing, the amount of time you'd need to invest to become good enough at the game to sail through it in two hours would be absolute immense - and voids the bad value argument by itself. Let's put it into context by comparing it with another game that hasn't been accused of short-changing its users. According to Naughty Dog, one of its staff completed Uncharted 3 in a near-flawless three hour speed-run - to the best of my knowledge, there weren't any headlines calling the PS3 title a three-hour game.

I decided to check out Need for Speed myself, firing up The Run for a mid-afternoon spin and fully expecting to have the single-player mode licked by tea-time. As you can see from the time-lapse video below, I was finally finished by bed-time, with a run-time of five hours, 35 minutes - this from a concerted effort to rush through as quickly as I could.

Is Need for Speed: The Run a two hour game? The loading screen timers suggest it is, but this time-lapse video of our actual playthrough demonstrates that it clearly isn't.

Blackbox had made a fundamental mistake here - and it wasn't down to the amount of content in the single-player mode, rather the clock at the top of the screen which tots up your time through the game without factoring in the amount of times players need to restart a checkpoint, or an entire level. In short, the loading screens were advertising a deficiency of the game that didn't actually exist, but was picked up by press and gamers regardless.

We've been here before of course. However, when Battlefield 3 and Modern Warfare 3 were labelled "six hour games" at least everyone knew there that these were titles primarily targeted at the multiplayer audience, and thus the true value lay elsewhere.

However, Platinum Games' brilliant single-player only shooter, Vanquish, was criticised by Game Informer for being able to be completed in under four hours, based mostly on the game's final stats screen (where the timer appears to be wrong) resulting in a wave of bad publicity for a game that was already a tough sell at retail. The reality of the situation is that the game took me well over eight hours to finish - and even if you cut out all the retries and cut-scenes, I found that the game still offered just over five hours of raw "content".

The fact that games are being judged in this way at all comes down to a shift in the way that developers are structuring the playthrough, and the way that games are being played in general. Games are now a mainstream proposition. More people are playing them and thus, to make sure that the content publishers invest millions in isn't wasted, games are generally far easier than they were in the past. To present an extreme example, almost every 80s gamer most likely played Manic Miner - but how many completed it, or even saw a majority of its 20 levels?

In an effort to make games more accessible, we have moved away from the notion of the game session being limited by the number of "lives" players have. Look back into the mists of ancient history and games magazines used to print cheat codes for infinite lives - now it's a standard component of every game we play. Even the notion of the health bar - which constrained players' progress through the game, has basically been abolished in favour of regenerative health or shields.

As an industry we like to compare ourselves with music and movies, but the fact is that in the consumer's mind, a £15 Blu-ray movie is up against £35 to £40 games - of course value is going to be scrutinised and weighs heavily in the purchasing decision

There's little to no need to hunt down health packs or 1UPs any more in most games - simply duck into a corner somewhere and all your health returns. I remember pointing and laughing at The Getaway's mechanism of regenerating health by leaning against a wall. Little did I know that it was the template of things to come.

Bestowing infinite lives on the player also means that almost every game can be completed simply through a matter of brute-forcing your way through, exactly as I did in my NFS: The Run playthrough. This is something of a shame for a game like Vanquish, which harkens back to the era when highscores, and developing an actual technique for playing the game were important over and above "clocking" it.

On the one hand, it's disturbing that gamers are being labelled - often incorrectly - by the time it takes to complete them, as if that encompasses the entirety of the product. Some games can be defined by their content in terms of levels, missions, quests or whatever - the Assassin's Creed series is a good example of this. Others, like Vanquish, present value in terms playing and replaying the game, improving scores and peeling back the layers of the experience. As for Need for Speed: The Run - the notion of value is the least of its problems, for all the reasons Tom Bramwell pointed out in the 5/10 Eurogamer review.

Platinum Games' Vanquish gained notoriety as a 'four hour game' after an unfavourable, inaccurate review. Here in this time-lapse we see that even if you played through without dying (an extraordinary feat in itself), there's still over five hours of content.

