Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: Black Box
Release Date: November 17, 2008
Based on exceptionally poor reception of Need For Speed: Pro Street, EA determined to make this new title in the franchise, Need for Speed Undercover, a welcome return to the open-world, mostly arcade tone of the series' heyday. Unfortunately, EA is better off claiming this title is merely an errant product of a lengthy rebuilding process. It's a toss-up, which title is indeed the franchise's nadir, Pro Street or Undercover. Pro Street is surely a better game, yet may deserve poorer reception for deviating so very far from the old, winning NFS formula. Sadly, Undercover is not at all what NFS fans were looking for when they heard their favorite series was going back to its roots.
At points, Need for Speed: Undercover appears to be a sincere effort at making a good, well-designed game. Undercover supports the most controller options I think I've seen in any one game, racing or otherwise, in quite a long time. The Wiimote and its accelerometer, and by default any number of steering wheel controller shells on the market, are supported, obviously. You can choose to use the Nunchuk with your Wiimote if you prefer a stick for steering over waggling your Wiimote. Undercover not only supports the Wii classic controller but also the legacy GameCube controllers as well. The classic and GameCube controllers use the traditional analog stick control scheme common to most console racers. Finally, Undercover is presently the one and only title to accommodate Logitech's very nice Speed Force Wireless force feedback controller. This game supports about anything that even reminds of you a racing controller.
The game's graphics, on the other hand, look to be a deliberate attempt at making a mess. Sure, graphics don't make the game — not all of the game, anyway — and I can't fairly compare the Wii version of a title with its HD console counterparts. However, I can expect the kind of quality that lots of third-party developers got out of the GameCube to turn up in their Wii titles. Yet again, here is a Wii edition of a multiplatform title with miserable graphics.
No matter how weak the graphical presentation may have been in the simultaneously released HD editions of Undercover, the car, road and environmental models in this Wii title are just awful. Nothing says "dog" like game graphics that look like abstract art — especially when the art director didn't intend it that way. With the graphics so hobbled, you'd think the draw distance could impress, but no; cars in front very blatantly pop in, at first as rather undifferentiated black boxes. I had to close the blinds and turn off the lights in the room to get an image on my TV that I could bear to watch for long periods.
In-game audio is likewise uninspired and generally poor. Fortunately, so we don't have to sit through rendered animations and figure out what exactly they are supposed to be, the cut scenes are full-motion video with real sets and actors. They look fine, and they're about the only thing in this game that does.
Ideally, I could take the high road and find elements of gameplay to love in this ugly duckling, but there's not only nothing here to salvage this title from the annals of failed racers, but there's also literally almost nothing here. There's nothing compelling to do, and there's nothing to make anyone who wants to love this game even like it. The Undercover career mode is the usual fare: You earn rank points, style points and money to upgrade your car or buy new cars. There's some nonsense backstory about working as an undercover cop planted in the Tri-Cities illegal racing scene to charm your way into the good graces of the local crime bosses. Win some races, take some clandestine jobs, and bring down the syndicates. It's actually duller than it sounds, adding little, if anything, to game. This game is all about the racing. Unfortunately, that's what breaks it.
You have the option of starting your career at your preferred difficulty level. This in itself is a little obtuse for an arcade racer of contemporary design. Most racers start you off easy enough, and then they ramp up the difficulty in later events when you've proven that you can handle it. Still, in Undercover, this deviation from the norm doesn't present a problem because you can change the difficulty setting whenever you wish. I'll admit that I like having the option of backing down the challenge level if I perhaps overstated my street-racing skills at the outset. There's one recent racer in particular that I would've loved to turn down the heat in the higher level of events.
Since the open-world model is back, you can cruise around Tri-Cities looking for events, harassing and fleeing local law enforcement. Via the map, you can hop to the events that you want to drive right now, but no matter how you get to it, the whole experience falls flat. The middle difficulty is balanced enough for most players, although veteran racers won't find it to be much of a challenge. They won't want to put the time into the hardest difficulty setting, either. Career events line up in seven varieties, but they're all the same stuff to which we're accustomed. The circuit races are closed-track races, sort of undermining the return to open-world racing. There are two types of open-world race and a waypoint race, but this world just isn't much to race through. All the events lack anything I could call unique by today's standards. In a way, this means the title was on thin ice a long time ago. If they're not going to stretch the boundaries, then they're going to have to ship something polished, and Need For Speed: Undercover is not polished.
Multiplayer mode in the game is exceptionally weak as well. For the most part, it's nothing but split-screen racing over variations of the career and quick-race events. There's no online, and this is not a game built for holding those visuals together in split-screen. Cops & Robbers, if not truly inspired, certainly could be a lot of fun in an overall better game. It's simple enough: The robbers grab the cash and try to break for drop points while the cops give chase, attempting to make the bust. Somebody plays robbers and the other plays cops, but there's just not enough here to matter.
The whole game is ugly, glitchy and stale, but it's not an interesting sort of "bad" that makes you want to scream. Need for Speed: Undercover just makes you want to put it away on a high shelf and never look at it again because there's really nothing here to salvage. The one nice thing I can say about the game, beneath the game's ugly face and obvious, excruciating blunders, is that the actual driving is not so bad. The arcade physics do work, in large part. Things like taking out a support column in order to knock down an overhanging highway sign between your car and pursuing patrol cars, handily cutting them off, this works and the timing feels right. It actually approaches fun. I spent some time attracting cop attention on the highways to set up sign-dropping scenarios. If the rest of the game weren't so poor, the mechanics of control, especially but not limited to the Logitech Speed Force Wireless, could be called the beginnings of a solid experience. There may be nothing upon which to build here, and the EA team is better off going back to the drawing board, but maybe they are just suffering from the ups and downs of rebuilding this heroic franchise. I hope so because in the next outing for NFS, it's going to be hard to take any excuses seriously.
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