Scowly antiheroes and sexy, cleavage-packed molls return in live-action cutscenes for Need for Speed: Undercover, the sixth installment of the series since the franchise was reimagined in 2003 and taken underground. Following last year's disappointing Need for Speed: ProStreet, Black Box and EA went back to a known winner, the cops-and-robbers formula of 2005's Need for Speed: Most Wanted. You're infiltrating a stolen auto ring, whose members are blissfully unaware of your cop credentials, and also the larger international ramifications of their car thievin'.
Care to take a spin? Drop it into third and see our review.
Pay for play: Everything is for sale at any point in the game (I assume) regardless of whether you have unlocked it. Just pony up enough Microsoft points. Around level 11 I treated myself to a McLaren F1. This can drastically change the tenor of your career -- the acquisition of pink slip cars loses its sense of satisfaction. I don't necessarily think this is a good idea, but I can't say it's a bad one. It certainly is profitable for EA and Microsoft.
Sound: The exceptional sound is not to be taken for granted in a genre that is so heavily involved with the visuals. One of the simple pleasures is taking in each car's unique engine note when you're a good six seconds ahead of the field and out on the open road. In solo mode, you should play it with headphones on. The engine whine of trailing cars is matched, in volume, to their relative distance; destruction will register to your sides and behind. In races you will get an immersive feeling of the world whizzing by.
Concept: Need for Speed: Undercover returns the series back to its Most Wanted evolution, as opposed to 2006's Carbon, whose story was more about pure street racing. Most Wanted was excellent; Carbon, a little underwhelming. But if either appealed to you strongly, the guts of a long game experience are here, if you can take your time and try to live a little within the persona the game's laid out for you.
5-0 AI: The literature touted revolutionary cop pursuit AI. They perform only one act in this game, and that's to ram you. Period. That's not revolutionary, it's single minded. Any cop vehicle can overtake anything you drive, even at top speed -- that includes a K9 SUV versus a goddamn Bugatti Veyron, in contorted, sped-up sequences that are so unbelievable they are almost personally offensive. The point of police pursuit is to create thrilling, hot-on-your tail chases. Here, you don't get more than seven seconds, even flat out and several lengths ahead, without being pounded and PITted into a wall. I can take repeated spawning of police vehicles, but rubber-banding within pursuit, no. If I've outrun a cop, that is it. This AI does not create thrilling high speed chases as much as it does endless demolition derbies of no real consequence.
The Story: Can someone tell me what that was all about again? Oh, there was a double-crossing at the end. Gasp. Shock. Plus, I have to note this: I beat the final mission in less than five seconds. Not making that up. I got zero zone points, it was over so fast. Seriously anticlimactic.
Pedal to the Metal: The Need for Speed series is fundamentally an arcade racer. Damage, and vehicle degradation have no effect on the race, and I get that. But at some point you have to step back and say, no, after my fifth consecutive full speed, no brakes head-on collision, I should no longer be leading this race. Black Box tried to encourage strong, clean driving with its Heroic Driving engine, which delivers more experience points and faster level advancement if you drive clean. But it'd be better off with a meaningful punishment for the stand-on-the-accelerator ethic. Instead it conditions you to that through the unremitting speed of your adversaries, and absurd "domination" goals on top. It leaves you little time to actually enjoy the game, especially those moments when you're in a breakneck race and in danger of seeing 90 percent of a superbly well run course ruined by hitting a bridge abutment, because you had to sit on the nitrous rather than race sensibly. The arcade experience is fine, but technical racers deserve a reward too.
Visuals: Frame skip can get downright ugly, especially on surface-street runs with multiple cars and smashable items in the picture. Bad redraws also are noticeable when you're racing something really fast and the horizon changes suddenly. These flaws can become an adversary unto themselves. So can the lighting. In the sundowner races you'll definitely have many what-the-hell-am-I-looking-for moments.
Rocket Ride: Four car theft missions near the game's midpoint deserved to be singled out for rebuke. Rocket Ride, and three others, typify how unreasonable the game can be. In them apparently the only expectation set by whomever designed these, is to hold down the accelerator to the point of hand cramps, endure the ramming, pray you can get to a certain point (there will be one pursuit breaker in the two jobs featuring cops), and don't give a shit what happens. By the fourth job, I'd never cared less about how I performed in any gaming experience, which is sad considering these should have been showpiece missions. This story is supposed to be about a skilled driver delivering valuable stolen cars, not a dumptruck operator on a bulldozer that goes 200 mph.
Need for Speed: Undercover is like an abusive relationship, because despite its many flaws, I know I'm going back to it, thinking I can change it and make it into something it's not. I wanted it to be a newer, better Most Wanted, and it falls short of that expectation. While not everyone who buys this will set out to beat it in the span of five days, a great game would make you want to try. Need For Speed Undercover doesn't.
The good news, online racing is much easier after you've been through the hellish auto combat of the full main story. I won something like three out of my first four races. If you want this to race online; if you're not interested in beating its story mode; or if you can take your time and stay within yourself as a racer, learning from your mistakes, it can still be a rich and gratifying car fantasy. But for a game with undercover in its title, there is nothing subtle about the jobs you're doing behind the wheel.
Need for Speed Undercover was developed by Black Box and published by Electronic Arts, released in Australia on Nov. 20 for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 2, PSP, Windows PC, and Wii, with versions on Nintendo DS and mobile. Reviewed on Xbox 360. Completed single-player story mode; raced numerous times online.
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