That said, the fact that the "length" of a game becomes headline news demonstrates that value is clearly a priority for the core audience. The high price of video games (on launch, at least) is such that buying a boxed retail product is still viewed by gamers as an investment rather than an impulse buy. As an industry we like to compare ourselves with music and movies, but the fact is that in the consumer's mind, a £15 Blu-ray movie is up against £35 to £40 games - of course value is going to be scrutinised and weighs heavily in the purchasing decision.

Credit where it's due - by and large, the industry has adapted to this, and many AAA projects offer astonishing value. The Assassin's Creed and Uncharted games, for example, not only include a phenomenal amount of single-player content, but a robust online element has been added too - and these multiplayer elements are essentially standalone, complete games in their own right.

It's impressive to think that major franchises are now offering two games for the price of one - indeed, in the case of Assassin's Creed: Revelations on PS3, it's actually three individual components, with the original game included on the Blu-ray for free - an interesting idea for making use of the massive storage space the format offers. But what it does mean is that consumer expectations have never been higher. A game like Skyrim can project value despite being a solo experience, but with the lack of success in a brilliant game like Vanquish, it suggests that certain types of single-player game are now a much tougher sell.

Latest comments (22)

Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 6 years ago
Uncharted at least offers you the option of going into nooks and crannies for treasure, Need for Speed is as straight an action tunnel as humanly possible. No alternate routes, no alternate story lines, not alternate anything. I guess they save that for the inevitable sequels. And that's not counting the way Uncharted grips you with its story in a way The Run does not.

I do not like the multiplayer argument. What good is dabbling into multiplayer, if you only get whipped around? Most of the time, multiplayer is about a sense of competition which is the polar opposite of my wish to be just entertained.

At 60€ for a game, publishers are basically stuck. A TV show has the option of selling individual episodes at a low price in an offline or online store. TV shows have no problem splitting a 90€ season into three 30€ packages and get away with it. Blizzard has no problem doing the same with Starcraft. Telltale has no problem doing that with their adventure series. Only consoles can't handle that, so no wonder they run into problems with customers about the length of the experience.

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Lewis Brown Snr Sourcer/Recruiter, Electronic Arts6 years ago
Interesting article, I remember playing Vanquish last year at the Eurogamer Expo and loved its arcade action style. I bought it and it took me about 8 hrs to play through all of which I thouroughly enjoyed it and have been back and played it a few more times since. Sometimes I think we get to hung up on playtime. Still I put about 100 hours on Fallout 3 so you cant know that for value for money.
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James Prendergast Research Chemist 6 years ago
I suppose a valid question (and i would guess it's a personal one) would be whether you would actually classify repeating a section over and over again as raw and unique content.

Personally i wouldn't.... however, i don't mind short games as long as they provide me with the entertainment that i feel is justified by the length and price. There are many films and games i've seen/played that i've felt were padded-out or were too short. Thankfully, having been a participant in both industries for a couple of decades i am able to tell in advance which games and films i believe will be worth my time and which won't (there are still titles that fool me :) ).
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Show all comments (22)
Harrison Smith Studying Games and Graphics Programming, Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology6 years ago
There is a thing to remember here, that this is coming off the reviewer and that reviewer is on a time frame to get that review out before launch or as quickly as possible after launch. Doing so they sometimes have to basically speed run it or skip content to finish it in which they must lie to there readers as they expect you played everything. The reviewer who would of done the NFS the run at game trailers also would of been the same guy who did shift 2, forza 4, GT5 and many other racing games and would be able to breeze though it combined with the above pressure to get that review out. So when I read that the reviewer beat the game in x hours I usually add on 30% more because I wont be rushing and that most consumers will take the different amount of content in different ways, the 15 year old student would want that big 50+ game to fill there time while the time pour adult who gets only a couple hours in the week might only need the 4 hour experience across the 2 weeks to be worth it, it all depends on the consumer. Pricing is a problem but thats a whole other story which is related but in conclusion dont always trust the reviewer as you dont know if they speed run it or not.
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Dave Herod Senior Programmer, Codemasters6 years ago
I saw a video of someone completing Morrowind in 10 minutes from start to finish. That didn't make it a 10 minute game. Just because you *can* complete a game that fast doesn't mean you should, or would even want to.
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Dave Herod Senior Programmer, Codemasters6 years ago
It'd be nice if it were possible to make a business model where you put the game out at a high price, if it's not selling, reduce it, until people start buying it, then you'll see how much the game is "worth" to the players. Unfortunately, second hand game sales have destroyed any chance at this being possible.
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Rick Lopez Illustrator, Graphic Designer 6 years ago
I think the pricing structure of retail games is outdated and archiac. So here Im just writing about my expirience when buying games and how I go about judging the price. I find it so wrong to pay 60$ for a game with low production value or play time, versus a game with AAA production costs, plenty of content and playtime. If its a short game it has to be incredibly good to warrent a purchase at full price. on the other hand a game with loads a conetent and gameplay mechanics that arent on par with a game like Uncharted can warrent a purchase also.

