|System: X360, PS3, Wii, PS2, PC, PSP, DS||Review Rating Legend|
|Dev: EA BlackBox||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 (8 Online)||3.0 - 3.4 = Fair|
|ESRB Rating: Teen||3.5 - 3.9 = Good|
by Jonathan Marx
Black Box and EA are back at it with yet another edition of Need for Speed (NFS). This time, we're going Undercover to unravel the mysterious link between street racing toughs and arms dealers. Undercover tries to get back to the days of NFS: Most Wanted (and even Hot Pursuit to some extent) by reintroducing the fuzz into the racing mix. Consequently, players will divide their time between street events and outruns (which sometimes become one and the same). The open world "feel" is back, and there are a number of appealing, well-modeled, licensed cars to choose from.
Unfortunately, there simply aren't enough varied events to keep players interested for long stints. Also, Undercover has shunned any and all simulation challenge by switching to the arcade-like Heroic Driving Engine (HDE). The resulting experience is one that's decidedly forgiving and accessible to novice racers, but it provides for no substantial test of driving skill. Nevertheless, the decent online features and excellent skill upgrade system should keep fans of the series occupied for a while.
The simple story of NFS: Undercover plays out across several incredibly short live-action clips starring Maggie-Q (there's even an appearance by Christina Milian). Disappointingly, these scenes would be hard-pressed to make it off the cutting room floor of the next The Fast and the Furious film. Unlike the overtly cheesy Command & Conquer cuts, Undercover's clips take themselves far too seriously, and the dour tone outstrips the production values and actors' abilities. The idea to use live action scenes is novel, but pulling off such a lofty goal is next to impossible in a video game. Subsequently, NFS: Undercover's story falls prey to the unintended kitsch.
Story missteps could be set aside as long as the core driving mechanic succeeded. However, it's a mixed bag. The well-balanced, one-part-sim/one-part-arcade controls of previous entries have been spurned for a more cinematic, purely arcade driving experience. The Heroic Driving Engine (HDE) employed in Undercover isn't necessarily a bad thing; you just have to know what you're getting into. Novice racers will surely enjoy winning nearly every race the first time, the ability to pull off 360s and J-Turns at 160 mph, and the wild card Speedbreaker button that stops time, allowing them to nail 90 degree turns at the last second without ever slowing down. Admittedly, this can be fun for a short stint about town, but the lack of substantial challenge will eventually alienate the racing adept.
Moreover, unlike the varied events available in previous NFS offerings, Undercover has a very limited scope. There are five street racing, three crime syndicate, and three pursuit events. Street racing includes Highway Battles (dodge cars and stay in the lead), Sprints (beat seven other racers), Circuits (multi-lap runs with barriers), Outruns (keep the lead for a set time limit), and Checkpoint races. These street events will earn you Rep points and cash, while advancing the plot.
Pursuit and syndicate events, on the other hand, shun classic racing for an escape-the-police model. Of the six available events, all of them are remarkably similar, save for the very fun Boss Chasedown. Sure, sometimes you'll be driving a stolen car and will need to keep it in good shape, other times you'll have to do as much destruction to public property as you can, but in every case you'll have to simply evade capture. In essence, this portion of the game, while fun, is one large challenge. What's more, this pursuit mechanic will even creep into street events, as your Rep translates into a Heat Meter that will agro any cop you happen to pass. As a result, no matter what kind of race you're participating in, it all eventually begins to run together.
Fortunately, NFS: Undercover does get a number of things right. For starters, the Driver Skills and Wheelman leveling system are great. As you gain Rep by winning events and evading pursuit, your Wheelman level will increase. With each increase in level, players will get a major boon to specific Driving Skills. Driving Skills are divided into seven abilities, including Engine, Transmission, Nitrous, Forced Induction, etc. and three percentage multipliers, including Earnings Bonus, Parts Discount, and Zone Bonus. The Zone Bonus acts as an XP multiplier during races. XP is earned for near misses, drafting, stylish stunts, etc. and is what is applied toward leveling your Wheelman rank and will give minor skill increases along the way.