Giant Bomb Review


Need for Speed: Undercover Review

  • PS3
  • X360

Grave performance issues, a bland narrative, and a condescending level of difficulty burn through most of Need for Speed Undercover's potential for fun.

The cutscenes are all style, no substance.
“You're not good, and you're not bad.” This is one of the lines that pops up repeatedly during loading screens in Need for Speed Undercover. It's a phrase designed to flatly establish the coolly antiheroic nature of your role as a street-racing undercover cop, though there's no such grey area when it comes to the actual quality of Undercover. After last year's Need for Speed: ProStreet, an oddly street-less street-racer, I saw some good potential in Need for Speed's return to the heady blend of cops-n-robbers gameplay and goofy live-action cutscenes that made Most Wanted such intense and intensely silly fun. But execution is nine-tenths of the law, and Undercover feels careless and mercenary, lacking the enthusiastic verve that made Most Wanted more than the sum of its parts.

You play Undercover as a silent protagonist who, with the help of a chilly FBI handler played by Maggie Q, is plunged into the world of criminal street racing gangs, with the hopes of finding, uh, something. Or maybe a guy. I think the guy has a thing, or some stuff, and you're trying to get it back. Your motives for risking life and limb to infiltrate and then take down these gangs of tough-talking male models are muddled, but then, so is most of the plot. The disjointed live-action cutscenes are all slickly produced and filled with pretty people, but they rarely mean anything, and half of them involve an especially wooden Maggie Q delivering serious-sounding cop-talk to an empty room. With a few rare exceptions, everyone else comes off as disaffected and/or bland, with only a few fleeting moments of hammy overacting to lighten the mood. It's all bad nonsense, but not nearly bad enough to be good again.

In between the bloodless cutscenes, you'll race on the streets of the Tri-City Bay Area, a trio of small, caricatured cities linked by highways and causeways that reminded me of Florida, or at least Florida as it is portrayed in something like CSI: Miami or Miami Vice. The layout isn't anything special, but the geography is a healthy mix of dense urban areas and winding back country roads, though there were a few turns that seemed like they were pulled straight out of previous Need for Speed games. What gives the game much of its personality is the way it piles on the special effects, giving the game a hazy, dusky look with orange and black hues that really pop. There are some rough spots, such as the game's rather smudgy sky box, and the alarming speed with which the sun will sometimes streak across the sky, but the real killer is the frame rate. It constantly chugs and sputters, regularly turning into a slide show, and it only gets worse as the cars get faster. It destroy the game's sense of speed, and it interferes with the gameplay so thoroughly that it makes Undercover's other problems harder to forgive.

This should actually give you a pretty good sense of the game's frame rate.
The format is nearly identical to what Most Wanted and Carbon featured, offering up straight street races against AI opponents, checkpoint races, and missions that force you to rack up property damage and outrun the cops. The big new race type is the highway battle, which is effectively a flat and straight version of the drift battles from Carbon. You and another racer go head-to-head on the game's sprawling highway system, with the objective of pulling ahead of your opponent by a certain distance. Weaving in and out of traffic can be intermittently thrilling, though the ease in which you can trip up your opponents by nudging a few civilian cars can make these events pretty short. The different race types provide you with a decent amount of variety, and while the licensed cars you can drive generally don't feel like they've got much weight, they also feel slippery in a good, action-movie kind of way. What sucks a lot of the fun out of Undercover is that it's way too easy. The race AI can be shamelessly rubber-bandy, and it gives up halfway through many races. The cops are similarly uncommitted, and I often found that, even when I was allotted three or four minutes to lose the cops, it took little effort to do it in less than one. Aside from the police pursuits, the game doesn't make very good use of the open world format, especially since you can select any available missions from the in-game map.