I got to admit, game time is an issue to me when I go buy games. Game price could be evaluated between how long it takes to complete the main story element, the amount of content and things to do and gameplay and replay value. Production costs can be taken into account.

Bullet Storm to me was a huge dissapointment. Its a game that could be finished around 6-7 hours and DLC was announcedthe same day it was released. So your paying 60$ plus the cost of the DLC to basically have the complete expirience. The game would run aroun 70-80$ if you purchase it new.

Call of Duty should be priced at 40$ its a game the comes out yearly, very few changes to gameplay mechanics and graphics engine and it sells well. Most of the assets for the game are already created, ingame character models and set pices, textures and gameplay engine. i usually wait for a price drop on these games. i buy them at 20$ and since they sell so many copies, i know I can find them a dime a dozen, used shortly after release and in good condition.

We can all see how the call of duty MW3 craze as died out shortly after release. Ill be purchasing Modern Warfare 3 when the next call of duty comes out. plain and simple. i think its crazy to spend 60$ on a game like that, that changes so little with each encarnation.

However alot of times I wait around for a game of the year edition that has all the content on disc, which is usually worth a full price new and I view it as the ultimate value for money. Dragon Age origins:Ultimate Edition, FallOut 3: GOTY, Mass Effect 2 for PS3, BorderLands: GOTY, Little Big Planet: GOTY and Elder Scrolls IV - Oblivion: GOTY. And now Im waiting for Fallout New Vegas: Ultimate edition.

Ultimate Marvel versus capcom and Street Fighter: AE are worth the $40 dollar price tag, simply because they have lots a content. Im still waiting to see what they do with Mortal Kombat, if they release an Ultimate Edition. if not I wait till a price drop to make it worth purchasing the DLC.

I also purchasted Saints Row The third when it was released, and had an absolute blast with it. I also got free DLC for pre-ordering it. Im still playing well after completing both endings. Same with Zelda: SS.

Other games I find lots a value for money are the complete collection bundles that have been released for PS3... they average around 40$. I got the Tomb Raider, Prince of persia, Sly Cooper, Team ICO and Metal Gear Solid collections. With the amount of content it made sense to purchase. Im waiting for the Zone of the enders and Devil may cry collections.

When it comes to action, fighting or platforming games I usually wait a while for price drops. I make the exception if the game averages between 15 and 20 hours. I will usually pay full price on a game with lots a content, such as an RPG or a game with high replay value. A very good fighting game or action game.

I think there are many factors that can justify a games value. I would not pay 60$ for bullet Storm, Need For Speed the Run, or the yearle 2k games sports games. i would buy more games if they were released at lower prices. The average game should cost 30$ for short games, 40$ for rereleased, remakes or games with lots content but short gameplay time, 50$ for high production games like Uncharted or Metal Gear, God of War or a good RPG and 60$ for games with lots of content, replay value and hours of play, such as Saints Row 3 or dragon Age origins:UE

BTW... I purchased Vanquish. I paid 20$ for the last new copy at game stop. That was completely worth it.

