REVIEWS -- Need for Speed Undercover -- Xbox360
Need for Speed never looked better, and it seems it never will with this formula
by Eric Silva
Fun factor: Fun
Worth to: Rent
As far as racing games go, this installment offers blazing action. Unfortunately it’s the same old thing with new flaws
Electronic Arts is known for a lot of things: popular sports games, trendy production, gobbling up smaller developers and being the root of all evil. The most consistent of all its labels has to be EA’s incessant milking of popular franchises (The Sims anyone?). Need for Speed falls into that category. Ever since Distinctive Software (EA Canada) first released the title in 1994 for 3DO, a slew of sequels followed. Last year’s Need for Speed Pro Street took a break from the all-pervading need to escape authorities while devastating innocent bus stops, much to the chagrin of many fans, but for better or worse the franchise is back to its roots.
Need for Speed: Undercover continues in EA’s shameless tradition of re-releasing virtually the same game with a few tweaks. At this point, the franchise practically begs for something fresh in the “cops vs. street racers” formula, but as it stands, this version is a no-nonsense, straight-to-the-action experience without the metrosexual undertones of Need for Speed Carbon. This time, it’s all about gritty racing with fewer Barbies and Kens in plastic toy cars arguing over who is better “groomed”. The game seriously lacks in originality so beware; it’s the same old NFS, albeit in a lighter package. This new street racer is perfect for people dipping their toes in the world of Need for Speed for the first time, but it may feel a bit exhausted for veterans of the franchise.
Meet the new Need for Speed “Lite”
The best way to describe Need for Speed: Undercover is by comparing it to a new diet soda with cherry flavor and a zipping label... It’s still the same popular drink with an absurdly recognizable brand name and taste, but it’s apparent that the makers are too scared to try something new. Similarly this new NFS installment offers what its predecessor had, though in a corporately diluted kind of way. Undercover is a good game, but the formula -- right down to the way players find events -- has been used so much, EA is practically begging its core fan base to stick with the old format, even though many would rather move on.
Nevertheless, it’s a slimmer, improved package. Gone are the “wingmen” of Carbon. Also absent is the testosterone and artificial “attitude” of previous NFS games. Players take on the role of an undercover agent trying to infiltrate the world of street racing. Action is told through decent cut-scenes with bearable acting. No Oscars here, but at least things aren’t as bad as in Pro Street and are less campy than in Carbon from an artistic point of view.
Everything is trimmed to accentuated action. Players are thrown into the thick of things at the intro with a race through a Tri-City highway and an entire police precinct giving chase -- as clear a disassociation from Pro Street’s track racing as you can get. It’s back to old business with in a magnanimous police barricade collision at the very beginning.
The tempo is what mainly sets Undercover from Carbon. The story is told through a series of MTV-paced scenes depicting special agent Chase Linh (ya, clever…) coordinating your undercover operation from dimly lit sky rise offices. You are tasked with infiltrating the world of street racing. The first missions revolve around getting the attention of potential gangs. Players must ransack public property (bus stops) and other drivers to get the attention of the police. Once cops give chase, you run like hell in an open-ended city…
Missions eventually evolve into to more traditional street racing events. Circuit races, Sprints and Checkpoints are back. Drift is gone and Duel no longer begs the issue, having been revamped and rechristened Outrun and Highway Battle, both offering a few improvements while maintaining the “duel” quality. No more “quickies” on the streets; no more annoying crew mates during events and gimmicky skills, and no more turfs. Players are simply asked to burn rubber, and burn it good and often. Controls are responsive and crisp, as usual.
Something old, something new, something red and blue
Police chases have a more pronounced role than in Carbon, and unlike the latter, players will have a much easier time getting away from the men in blue, at least while free roaming. Most chases will last a minute or two. This is mainly due to shaky police AI and destructible objects available to slow cops down. Ramming destructible items like construction material will always stop the law in its tracks, which is an improvement from previous games, but unfortunately the effect needs some tweaking as squad cars that can clearly pass or avoid debris are usually stopped dead in their tracks. The feature feels a bit unnatural.
The game features a variety of law-evading missions, the most common being Escape and Cost to State and Cop Takedown. All three offer a variation of destruction and evasion and give more experience points than the standard racing missions. Experience improves various skills -- tires, transmission, engine, breaks, earning bonuses, parts discounts -- independent of physical car upgrades. Points are given out after every race, depending on how well the player drives, but cop missions are specifically designed for that.
A handful of complimentary “grand theft auto” Escape missions are injected into the plot on occasion, breaking the monotony of roaming the Tri-City area in your personal ride. Said missions are preceded by a cut scene of you leaving a parking lot with a stolen car, only to be chased by the law. Success is measured by evading the police and reaching a mark on the map with the vehicle intact. A few variations of the same game type exist, some of which don’t have a “car damage” meter, but more depth here could have done the game type some major good. I’m not asking EA to have an “on foot” aspect similar to GTA, but the ability to pick your cars before stealing them, or the option to buy the hot car or its parts at a discount at the end of the mission would have been sweet. Basically, a million things could have been included, but weren’t.