This brings up the game's often arbitrary domination system, which rewards you for winning events in a certain amount of time. You'd think the domination bonus would be based on how thoroughly you trounce your competition, but it rarely seems like it's reflective of your actual performance. There were races where I blew away the competition by a good ten seconds and didn't get the domination bonus, and others where I just barely scraped ahead, but was rewarded for it. Another minor point in Undercover that really got under my skin was how blatant it was about pushing EA's filthy downloadable content agenda. Playing the Xbox 360 version, every time I tried and purchase cars or upgrades, the game asked if I wanted to use in-game money (which it confusingly refers to as “cash”) or Microsoft Points (which are actually cash) to pay for them. All told, you could easily spend as much money on in-game items as the game itself costs, which is especially pointless since it doesn't take much effort to earn it honestly.

I'll admit that my fondness for Need for Speed Most Wanted colored my expectations for Need for Speed Undercover, but this game's general failure as a racing game ends up being so significant that its inability to recapture the fun of Most Wanted in particular is kind of a moot point. There's no shortage of street racing games on the market right now, and there's simply no room for a game that can't nail down some of the basics.
43 Comments Refresh
Posted by Kodo_Beast

That's too bad. I was hoping for a good NFS game... oh well, back to Burnout.

Posted by iAmJohn

Sounds like not even Razor Callahan could have saved this.  Aw man. :(

Posted by Kevin

So this is why Jeff couldn't review it... too much pain?

Posted by Brackynews

Is Need for Speed trying to be the Command & Conquer of racing? (read: live action cutscenes)
Seems to me a <adjective> announcer that you can turn off (like Burnout) is preferable to <adjective> cutscenes that only distract from mediocre driving.
Also this new twist on DLC strategy is making Burnout look practically magnanimous.  And yet they're both Electronic Arts... I'M SO CONFUSED!!

Disclaimer: I am heavily biased towards all things Burnout, but I tend to play every unrealistic racing game I can get my hands on.

Posted by Kazona

Didn't Ricotello say something about not wanting NFS be a yearly thing anymore so they could focus on delivering a better game? Guess I must've dreamt that.

Posted by Kraznor

Pity they couldn't recapture the goofiness of Most Wanted. I may just go back and finally beat that.

Posted by Milkman

Oh, Need for Speed. How far you have fallen...Where's Razor Callahan when you need him?

Edited by zig

@Kazona, yeah I remember someone at EA said that, and this is supposed to be the last NFS game on the yearly cycle.  We'll see.  This game shows there's still remnants of the old EA everyone hated in the new EA that everyone more or less feels ok about.

Posted by StaticFalconar

I may have to rent this just to show how much I hate myself.

Posted by NinjaHunter

"This should actually give you a pretty good sense of the game's frame rate."


Posted by BawaTheGamer

Man i love MOst Wanted. Shame they coudnt recapture its essence.

Posted by CharleyTony

Since story never enven slightly mattered in the Nedd For Speed games, next time (in 8 months I guess) they should mae something like "Need For Speed Ultimate". Giving you all the race types they featured over the years ( canyons, pro events, drift, cop chases, etc. ) and whenever you finish a race, any random FMW cut-scene form any of the last 10 games would play out. It would be hilarious !

Posted by Captain_Fookup

Yet another fine example of Electronic Arts shitty quality assurance.

Edited by punkxblaze

Aw man, what I would give for a good NFS game again. I'm gonna go back to crying in my corner with my laptop now, playing Most Wanted, and lamenting guys with things about stuff that you're supposed to get back or something.

Posted by Tebbit

execution is 9/10ths of the law!?!

Good grief.
Posted by brocool
Needs Josie Maran
Edited by Superchris129

Well 5-stars is GiantBombs middle name... wait. nvm. But I thought possession was 9/10ths of the law?

Posted by Death_Burnout

Damn, and i really looking foward to this, i was hoping it would be a real return to form from Most Wanted, I saw the game in motion the other week and the framerate seemed fine though...

