As it struggles to find elbow room in the crowded racing genre, Need For Speed: Undercover leaves behind the cleaned up race-focused world of last year’s Pro Street. This year we return again to the police chases and open world of Need for Speed: Carbon, with a liberal helping of modes from older games for good measure.
Now, I know what I should be saying here – it lacks new ideas, it borrows heavily from inventive games in the genre (the Burnout franchise, most notably) and its visuals are weak. This should, in theory, all add up to a lackluster gaming experience. But for some reason, watching the cinematic opening and launching seamlessly into my first few challenges there is something about Need for Speed: Undercover that I really like.
OK, the game is a bit of a hotch-potch of the series’ high points. And sure, the frame rate is not as smooth or the world as truly open as similar games. But playing Undercover reminded me of the many good times I’d had with the franchise and it feels like the ‘Greatest Hits’ version of Need For Speed.
It doesn’t take long before a few of the old familiar modes start cropping up. The Circuit racing is possibly the least ground breaking, but welcome all the same after last year’s obsession with point to point challenges. City Sprint makes a return as well, taking those point to point runs and placing them in an open environment – Paradise City style. Highway Battle takes the action onto the freeway, and introduces a heavy police presence (and civilian traffic) to deal with. Although technically a new mode this is reminiscent of the Canyon Duel from Carbon.
Online modes are also well provided for. Cops N’ Robbers and The Heist are both similar to pursuit from Burnout: Takedown. The player is either a cop trying to stop the crooks, or a robber trying to evade the police while getting to the drop point. Finally, things are rounded off by another Burnout inspired damage fest – Cost to State tasks players with causing as much damage as possible as they tear up the city.
While much of this harks back to days before last year’s Pro Street, EA has intelligently decided to retain the excellent car customization feature, enhancing it with a new graphical sheen and some matte paints. Add to this the return of Carbon’s after-market parts and you have the basis for comprehensive car customisation – something the series has long built its reputation upon. The achievement here was dampened a little by discovering that you could shortcut the process by stumping up PSN money to buy the cars. A nice little money spinner for EA but something that devalues time spent grinding through early levels.
Graphically, things are as well rendered and easily on a par with Pro Street. The open world at times seemed to challenge the PS3 when there were a lot of vehicles on screen, but vector tearing was where the game really started coming apart. At times – on the freeway in particular – you not only get graphical separation, but also big flashes of black shadow appearing from nowhere. This is a real shame as the direction and camera work on the game is excellent. As I said, the cinematic start of the game and the way you are dropped straight into a race creates a real sense of occasion – and builds the Undercover theme. But, sadly, the openness of the game world seems to be too much for the game engine to deal with.
Thankfully, elsewhere the game is pretty robust and user-friendly. You can navigate the world with an on screen map that actually functions a bit better than Burnout Paradise’s – in that it rotates to match your direction of travel. The quick D-pad selection of races and events (again tipping a wink to Criterion’s racer) works well and is a good direct route to most options. Time has obviously been spent ensuring the game as a whole fits together well and can be easily navigated.
Perhaps best of all, Undercover sees the return of police chases and the evasion game play of old. There is nothing quite like being spotted by the police in Need for Speed. The action pauses as the camera zooms in on the boys in blue sat just over the horizon – and you know you are in for a hard few minutes. It’s frenetic, tense and reminds you why you liked the series in the first place.
However, Undercover finds itself occupying a kind of gaming limbo – although it harks back to the series’ best moments, it never quite reaches the same heights. At the same time, it doesn’t break any new ground either meaning it doesn’t really succeed in looking forwards or back. It’s nostalgic, certainly, for fans of the series but it’s those who haven’t played a NFS game before that will likely appreciate it the most. As such this really is a Need for Speed ‘Greatest Hits’. Whether this signifies the series’ swansong, or a watershed moment before a reinvention is yet to be seen.