As long as the road doesn’t end…
Outrun events put players behind a single opponent with the objective to pass and stay ahead for a certain amount of time. The concept is fun but needs improving. The car in the lead can drive anywhere it pleases with the trailing adversary having a limited amount of time to take the lead. Sounds good, but the free-roaming nature of the mission can be head-bangingly infuriating. I personally experienced failing to pass an opponent despite approaching at a speed that would normally put me in the lead, simply because the opponent decided to turn at the last second on an intersection while I kept driving forward. The rule of the event is to stay ahead but that rule is blurred when opponents are neck and neck and the leader simply decides to take another route without the player’s knowledge, since one can’t glance to the sides, only to the back. Who leads is also muddled when making u-turns. Doing so puts AI into a knot with the computer always having to pass the incoming player before itself doing a 180 maneuver and attempting to catch up. Computer controlled opponents will also get stuck trying to pass through solid objects to catch up.
Highway Battle resembles Outrun except players are asked to put a maximum distance between their opponent. The game type is in first perspective. Unequivocally, it’s not the easiest of modes, because after driving around in 3rd perspective the switch to 1st perspective will leave more than a few drivers disoriented, especially since action takes place in heavy traffic. Players will often misjudge distance between passing vehicles and hit them, resulting in failed races. Such missions can be a bit frustrating but they are often brisk and fun… when things go well that is. Many later Highway Battles produce strange results. I have had races where I was competitive throughout the event and other instances (same race) where my opponent literally flew away at warp speed from the start. The sight was downright comical, but it left me scratching my head, since I didn’t do anything different between attempts. Having said that, at later stages players will often rely on their opponents making a mistake in order to win.
A few missions will ask you to take down opponents or protect other drivers. Here players will see icons above their aggressors and colleagues. Overall such events are fun, but the game’s AI again fails the test on a few points. Computer opponents, like their police counterparts, react to who is in their line of sight, regardless of what is in front of them. I had an instance where three “black” cars (bad guys) got stuck behind a concrete barrier around a building while trying to get to me. All three idiots attempted to pass the solid object for a few minutes even though the barrier was only a few feet wide.
Like in previous Need for Speed games, cars accumulate “heat” points that draw unwanted police attention. Players can no longer spend money to remove “heat” off their rides, which is a downer. Money in Need for Speed: Undercover is only used to buy cars, upgrades and visual changes.
All of the aforementioned game types (except cop missions) give cash, though Tournament races (the equivalent of circuit but more “important”) offer cars as prizes. Esthetic customization has been clearly toned down. Players are no longer able to place art on their rides anywhere they please, or reshape them for that matter. This aspect clearly took a hit.
Ladies and gentlemen… we are spoiled
What can be said of the levels? Everything takes place in rather impressive-looking cities and surrounding areas. They are on par with what has been released in most driving games with open-ended elements. Clearly, such designs should wow and awe anybody playing for the first time, but they won’t impress all the spoiled gamers out there (and we’re all spoiled at this point). It should be mentioned that unlike Carbon, everything takes place in the day, which is disappointing because cities would have really looked nice in neon, or any other weather effects for that matter. Furthermore, after playing for a few hours players will notice many familiar-looking areas during races. The Tri-City bay only looks big on the surface.
Graphically Need for Speed: Undercover tries a bit too much. High speeds cause blurring, like the ones found in many 70’s soft-core porn movies… But in general, everything looks very realistic. High speeds will sometimes confuse players with all the details, especially on sharp curves, but in general the game looks great. Now if only Need for Speed would finally add some pedestrians.
Sound and music are a mixed bag. Some tunes are memorable while most are downright forgettable. The tack list also seems a bit leaner compared to previous racing titles. Players will notice the same handful of tunes recycled countless times, maybe because few tracks stand out. The ambient music in menus is quite good, though. As one would expect from an EA game, sound effects are topnotch both in police chatter and car engine noises. Different engine pitches when glancing back or changing the camera view should have been added.
Overall, Need for Speed: Undercover is a decent game but it is disappointingly similar to its predecessors. It doesn’t try to break the mold, opting to trim things by focusing on racing rather than plot. The story’s pacing and mixture of plot-driven events is spread out evenly. They always come at the right moment. This NFS is definitely not boring, but it is stale production-wise. Gameplay is also in need of a major shift. EA should focus on adding pedestrians and life on the streets in future Need for Speed games, as well as more customization options and all the elements leading up to races. The world of street racing is complex from an underground point of view, and this installment of the series does little to tap its full potential.
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: EA Black Box
Release Date: November 18, 2008
Review Date: 09-01-2009
Numbers of Players: 1
Players Online: 2-8
Notes: Xbox Live, 720p Support, Leaderboards, Voice Support, Downloadable Content
Realistic city designs and nice cars, though a bit overdone in some effects. Locations become repetitive with time.
Numerous issues with the new game modes, but racing is crisp and responsive. Stupid artificial intelligence.
Game definitely took a major cutback in production, offering fewer plot features. The underground street racing world is barely skimmed. Meaningless plot.
A few memorable tracks, but in general racing tunes are weak. Menu music is great. A colorful orchestra of sound effects.
Plenty of racing events puts game time at around 15 hours in single player, with online play extending the action somewhat, but the formula is getting old.