Need for Speed: Undercover Review

Dan Webb (GT: Webb x360a)

Let’s not beat around the bush, the Need For Speed franchise has been on a steady decline for some time now with each title since Most Wanted falling away in to oblivion. Fair enough, Carbon wasn’t a bad game, but ProStreet sure was; what were EA thinking? After its poor sales, EA and Black Box decided to take the franchise back to its roots, however, the question is, have they gone far enough back to recapture the glory days?

Brakes are the last thing on your mind round corners

Need For Speed: Undercover throws you in to the shoes of an unnamed wheelman with a love for speed and adrenaline who has been sent undercover (fancy that) to infiltrate a street racing crew who are said to be involved in a local smuggling ring. Maggie Q (Mission Impossible 3, Die Hard 4) plays the part of your handler throughout and the gorgeous Christina Milian plays a cameo in a game that is obviously intending to hit home as more of an interactive movie rather than a videogame. The plot however doesn’t really flow like its Hollywood counterparts and, if it’s possible, it could be said to have a poorer plot than The Fast and the Furious *shudders*

The game runs on what EA like to call their Heroic driving engine and, as far as an engine goes, it’s pretty solid and allows you to pull off some fairly advanced driving manoeuvres with very little effort. The arcade feel and adrenaline fuelled racing really means that the Need For Speed series is headed back in the right direction. The game also boasts an exterior damage engine that has no physical effect on your car’s handling or speed but one that turns your pretty car in to a fast moving wreckage cube. In addition to being able to pull of some pretty sweet 180’s at high speeds, the reaction time and nitros add to the game’s arcade feel.

The game takes place in the Tri-City Bay Area and has plenty of different events to wade through whilst not on the story arch, from straight up point-to-point races to the more intense highway battles. The highway battles are in fact new to the series and will have you racing against a foe on the highways at speeds in excess of 350 kilometres per hour allowing you to use the traffic to your advantage. Whilst a nice addition to the series, it’ll be the high speed cop chases that will invoke your senses more than anything else the game has to offer.

The city in itself is pretty gigantic, with over 80 miles of roads with plenty of diverse locations on offer, but that’s where the review stops being so positive. The game in fact is very flawed on a design level as the further and faster you drive in the game, the more you’ll notice the glaring bugs.

The Audis pack a punch, especially through police roadblocks.

The biggest of these bugs is most definitely the frame rate issues that the game experiences. At high speeds in some of the Tier 1 cars, the game quite frankly struggles to keep up with play; the frame rate will hang quite frequently and at times will make it virtually unplayable, even the background just seems to chug along. The frame rate issues are definitely more prevalent at high speeds and when you have a lot of onscreen cop action going on and for a game that relies on speed so much, not being able to cope with it effectively is almost unforgivable. In addition to that, the game is prone to freezing with it locking up in numerous places during my run through of the campaign.

Despite the sandbox label from EA themselves, the city doesn’t really live up its title and although it’s all open from the start, when in a race, there are bollards marking off the course with civilian cars still driving through them. It really does kill the whole illusion of this high speed blockbuster title. The streets and roads of the Tri-City Bay are definitely too empty as well and when you throw in plenty of bouts of pop up, it’ll leave you feeling slightly disappointed.

When the game does actually break the shackles and become a free roam racer (particularly in the cop events), the game’s GPS lets you down. Not only is it a horrible colour that at times is unclear, but it’s also in such an awkward position on the screen that by the time you look down at it to look back up at the gameplay, you’ll be face planted against a wall. Not ideal for a game that relies on its break neck speeds and intense chases and races.

The game really doesn’t offer you any challenges in terms of difficulties either with you winning 3 minute races by 10 seconds or more on numerous occasions, even right off the bat. It’s here where the AI has a bit of a wobble because whereas the Carbon style street races really offer you no challenge, the over aggressive cops in the game are relentless and sometimes way too brutal; there just doesn’t seem to be any middle ground. However, after you work out how to play the cops by leading them in to pursuit breakers, the game truly does become a doddle; mind you, this is after you work it out for yourself as the game offers very little guidance or advice.