Finally forgive my types, ive had a hard time editing my posts here after I post them for the first time.
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Rick Lopez Illustrator, Graphic Designer 6 years ago
Damn... didnt realize my post was so long...
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Dave Herod Senior Programmer, Codemasters6 years ago
@Rick - "Call of Duty should be priced at 40$"

No, it should be priced at whatever Activision/retailers want it to be priced at, since it's theirs to sell, and if they price it too high and no one buys it, that's their mistake. If they charge $40 to ten million people who would willingly pay $60, they're foolish. Products are worth what people will pay for them. You might not think the game's worth $60, but there's clearly a good few millions of people who disagree with you.
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Robert McLachlan Game Designer 6 years ago
We had the same problem with Silent Hill: Origins. Game time was presented on a statistic screen at the end of the game. Unfortunately the timer was inaccurate, as it did not count time spent paused, in the inventory, on the map screen, or watching cutscenes. Anyone who has played an 'old school' Silent Hill game will understand that you spend a lot of time on the map screen alone.

We had reviewers then complaining about the length of the game. It's frustrating because it was a tiny bug, and because actual game time was typically 50%+ more than the quoted figure. In addition people replay SH games to get the different endings.

There's no real blame - although it was our mistake not to see the bug and the reviewers' mistake not to apply some basic common sense. Our QA could complete the game in a very short time (1/5th of a typical playthrough) but generally people who played the game got 6.5 hours of play out of it, which was near the target length.
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Robert McLachlan Game Designer 6 years ago
Just to add some sort of conclusion: I think putting a figure on things is the problem. Players may have a lot of fun with a game, but when they get a stark figure of X hours played, particularly when it is unexpectedly short through some sort of error, they may start thinking 'hang on, was that really worth it'?
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Shawn Gordon Freelance writer 6 years ago
I wouldn't say that the clock built-in to many games gives false information. Like most things, it's about perspective. Loading screens, cinematics, and so on are not part of the interactive experience within gaming. Replaying a level whether from lack of skill or part of a second-run of other game do not constitute valid inclusion toward the initial experience. Sure, some players seek heightened challenges by replaying or are forced to build their skill upon level failures, but the fact remains that if the game counts the time for the initial entry to exit as two hours... Then it is a lately short game by comparison.

I think that part of the viewpoint by gamers regarding the judgement of games by the length of time to complete them comes from the price structure and the variance of time to complete per game. For example, a multi-player game may have greater value because a player can spend hundreds of hours playing, but the core design is the single player facet, which only takes a few hours. Add to this the concept that multi-player games only relate for as long as the developer wishes to support it (or as is popular), and the "value" becomes intangibly liquid. On the other hand, games like Disgaea can take upwards of 120 hours. Comparatively, The Run at even a five hour completion time costs 12 dollars per hour of initial experience where as Disgaea costs about fifty cents per hour. Where then lies the greatest bang for the buck? Are we really going to justify arcade racing and a few moderately intense scripted QTE scenes worth more than what brings players to the table: interactive entertainment?
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Rick Lopez Illustrator, Graphic Designer 6 years ago
@ Dave Herod
Guess you didnt read the second sentence... I clearly stated its my opinion based on my own expirience... And while Call of duty has been succesful, I doubt the industry as a whole can find that success. I know call of duty pushes millions of copies, but i happen to be one of the few wierdos who dont pick it up on day 1. i dont speak for everyone, just myself. i would not pay 60$ for it. And Im not talking about call of Duty, but the industry as a whole. With more cheaper game alternatives, I think the industry will keep suffering if the pricing structure doesnt change. Those cheaper games arent necessarily less quality. I think game cost should be decided on production costs and amount of content.

@Andreas Gschwari - "those games that don't deliver good content or enough content to justify the AAA pricetag, usually end up in the bargain bin quicker than those that do. They also end up on the used shelf quite quickly. Quality products don't. "

I disagree. There are many games that i find brilliant, but dont sell much, end up in the bargain bin or used game shelf quickly. The developer alot of times goes out of business. This does not mean the game didnt deliver quality content. Among these games is Beyond Good and Evil, Mirrors edge, Dead Space 2, Darksiders... Alot of game sales are also because of marketing and Branding. Something call of duty is succesful at.

