Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: Black Box
Release Date: November 17, 2008
It's understandable why people have been a little down on the Need For Speed series lately, since it's basically become the Madden of racing titles, with yearly entries that don't do a whole lot to differentiate itself from the previous games ? with the exception of Pro Street, which, in turn, didn't do all that well. I've found each game to be entertaining for a short amount of time, and this manages to hold true for the latest entry, Need for Speed: Undercover.
Undercover takes the game back to the seedier side of street racing, casting you as an undercover cop who's been tagged by the FBI to infiltrate some drug smugglers who are running their operation out of one of the local gangs in the city. As in previous titles, especially Carbon and Most Wanted, the story is supposed to take center stage in the Career mode. Maggie Q, of "Mission Impossible 3" and "Die Hard 4" fame, is your FBI contact who feeds you information about the gangs you'll be infiltrating, such as who your nefarious contacts are and so on. There are other actors present, such as R & B singer Christina Milian, but to me, Maggie Q was the most recognizable of the bunch. None of the actors do much with the script other than overact, just as in previous Need for Speed entries, and it feels a bit campy. I'd like to think that the campiness was intentional, but it wasn't done with a sense of humor, so it mostly comes across as cringe-inducing when you watch the various live action cut scenes.
The actual gameplay, however, is pretty fun. Like previous Need for Speed titles, Undercover is definitely an arcade racer so there's not a whole lot of technical driving ability needed to do relatively well in the game. Instead, the controls are quick and responsive, and managing tight turns doesn't require a proper entry line or mastery over the brakes. You can get away with taking your finger off the acceleration (right trigger) most of the time to get around the majority of the curves in the road.
The biggest challenge when racing comes from the opponent AI and the cops you'll encounter along the way, depending on the events in which you're participating. The opponent AI starts off as pretty simple, to the point of being too easy, allowing you to gain massive leads that make the initial circuit and sprint events almost too boring to play through. As you advance your Wheelman rank, the opponent AI will start to play more aggressively, often trying to edge you into a wall or oncoming traffic, and even more often nudging your rear bumper and trying to make you spin out. This becomes a bit frustrating since the game will often lock you up with another vehicle, and the only real way to become unstuck is by braking and letting them pull off of you. It's not frustrating to the point that you're going to want to throw your controller, but it definitely becomes annoying by the end of the career mode.
On the other hand, the police AI will definitely make you want to toss the controller a few times. Like the opponent AI, they're not too aggressive at first, but the more you race with a particular vehicle, you'll start to gain a heat meter, which in turn dictates the amount of force the local law enforcement will throw at you. At first, it's just regular patrol cars, then "super" state cars, and then the feds will enter the equation. The feds in particular are the biggest pain to deal with, as they'll swarm you with three to four cars at once, set up constant roadblocks, and always manage to stay on your tail, regardless of how well you're actually driving.
There are breakable obstacles scattered throughout the entire city that provide you with respite, provided you hit them while the cops are tailing you; this takes out your pursuers for a limited amount of time, but by the final missions, you'll get really frustrated because of how unfair the police AI seems to be, especially when you're working within time constraints.
One other big aggravation, and something I'd almost consider a flaw if it weren't intentional, is that you can be caught by the police if you end up getting stuck, and getting caught three times in one vehicle will impound your car forever. Granted, you'll have access to quite a few cars by the time you're finished with Undercover, but if for some reason you get all of your current vehicles impounded, then the whole game is officially over, and you actually have to restart at the beginning. That is, of course, unless you want to buy some Microsoft points and purchase a car from a vendor, if the in-game character is strapped for virtual cash ....
Despite some of these annoyances, though, I found myself enjoying Undercover, simply because it's so easy to jump in and play. The game is presented as a big open-world city, something similar to Burnout Paradise, but lacking the hidden features and incentives to explore. Undercover is really just a series of events that eventually lead into story-related missions, all of which are used to gain rank points, which in turn level up your current character.
Certain events have a qualifier time to beat, and if you meet that time, you end up dominating that race, and you'll add a bonus to a set of skills that your racer will always have regardless of the car you're driving. It's a bit odd to see a universal brake skill applied to a person instead of a car, but I actually like the idea of upping the particular abilities of a racer, even if it's just through a generic car stat. Entering into events is as simple as pressing down the d-pad to go into whatever the game suggests, or pressing up on the d-pad to bring up your map, which gives you icons for all of the different events currently available.
Along the way, you'll unlock shops for part upgrades and new cars, which are represented by various tiers. Certain tiers won't be available until you hit a particularly rank, but that's not all that troubling, since they're also pretty expensive, and the flow of cash in the game is definitely slow when you start out. The part upgrades can be done piece by piece, or you can just opt to do the quick upgrades by picking from two packages, Power or Handling. You can also fine-tune certain parts of your vehicle using a slider, but I didn't find the need to mess around with this too much. It's a simple way of giving you more options in how your vehicles control, but the defaults all seem to work well enough.
The career mode will most likely last you around eight to 10 hours, and you'll take on a variety of events, including your typical race events like Circuits and Sprints, but also more stylized events like Cost to State (wherein you try to damage as many police units as possible), Checkpoint, and so on. There's not a huge variety, but spread out across the large map you're given, which in turn unlocks more and more through the Career mode, you'll end up finding enough variety in the locations to make up for the limited race types.
Online modes are a bit lacking, and the Cops and Robbers mode is definitely the highlight. You take turns playing either role, with the robbers running packages from point A to point B and the cops trying to take them down by resetting the packages. There are only circuit and sprint races to supplement that event, and it's not quite enough to draw the players away from the competition at this point. If there were something more to toy around with by exploring the city with various players, I could see a community coming together to support this release online, but as it is now, I can't see a big reason to pick it up for the multiplayer portion alone.
I had a lot of fun with the Career mode in Need for Speed: Undercover, and the easy-to-grasp controls really make this an accessible and fun title in the Need for Speed franchise. Don't expect a lot of innovation or new ideas, as a lot of the things that were implemented seem to be pulled from previous NFS releases, but I think race fans will be able to have some fun with this title ? for the duration of the single-player mode, at least. I'm not sure I'd consider Undercover worth buying at full price, but it's well worth a rental and definitely fun to play.
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