EA doesn't need to justify its long-running Need for Speed series. Last year's Pro Street predicted an organized future for street racers, and while it wasn't received very well by critics, the fans still bought it. Now the series steps onto the wrong, and right side of the law with Need for Speed Undercover.
"Once you go under, you're on your own." That's one of Undercover's teasing tag lines, but it doesn't really play out in the game's story. Assuming the role of a skilled wheel man, you're under the constant supervision of Inspector Chase Linh as you attempt to bust a smuggling operation in the fictitious Tri-Cities Bay area.
Brief live-action scenes punctuate the story's every turn, with the actors playing to the camera as if it's you. It certainly gets you personally into the plot as the main character, but the plot plays out like an unconvincing soap opera. If you haven't watched soap operas before, here's a hint. They're terrible.
Need for Speed Undercover features an open-world structure with three cities linked by an extensive highway system. Between events, you can roam the map at will, but there aren't any benefits to exploration, no hidden items or events to discover, and no bonuses for finding shortcuts. When you do enter a race, side roads are often closed off with yellow concrete barriers. It keeps you on-course, but it just doesn't make sense in an open world game.
With a tap of the control pad you can either jump to the nearest event or open the GPS map to choose. More traditional races include point-to-point sprints, multi-lap circuits, and time-limited checkpoint races. Frantic highway battles and outruns challenge you to pull ahead of your opponent for a set distance or time. Or you can cause havoc by wracking up damage in cost-to-state events, escaping the cops in high-speed chases, or smashing police cruisers. Perform well and you'll get a job stealing cars for the local gangs, allowing you to advance your investigation.
Online races support up to eight players with a variety of sprint and circuit courses, and dominating over other humans is much more satisfying than smoking the AI. Online play also includes the new cops 'n' robbers mode, splitting the group into teams with robbers running money to drop off points and cops hunting them down. The balance is tilted in the robbers' favor, but each driver gets a chance to play both sides before the final score is tallied.
Undercover's vehicle lineup plays to the exotic with unreleased cars such as the Nissan 370Z, or old standbys like the Porsche 911 GT2, and the mouth-watering Pagani Zonda. Players can tune cars to their preference, upgrade specific attributes, or buy quick upgrades for maximum benefit.
On the visual side, there's a wide selection of aftermarket parts, vinyls, autosculpting tools, and far too many rims to choose from, yet the options aren't quite as robust as in Midnight Club: LA. If you're too impatient to save in-game funds, a somewhat questionable option lets you transfer real money from your Xbox LIVE or PSN account into virtual dollars within the game. Money's pretty easy to come by, so we're not sure why this feature was included. While you may want to show off your ride, it should be noted that vinyls won't show up in online races.
Need for Speed Undercover has all the modes and features to sound good on paper, but its open world is virtually empty and players have to run the same area nearly dry before new races are unlocked.
Need for Speed Undercover is painfully easy. Roads are wide, there's hardly any traffic off the freeway, and AI drivers quickly fall behind. An experienced driver will consistently blaze past the competition and post dominating times with little effort. There aren't even any options to change the difficulty except for the Wii version.
Highway battles are the main exception, usually taking a few thrilling attempts to win. There's a bit of luck involved, but it's still exciting to weave through traffic at high speeds, trying to block your opponent and secure the best time.
The staple Need for Speed police chases fluctuate between thrilling and annoying. You rarely get busted, but losing the cops can take time as additional vehicles tend to spawn right in front of you. To lose the cops, you can either initiate a speed breaker to take sharp corners and punch through roadblocks. Or, as you're driving, you can keep an eye out for pursuit breakers - structures that can be smashed apart to initiate a laughably poor animation and dump debris on pursuing vehicles. They're functional, but ugly.
Many of the game's systems aren't explained outright, and it isn't initially clear why you're constantly penalized for speeding, driving off-road, and street racing. As it turns out, your illegal activities raise the "heat" on your car and cause the police to respond with more and more extreme measures until you ditch the ride for something new, essentially punishing you for hanging on to a favorite car.
There's some challenge to be had in Undercover's police chases and alternate events, but for standard races, you basically just hold the win button.
Artistic choices and technical issues both drag down Undercover's presentation. Every street race is held at either sunrise or sunset, leaving players to constantly drive into the glaring sun, and the problem is magnified by reflective streets. The sun also has a tendency to fly sideways across the sky for reasons we can't even begin to imagine.
The framerate is consistently poor, particularly in the PS3 version, but the 360 doesn't fare much better. While the Wii version can't be compared directly, the graphics are likewise sub-par, and it still includes its own shiny street effect.
Need for Speed Undercover lacks challenge, struggles technically, and practically requires sunglasses to play. The framework for a stronger game is present, but the final product simply doesn't come close to competing with games like Midnight Club: LA or Burnout Paradise. Don't blow your cover, or your extra cash, by picking this one up.