I plan to purchase modern Warfare 3 just not now. Modern warfare is the only iterations of call of duty that appeals to me. However the only reason I mention Call of Duty was because Its a game that "to me" doesnt offer much for 60$ and 'I"am willing to wait and purchase at a lower price. i find the campaign relativly short and multiplayer a bit repetitive and its mostly on rails shooter to me, with few alternate paths or things to find and do. Basically its my personal expirience with the game. But then again, millions will disagree when i say i would purchase a game like Saints Row the Third on day one. Actually i wanted the Octopus canon and the Proffesor Genki human cannon vehicle that came with the pre-order (fun stuff)... Im still playing saints row many hours after the main game and still havent run out of things to do nore has the gameplay become too repetitive. I value that. i spent over 200 hours in Mass effect 2, playing the variouse story options along the way. i also like borderLands and am excited for the sequel. Im not saying Call of Duty is a bad game, im just saying i wouldnt pay 60$ for it, much less when I paid between 20$ and 30$ for the first two. Its not a game that gets me so hyped and pumped up to warrent a day 1 purchase.

I probably got off topic, but the article mentioned things that I think alot about, before I buy a game. A games length is something I take into account.

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Lewis Pulsipher Game Designer, Author, Teacher 6 years ago
A major reason to play video games is to kill time. And Jakob Nielsen says the "killer app" on mobile platforms is time killing. We already see many people not enjoying the journey, but only enjoying the destination, when they play video games, explaining why so many people buy virtual goods and other advantages, up to fully-made characters. "Social network" games amount to flashy card Solitaire, and why do people play Solitaire--to kill time.

So it's hardly surprising to see some people begin to measure the "worth" of games in terms of time killed.
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Julian Cram Producer 6 years ago
One of the best games this year was Child of Eden.

It revels in unadulterated fun of being a game, pure and simple.

Yeah, it was short, but so what? It was unbelievably fun.
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Luke Child6 years ago
I'm very guilty of the judging a games worth based on the time it takes to complete it. I personally have never enjoyed playing a game through a second time and it has to be a pretty unique game to get me to do so. (Singleplayer) However I will admit that my views as I've got older and thanks to having less time to dedicate towards games has changed; for the better I think.

Still I must voice as above, at least based on my earlier "teenagehood" that games were mainly a way to waste time and escape from life's nonsense; rather than enjoying the experience itself. Also Rick I agree that COD's prices are vastly over the amount that they generally should be, especially for a yearly set of games. However good on Activision for managing to get a brilliant marketing team to keeps those prices horrible and high. :)
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Alex Byrom Studying Multiplayer Online games design, Staffordshire University6 years ago
we need more multiplayer offiline experiences in games, i'd much rather play split screen with my friend in the same room then a random person the other side of the world. NFS Run pretty much looks like a copy and paste of the last game, i wasn't impressed with that either i'll stick to Grid which combines all the racing genres together.
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Morville O'Driscoll Blogger & Critic 6 years ago
People have been knocking the time-counter as a negative thing, and whilst that might be true, it is also something that constantly reminds players of how much worth they get out of games which last longer than they anticipated.

Personal example... Dragon Age: Origins. Steam says I clocked 110 hours. 110 hours on a single play-through, not even getting all the side-quests. Certainly worth the £30 (?) pounds I spent on it, and a further £15 on the Awakening expansion.I pre-ordered Dragon Age 2 on the back of the sheer amount of hours I spent on DA:O. It is, for all its faults, one of the best PC RPGs out there.

By contrast, DA 2... 44 hours, And I never want to touch it again. DA2 cost me more, was (comparatively) a worse product, and lasted me less time. I look at those 44 hours listed on Steam, and I wonder that I spent so long playing a game that wasn't all that good (in my opinion).

