Need For Speed: Undercover
Reviewed by Brandy Shaul
Review Date Platform Genre Rating Production
2009-03-02 PS3 Racing T (Teen) EA Black Box

After the disappointing run games like Need for Speed Carbon and Pro Street had, Undercover looked to be the title that would return the game to its Most Wanted glory, fulfilling not only my wishes, but the wishes of many other longtime series fans. Even though the game does hearken back to its Most Wanted glory days, it is in no way the shining beacon of perfection we had all hoped for.

Need for Speed: Undercover, as the name suggests, places you in the role of an undercover police officer, who is forced into Port Harbor's illegal street racing circuit in order to gain enough evidence on its ringleaders so that they can be arrested. If the story already sounds like The Fast and the Furious, it only becomes more so, as your character almost immediately turns a bit native, making deals on their own while a moody superior officer complains on the sidelines about your progress taking too long.

Gameplay itself is made of the basic multi-driver event types: circuit, or lap based races, and sprints from one side of town to the other, along with the police pursuits made famous in Need for Speed: Most Wanted. Rounding out the options are challenges that have you stealing cars and taking them to the chop shop, or outdriving other racers on entirely random paths in order to earn street cred.

Your credibility on the streets has a much larger role in Undercover than it has in previous NFS games, in that your domination over each event raises your Wheelman status, enabling you to receive discounts on parts at garages, or earn additional funds at the completion of each event.

Another original quality to Undercover is a new layout to the unlockable system, which only allows you to purchase certain cars and / or car parts of a specific tier, with the actual unlocking process becoming a nonsensical mess of "now available" popup messages, with no rhyme or reason expressed in which items you unlock first. That is, certain, less powerful cars will only be available to purchase and upgrade after you have either purchased or won cars with much better stats. The reasoning behind them allowing you to buy these inferior models by that point at all remains to be seen.

The difficulty throughout the title is as sporadic as the vehicle upgrade system and comes in two levels: pathetically easy and yank your hair out hard, with neither of these two extremes seeming to be deliberate, but are instead the results of poor vehicle and AI design.

At the beginning of the game, cars can be equated to 100 year old tortoises that have to be kicked over the finish line due to the fact that their handling (or lack thereof) causes you to repeatedly slam into every stationary object in sight. While the cars do receive considerable boosts in this department as you progress, eventually, the system goes too far the other way, causing you to over steer at the slightest touch of the left analog stick, again sending your car flying into a wall. It's a delicate balance between the two extremes, which must be mastered each and every time you switch or upgrade a vehicle.

Likewise, there is a skewed relationship between the AI drivers and yourself when compared to how they interact with each other. I understand wanting to add difficulty by having drivers share a little paint, in an effort to slow each other down, but when each and every one of your opponents will go out of their way to slam into your rear bumper or otherwise wreck you out, but won't so much as look at each other, the system crosses the line between adding challenge and completely screwing you over.

All of that aside, the aforementioned "pathetically easy" aspects reside in the police pursuits, which contain downright idiotic officers, who will sit less than a block away from your loudly revving engine (albeit facing in the opposite direction) and somehow not pick up on your existence.

Likewise, in Most Wanted, the very idea of stopping or doing a U-turn would be unheard of - a surefire way of landing yourself in jail. This time around, the same moves are actually some of the best tactics to employ, allowing you to lure a large group of police officers into your general vicinity, only to drive through a breakable wall, poll or other structure, and send the car-crushing debris down upon them, thereby ending the pursuit.

One overarching positive throughout the entirety of gameplay is the sound department. As expected, the soundtrack is comprised of an addictive mix of rock, electronic / dance, and rap tunes, which nicely compliments the technical sound effects of realistic tire screeches, engine revs and so on.

The graphics on the other hand are a bit of a mess. While the glass effects (that is, reflections off of your car's windows) and the overall shine and realism of your vehicles is impressive, the rest of the graphics are quite sloppy, most notably the shadows, which look like they were constructed via the spray painting tool in Microsoft Paint, to give you a general idea.

Other problems come in the frame rate department, which causes noticeable slowdowns anytime a mass of cars is on screen at once, a disappointing outcome to say the least, as Need for Speed's main draw is leaving your opponents in the dust as the environment blurs past you, not waiting for the graphics to load in the distance or for your car to spastically ram itself into the wall because the graphics couldn't keep up with your movements.

These framerate issues become more of a problem in the game's various online modes (circuit races, sprints, and a take on capture the flag), since each human driver will have considerably more skill than any of your AI opponents, meaning that (more often than not) all of you will be on screen at once, creating a considerable amount of lag.

When looked at as a whole, Need for Speed Undercover is not without its redeeming qualities, specifically when everything works the way it should. Lackluster graphics aside, the game's sound department and ease (which appears once you have taken the time to master the touchy controls) provide for a decent racing experience, specifically for those longtime fans of the franchise who would like a new offering no matter what it contained. For others, the game boils down to a disappointing experience that does little to help this tarnished brand.

Special thanks to Dana Sissons and EA for providing a copy of this title.