|System: X360, PS3, PC, Wii, PS2, PSP, DS||Review Rating Legend|
|Dev: EA Black Box||1.0 - 1.9 = Avoid||4.0 - 4.4 = Great|
|Pub: Electronic Arts||2.0 - 2.4 = Poor||4.5 - 4.9 = Must Buy|
|Release: Nov. 18, 2008||2.5 - 2.9 = Average||5.0 = The Best|
|Players: 1 (2 Online)||3.0 - 3.4 = Fair|
|ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+||3.5 - 3.9 = Good|
by Jason Lauritzen
The Need for Speed series sits in that middle ground of racing titles. It's never been known for being a hardcore simulation (that's the job of Grand Turismo and Forza) nor is it a purely arcade affair (that honor goes to the crash-focused Burnout series). Like its straddling of those two extremes arcade and simulation its fun factor rarely oscillates wildly, consistently settling in the solid category. It's part of the continual promise of the series: you can take it or leave it as you please and you'll always find a competent racer at your fingertips.
Need for Speed: Undercover is the 12th entry in the EA-published procession and the fifth time the series has appeared on the Nintendo DS. Unlike its console siblings, this portable title strips out a lot of the over-produced presentation and zeros in on delivering a succession of racing events tied together by a system of car upgrades and a cops versus robbers story that re-introduces the black-and-whites that made Need for Speed: Most Wanted a fan favorite. It's a fun title that, while short on depth, nails it where it counts most fun races. Ultimately, it's portable nature is appropriate, making it adequate at delivering short, controlled bursts of arcade racer play.
A big PR bullet point for Undercover has been the full motion videos, headlined by actors, and the involvement of star Maggie Q. Due to the technical limitations of the DS (it can do video, but its better suited for less intensive work like animation), the portable version is stripped of most of this content and that's actually a good thing. Trying to cram a Fast and Furious-like mini-movie into a racing game is a laughable idea, so the omission actually works to the DS's advantage. Instead of video, you get dialog boxes and still images of Maggie Q and the rest of the cast. These are all short and simple, mainly serving as a way of listing your next set of objectives. All you need to know story-wise is that you're an undercover cop and racing moves the bare bones plot along.
Events in Undercover are broken up into several distinct types. Getaway pits you against a series of cops with the only goal being escape; Circuit is a traditional point-to-point race against fellow racers; Sprint is a short affair, taking only one lap; Knockout takes the Circuit concept a bit further, eliminating the person in last place at the end of each lap until only one remains; Checkpoint is a solo run, pitting you against the clock; Cost to State sets a damage limit you have to reach within a time limit while evading cops; Hot Car puts you behind the wheel of a stolen car and asks you to take it to a safe house; Highway Battle is a one-on-one scenario where you have to catch an opponent in the midst of traffic; and Scramble throws you in a cop car with the objective of capturing robbers and taking them to a police station.
All those events are paired with an efficient driving engine. Skewing way more in the direction of arcade than simulation, this is definitely a racing title that heavily favors a pedal-to-the-metal attitude. Holding the brake really isn't all that necessary; instead, you can just tap on the handbrake from time-to-time and drift around long curves. Even things that should slow you down like grass medians or collisions with stop signs either have no effect on your speed or barely reduce it. To keep the speed constant, you have a nitrous boost that continually recharges. This is all bolstered by a graphical engine that keeps the framerate high.
After events, you're awarded with cash, which you can then put toward buying new cars as well as upgrading parts. To keep you from exploiting the event payouts, the cash prize is much larger the first time than during subsequent tries. You can spend a bit of time in the garage, messing with customized parts, but for most players the common course of action will be to rack up enough money for the car with the greatest overall speed and head off to the next series of events. If you guessed this can get to be a grind, you're right. Since the A.I. keeps getting better cars as the events continue, you're forced to race, build up cash, buy the best possible car, and so on, in a nearly ad infinitum manner.