The Need for speed series has had a rocky road recently. It seems that ever since the introduction (and a bit before) the release of these fancy new consoles the long-running franchise has been searching for an identity. Undercover almost feels like a collaboration of all the ideas found in previous outings all crammed into one package. The narrative plays out like a movie, the cop chases bring back memories of the fan-favorite Hot Pursuit and the driving feels like classic Need for Speed. With all of these great ideas finally coming together you would imagine that Undercover is the pinnacle of the series, but a few setbacks keep it from becoming the game fans have been clamoring for, but it doesn’t keep it from being another solid entry in the franchise.
Undercover adopts the open-world philosophy found in previous games, but it doesn’t gel as well as other titles. The whole reason to offer gamers a free roam mode so they can find multiple routes for races and of course to explore the area. The problem with Undercover is that once you enter an event all of the side roads are closed off eliminating any ability to find shortcuts and forces you down a specific path. This makes races feel very predictable and straightforward because there is no cross traffic to deal with and the AI cars assume the follow-the-leader mentality. To enter an event all you have to do is simply press down on the d-pad, which makes getting into the action easier than ever. You can also bring up the menu and select your desired race from the map without having to drive there, ideal when you want to check out a specific event or work on upgrading your car.
The upgrade system from previous games makes a return offering packages that make the game more accessible to those of us in the world not educated in being a gearhead. Everything is straightforward and easy to understand giving you a good idea of how each package impacts your car’s performance. If you want to get more in-depth there is a tuning tab that allows you to tweak different options such as acceleration and top speed by manipulating a few simple sliders. Disappointingly though most of these tweaks and upgrades don’t have a large impact within the game thanks mostly due to the fact that regardless of how many different makes and models found that are featured the handling feels similar across the board.
The amount of cars found in the game is impressive. While there are only a little over fifty total models the list is what makes it stand out. All of the usual suspects are here including such manufacturers as Lamborghini, Porsche, Aston Martin and BMW. As I mentioned earlier though most of them feel remarkably familiar making choosing a favorite as easy as finding the fastest top speed and design you like. Winning races earns you money and you can use this to purchase new cars to fill your garage or purchase upgrade packs. You can also earn bonuses for dominating races, which is basically winning by a substantial margin.
There are a nice selection of play modes such as standard circuit racing and an event where the idea is to overtake another car for a certain amount of distance through heavy traffic. This mode is intense because the game defaults to the ground camera and every single pass through traffic can make or break the race. There are also a host of events involving the fuzz, which in my opinion are the highlight of the game. Additionally there is a mode where the objective is cause massive amounts of damage throughout the city. There is enough variety to keep the game interesting, but you will often find yourself hunting down specific favorites instead of progressing the story.
Speaking of the story the campy cut scenes return and this time you assume the role of an undercover agent that will take to the streets to uncover a smuggling ring that is being run by one of the street gangs. Much like previous outing EA has opted to use another sex symbol to play the role of your superior officer Chase Linh. This time Maggie Q (Mission Impossible III) takes center stage and as you can imagine everything is presented in gritty cut scenes with Hollywood-caliber directing and some genuinely good acting. The story may be cheesy, but at least it entertains. However, you will not find yourself driven to uncover it, which defeats the purpose of including a narrative to begin with.
Visually the game does have its fair share of problems, most of them stemming from the frame rate issues. PS3 owners get the worst of it but 360 owners are not in the clear. Even when there are no cars visible on screen during a race the game will stutter from time to time almost like it is loading various objects in the environment. The cars do sport damage, but the models themselves are certainly not of the highest quality. The city permeates a gritty glow full of sepia tones and the reflections are actually quite impressive. Sound effects are another story though as engine sounds are outstanding and the soundtrack works for this type of game, though it does feel a bit absent at times.
Probably the best part about Undercover comes from its online component thanks mostly to the Cops and Robbers mode. The idea behind this mode is that one team plays the robbers attempting to steal some cash and deliver it to their hideout while the cops try to slam into them and reset it, more or less it is a modified version of capture the flag. Nevertheless the mode provides hours of entertainment once you get a good group of participants. The other two modes are basically race modes with different objectives. Circuit races have you traversing a series of laps while dashes are a one way shot from start to finish. Everything moves fairly well online with little lag, but I can see the Cops and Robbers mode losing steam after some dedicated time. Perhaps we will see new modes via DLC.
Need for Speed Undercover is a solid if not predictable step for the series. The lack of difficulty and frame rate issues are at the top of the list of its problems, but if you are a fan it is worth checking out. The series still feels like it is searching for an identity and Undercover doesn’t quite nail it, but with a few more innovations such as the competent online and the fast-paced campaign mode and the series will surely be back on top before long. As it stands Undercover is a game that will please fans and probably not win any new ones.