Undercover features an RPG style upgrade system for your driver which means that you’ll get bonuses as you advance through the game. This of course is in addition to the cash you’ll earn which you can spend on the 55 licensed cars that range from the heavy American style muscle cars to the lighter Japanese and European models. I must say that the car models themselves are particularly shiny and a joy to behold but the lack of a free roaming camera whilst driving is highly annoying when you want to check out your new trims which you can buy from the in depth garage brought over from ProStreet.

The whole audio aspect of Undercover is pretty impressive with each car having its own different roar that you can especially hear when you are using the bonnet or inside car cameras; even the screeching is pretty realistic. The heavy rock and drum-n-bass influenced soundtrack compliments the game perfectly and if I was to have one gripe with it, it’s that it doesn’t feature nearly enough throughout and you’ll be left in moments of silence on more than one occasion. The voice acting seems a little cheesy and cliché but it seems to fall in tune with the tone of the rest of the game.

The online mode for Undercover is pretty standard with street races and what not but it’ll be the Cops N’ Robbers mode that will make it an experience to remember; allowing two teams of up to 4 people to fight it out in a mode that fits in perfectly with the Need For Speed franchise. The objective is simple; the robbers will need to get the cash from a point on the map and get it “home” but the team of police will need to stop them by any means necessary. The mode is fast paced and fun as hell; my only qualm would be that on numerous occasions I found my team out numbered which really detracts away from the experience. Other than that, Cops N’ Robbers is a great addition to the series and one that will surely become a staple in the online from here on out.

This is where the frame rate crashes.

The achievement list for Undercover is pretty solid as it seems to drop cookie crumb achievements for the player and you’ll get a large chunk as you play through the game’s campaign (about 600 points). The list isn’t a hard one, but it sure is time consuming, asking the player to complete all of the events in the city for 100 points ... And there are a lot of events! As far as the rest of the achievements go ... Need I go off on another condescending rant about my disdain for multiplayer achievements? I think not, but why Black Box felt the need to urge you to play 119 online games is beyond me.

Need For Speed: Undercover is most definitely a step in the right direction for the once lost series. The shortcuts are back, the cop chases are back and the enjoyable gameplay is back, but Undercover is fundamentally let down on a design level with the Heroic driving engine failing to cope entirely with the high speed chases. The online Cops N’ Robbers mode is a pleasant addition to the series but other than the cop chases you’ll be hard pressed to find a reason to purchase this over the other driving games out on the market at the current time. The bastard son of Carbon and Most Wanted shows no sign of ProStreet which will please fans but is too rugged to recommend to anyone. While you’ll most likely enjoy the game as a whole, you’ll definitely be annoyed at the game’s inability to cope with the questions you’ll ask of it. EA and Black Box have saved their sinking series but they have to go a long way from here to make it the success it once was.

Solid soundtrack and glorious roaring engines mean that Undercover is on the whole fairly solid. Cheesy voice acting and lack of constant tunes leave the game slightly short.

The game visually is actually pretty solid with the car models looking pretty fancy. The title falls way short with pop up issues and massive frame rate problems when the game picks up speed. Such a shame really because otherwise, it looks like Need For Speed should.

The game controls great actually ... when you're not pushing the Heroic driving engine that is; then the game becomes unstable and is prone to make the frame rate hang which makes it unplayable. The same can be said with the game's constant freezing.

Not really as sandbox as they make out and the whole AI issue leaves you playing the game and feeling somewhat empty after. The campaign is very uneventful but at least the online Cops N' Robbers mode will have you coming back for more.

Solid list on the whole but those damn pointless and prolonged multiplayer achievements rear their ugly head again. When, oh when will they learn!?

Undercover is definitely a step in the right direction and if it wasn't for the horrible design issues (buggy GPS, frame rate issues and dodgy AI), the game would be scoring closer to the 80's. It's ultimately these design issues that spoil what is a solid racer. Chances are, if you can look past these issues, you'll actually really enjoy the title, I did ... but I have the patience of a Saint.

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