No scientology in sight
I’ve always thought the Need For Speed series is at its best when dealing with the boys in blue. Most Wanted was the last time we tackled the law, and since then the franchise has moved off into other directions, trying to diversify things. Now we come to Need For Speed: Undercover, and as the name suggests you’re back behind enemy lines, dealing with both the police and street racers in a story-driven, open-world, racing extravaganza.
Just like Most Wanted the story is told via cut scenes featuring real-life actors performing on CGI backgrounds. You’re guided through the game by Hollywood star Maggie Q, who will inform you of your next objectives, and generally just move the narrative along. Undercover sets out its own style with both the look and the acting, but most of the time both fall flat. It tries to use the cheesiness of it all to its advantage, but the majority of the time it’s just laughable. There’s not really much to care about here.
And of course the aforementioned objectives don’t really matter either since you’ll spend most of the game completing the same race types over and over. You have the basic races against other drivers where you have to reach a certain target; Outrun and Highway Battle have you racing against one other opponent, trying to get ahead of them and stay there; as well as other specific mission types that vary as the game progresses.
The basic races are the most disappointing of all. You see, Undercover is set in a massive open-world, so you would imagine you can go anywhere and make your way to the finish line any way you want, but instead you’re confined to one set path, constrained by barriers at the side of the road. When you factor in the fact that you can access all races from the d-pad, the open-world setting makes very little sense. There isn’t even anything extra to unlock if you go exploring, so it’s a wasted opportunity and one that’s pointless in the context of the game.
Undercover is also incredibly easy as well. Even if your car is moderately worse than the rest of the pack, you’ll breeze to the win with little resistance. It’s clearly aimed at a casual audience, and it shows. However, once you reach the half way point of the game, it spikes in difficulty and opponents become increasingly resilient and aggressive. It’s quite a large jump from what was before it, so it can take you by surprise. With an improved learning curve Undercover would be much more enjoyable and a lot less frustrating.
But, like before, the best part of Undercover are the police chases. They aren’t as spontaneous as before (featuring under their own event) and, like the rest of the game, they do take a while to get going because of the difficulty; but eventually they’re just as intense and exhilarating as before, with each cop attempting to spin you round, or box you in. At it’s hardest - with a helicopter flying above, and tons of cars behind - it’s a lot of fun, and is the definite bright spark in Undercover.
Sadly it’s let down by a horrendous framerate - at times it seems better suited to Microsoft Excel than the 360. It will often chug along, especially when there are a lot of cars on screen, so that initial intensity from police chases are dampened as the framerate tries to keep up. It’s hugely disappointing when you consider Undercover’s main rival, Burnout: Paradise, keeps going at a steady 60FPS throughout.
It’s also strange when you consider that the visuals aren’t particularly polished either. Sure, the huge roster of cars look great, with all the level of detail and shine you would expect; but the rest of the open-world city is full of low-res textures and bland scenery. Some of the locales are fun to drive through, but mostly the city is pretty lifeless, with very few cars on the road during races. There are also some aliasing issues, and some shadows like to move across the road at speed depending on how fast you’re going. A bizarre effect.
Sound, on the other hand, is excellent. All of the cars sound lifelike, and believable, especially the screeching of the tires as you drift round a sharp bend; and the soundtrack is top-notch, blending a plethora of different musical genres together so that there’s something for everyone to enjoy. Special mention must also go to the police chatter over the radio, a nice, and sometimes hilarious, touch.
Online, Undercover features races against other opponent as well as a new mode called Cops ‘n’ Robbers. Here you’re split into two teams, the robbers needing to get and take a package to a location in the city, whilst the other team of cops need to stop them. It’s a fun mode that will keep you busy for a good while, especially with friends. The advantage obviously goes to the robbers, but it strikes a nice balance and provides a lot of entertainment while it lasts.
Need For Speed: Undercover is a disappointing title. It doesn’t build on the series in any way, basically sticking to Most Wanted’s fundamentals, whilst adding more technical issues. It has its moments, and the cop chases are a unique feature of the series that should attract the fans; but at the moment there are other racers that do things better, especially when it comes to taking advantage of the open-world setting and using it in a dynamic way to fulfil the games potential.