Oh and also, Tiger Woods PGA Tour 09 also has that pay with cash or microsoft points thing now

Posted by xplodedd

well no one could actually make this game any good.

Posted by Shadow

It's not a bad game, it's just going undercover as one.  People will stash the disks with their real crappy games, and that's when the explosives will be triggered.

Posted by RodneythePom

Another formula game that really needs to just take a year off.

Posted by MordeaniisChaos

Holy shit this review came out of nowhere, who would have thought??? Seriously, this was clearly on the way. I was in no way expectant of this game.

Posted by doomslaw

At least the PC version doesn't appear to suffer from bad frame rate. I'm halfway thru and I haven't experienced anything close to a slide show. Still though, I agree with pretty much everything in the review.

Posted by ferrarimanf355

I bought Midnight Club LA over this and never looked back.

Edited by DukeTogo

Carbon is still the high-water-mark for the series in my eyes.  It had great vehicle customisation, the story was just the right amount of stupid vs cool, and the production values were great.  The gameplay was nice and the fact that you weren't a cop, just some dude looking to take down the crew that set you up by beating them in races.

EA just seems to be afraid to go back to the "illegal" racing scene and feels the need to make you some sanctioned racer.

I know the primary reasoning is litigation, being afraid of having your game being the scapegoat of street racing accidents is enough to keep them trying this method.  Maybe now that they've got two titles in the bin because of this it will spur them to finally abandon this thinking.

The irony is Burnout being the most crash-happy racing game in their stable, it's very strange to downplay something in one series when your other series is glamorising it.

Posted by headcase

Another attempt by EA to sell worthless DLC, eh? I'll keep that in mind next time I'm on the fence about buying an EA game.

Posted by TwoOneFive

"this should actually give you a pretty good sense of the games framerate" i LOLed at that. very funny. its just one fame, and its not fucking moving. 

Posted by MackGyver

It is very unfortunate. I wish I could turn back time and stop myself form playing it. I felt the unfinished, unpolished nature of what Ryan is talking about. EA published games are a hit-and-miss. Well.....let's not kid ourselves here. It's more miss than hit. What the hell is going on in EA? Can someone, ANYONE tell me!!!

Posted by Valke

This is really too bad. Now I see what Jeff was saying about leaving this one to Ryan. Like Ryan, I'm a huge fan of Most Wanted and was hoping to get something that could at least match up with that entry in the series. I know that its been said it would be bad for a NFS game to feature an actual "main character" that can be seen, but is anyone else hoping for a Need For Speed: Razor ?

Posted by Media_Master

Well, no surprise here!

Posted by Manks

I was hoping that this was going to be a good NFS game, but I guess I was wrong.  

Posted by Destroyeron

I don't understand how they can consistently fuck up the NFS series so well.

Posted by PJ
Posted by Psynapse

When will they actually make this game what it was years ago... This IP has tried to change too much and bring it back when they failed... NFS has lost my respect... Burnout was such a better racing game... And that still had flaws... When will we get a propper racing game...

Posted by Alex_Murphy

Man, I remember when the name 'need for speed' was a symbol of quality.  Now EA just craps these games out every year (seems like every 6 months) and they're just more of the same. Not to mention that  they're trying to nickle and dime their customers to death by trying to sell things you can get just by playing the game.

Posted by Simsfreak14

MAggue Q is hot... XD

Posted by Aaron_G

Another stinker for the Need for Speed series.

Posted by Erdie

Framerate's that bad, eh?  The amount of games with unstable framerates is getting irritating.

Posted by Trnck

Please add 1 or 2 more stars for Maggie Q.

Posted by igl

yay, another EA game i don't have to buy.

Posted by jackofblades

i think its cool i like chase people

Posted by Pop

that weak eh? I thought this would be a good one :D. They should work more on the game. NFS2 ftw.

Posted by Supermarius

I'm really digging it. Id give it a 4 out of 5, but keep in mind its been patched several times now and the difficulty has been re-jiggered.