Need For Speed Undercover is like a greatest hits album from a band you used to love. They put together all the stuff you remember listening to for hours, and they meld it with the best of the newer stuff that originally turned you off but finally starts to grow on you — you know what I mean. Need For Speed Undercover has the customization of Underground, the gameplay of Most Wanted, and that traditional Need For Speed middle ground that combines simulation and exaggerated physics.
“You’re not good. And you’re not bad.” That simple, even sublime phrase, one that you’ll see over and over (and over and over and over) during loading screens, is really telling of what you’ll come to see during your stay.
On paper, Undercover is the perfect Need For Speed. It has best ideas from the last decade of Need For Speeds with a few sprinkles of bonus fun mixed in. Gear heads from all schools of thought should be pleased with the eclectic selection from American muscle, European sports cars, and Japanese tuners.
The premise of Undercover, conveniently enough, has you placed as an undercover police unit who’s tasked with infiltrating an underground racing scene that’s gotten out of control, ultimately taking them down from the inside. That’s right, this is The Fast and The Furious: The Unofficial Game, except worse because of the distinct lack of Vin Diesel. And we all remember how many Oscar’s The Fast and The Furious was handed…
Undercover features some nice-looking… cars.
The narrative itself progresses through Command & Conquer-like FMV sequences, which I would actually be alright with considering how much I love the live-action acting in C&C, but Undercover is missing that self-aware, playful nature that makes the former’s scenes enjoyable. The necessity of a story in this game is almost like the necessity BioShock had for a multiplayer component (i.e. none).
Undercover has a nice selection of tried and true race modes — Circuit, Sprint, and Highway Battle should be familiar to NFS vets — while some of the more interesting modes include the Criminal Scramble, in which you are a cop and are tasked with chasing down and popping a cap in some fools’ asses who’ve been up to no good. Also worth mentioning is the Cops and Robbers online multiplayer mode that puts players back in the glory days of the ubiquitous playground game, well, Cops and Robbers.
Interestingly enough, EA has also added and RPG-lite element to Undercover. After meeting certain requirements in a race a players car will gradually grow and essentially “level up” just as you would in any RPG, it’s a nice little hook, but not nice or deep enough to do anything besides extrapolate what else they could’ve done with it.
Design-wise there are only two major flaws in Undercover, the first being a general decision that I despise and is becoming much more of regularity as time goes on: purchasing in-game content with your own real-world money. Whenever you go to upgrade your car, just before you make your decision you’re presented with 3 options: to pay with the in-game currency (cash), Microsoft Points or Playstation Dollars, or to Cancel. I generally love the new possibilities that the online marketplace presents, but some of them, like this particular one, make me wonder if the pros truly outweigh he cons. Jesus…
The second design decision that peeved me was that the open-world nature of Undercover is effectively nulled by the in-game GPS that always has you a button away from your next race. One could argue that you don’t have to press the button, but the freaking message is large, distracting, and stays on-screen pretty much indefinitely.
Although Undercover is conceptually superior to, well, almost every other racing game (omitting the aforementioned Need For Speed games), it’s technically flawed to the point of near unbearableness. Loading screens are almost everywhere and are as prolonged as that colorful stuff that cute magician keeps pulling out of his bottomless top hat. And you’d think with the frequency and length of loads things would actually, you know, be loaded. Texture pop-in, while not excessive, is not an especially rare sight either.
What is excessive and downright atrocious is the amount of frame drops, and they’re not minor frame drops either, no no. There were instances where it was just my car driving through a tunnel and the game decided to just out and out stop for 5 seconds, then catch up with itself with my car 200 feet ahead of where it was beforehand. Now imagine how bad it chugged when I was actually in middle of a race… with other cars. It makes me wonder why EA didn’t utilize the engine Criterion built to power Burnout Paradise since it’s also an open-world game that beats out Undercover’s technical prowess in every way — and looks better doing it.
I tried my best to have fun with Undercover, and I’ll be damned if I didn’t try to look past the myriad of technical issues that plagued every turn, but they’re so prominent that three untrained eyes who haven’t a clue as to what a ‘frame per second’ is, asked “Why does it keep starting and stopping?” It practically jumps out and yells “I’m going to make it as easy as I can for you to hate me!”
Undercover is a fundamentally flawed game that only becomes that much more frustrating when you see all of the unrealized potential that’s layered throughout. It’s not really a bad game, it’s just not as good as it should have been.