As Klaus and Rick both say, it's down to content vs cost, but also quality, and that's the hardest thing for anyone to measure... Whilst developers may hate that their game gets judged by the time-counter, at the price that a lot of video-games initially sell at, the consumer is bound to feel negatively towards games that don't last long, or are just a bit rubbish. For the same price as the new Batman and Need for Speed games, I can buy the complete series of Frasier, and I know which would give me more pleasure for longer (even if Batman is awesome).

So, surely it's about objectively assessing how much value a game has, and selling it for roughly that? (obviously taking into account costs).

Reviewers may speed-run through games, and that's a negative reflection on the game, but I would argue that's a problem with the reviewing side of game journalism. If publishers don't want reviewers to speed-run games, maybe send out review copies earlier/push back release dates until the reviewer has a had a fair amount of time to judge a game? (just thinking out loud)
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Oliver Jones Software Developer 6 years ago
I some respects I like shorter games. As I get older I'm becoming more time poor with respect to games. So a game being only 5-6 hours of single player content suits me just fine. I can be a content tourist and experience much of what the game has to offer and move on to something else before I become bored with a games mechanics. If I want more of the same I can always buy some DLC etc. So far I've never felt cheated by a game being short.
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Curt Sampson Sofware Developer 6 years ago
Well, at two hours NFS The Run may have had only about 45% as much gameplay as GTA IV, but at least it's twenty times as much gameplay as Super Mario Bros.!
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Dave Herod Senior Programmer, Codemasters6 years ago
@Rick - Sorry, I read "should be priced" as a recommendation to retailers/publishers, rather than "this is what I would pay". I'm sure they do all sorts of projections of predicted sales at various price points and just select the price that leads to the most revenue. I agree with you on CoD, I didn't think it was worth full price, which is why I picked it up for £29 with a trolley full of shopping I was going to buy anyway from Sainsbury's. Had that offer not been there I wouldn't have bothered with it. Having actually finished the game, I don't think it was even worth that to me.
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Greg Wilcox Creator, Destroy All Fanboys! 6 years ago
Ha and ha. This all reminds me of the time my younger brother, who was obsessed with The Terminator, HAD to have the video game as soon as it hit the Sega Genesis. We lived not too far from a game distributor he got most of his games from and even though some so-so reviews had come in about a week earlier (remember when we all relied on game magazines and waiting with bated breath for review scores?), he was still set on getting the game, $45 price tag (plus tax) be damned.

I still remember that it took about an hour and fifteen minutes to travel to the game shop and back home with the game (we actually got a small frequent customer discount that brought the price down about $3) and I also remember him actually getting to the END of the game about 45 minutes after we walked in the door with it.

It would have been 40 minutes, but that damn broken exoskeleton was crawling at about 90mph and was hard to avoid a few too many times. So, yeah, it took longer to go buy the game than to complete it, but guess what? It ended up getting played quite a few times more afterward.

The funny thing here, or more accurately, about NFS: The Run, is that the game is supposed to be a "cinematic" story-driven experience, which to me... signals it's going to be a short game. However, I also consider the replay value. If I like a game, no matter how short or long, I tend to keep it and replay it at some point. That goes back to the Atari 2600 days, as hell, all you did back then was replay stuff until you nailed it cold (which took longer for quite a few titles).

Of course, in this stupid short attention span disposable age we live in where physical product is considered a "bad" thing by some, it's easy for some gamers to NOT want to play or replay something for themselves because they can read about someone else who did (or didn't) and make up their minds without picking up a damn controller.

I have no problem with that at all, but I do have an issue with any writers out there blowing the completion time out of proportion in a review just to generate traffic and have their message boards lighting up like a fire at a Xmas tree farm. Like Vanquish (which wasn't a four-hour game to those who actually PLAYED it or those new players who hadn't played a game quite like it), The Run is getting unfair press because some dopes aren't considering the FACT that not EVERYONE blows through a game ONCE and trades it in.

Oh well, it'll be $19.99 or less in what, a month or so? Maybe I'll finally pick it up and see if it's better than the demo builds I've played.
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