With all due respect to Project Gotham Racing, Need for Speed: Most Wanted was my favorite racing game of the Xbox 360’s launch. It was fast, it was arcadey, and lest we not forget, it had some of the most exhilarating police chases this side of reality TV. The latest entry, Need for Speed Undercover, marks a return to those police-chasing roots, complete with wanted levels, the need to give certain cars a rest so they “lose their heat,” and the ever-important police scanner that enlightens players about the cops’ whereabouts and strategies.
But I mention Project Gotham Racing for more than time reference. I also mention it because, although EA is celebrating the Need for Speed series’ much-needed return to high-speed police pursuits, the publisher is also touting what it calls the “Heroic Driving Engine,” a stunt-fueled gameplay mechanic that’s new to the Need for Speed franchise. But while the Heroic Driving Engine may be new to the series, it’s hardly new to the racing-game genre, and in fact, it seems artificially plugged in.
Need for Speed Undercover opens with players racing the 2009 Nissan 370Z, then shortly thereafter learning that they’re an undercover wheelman for a police mission to infiltrate a crime syndicate and bring a slew of crime lords to justice. To be blunt, the plot is pointless and laughable, with live-action cut scenes smashed before a few key races to give context to why you’re racing. But really, they don’t matter, nor will you care. The cut scenes try to inject some romance, rivalry and intrigue, but they’re hardly capable vehicles for delivering any semblance of a meaningful narrative. So, with the plot out of the way, Need for Speed Undercover really boils down to good old-fashioned racing and evasion, two aspects the game generally delivers at full speed.
Ironically, EA’s new racing game borrows a page from one of the company’s older racing games, Burnout Paradise, by presenting gamers with an open-world mission structure. Need for Speed Undercover takes place in an environment that seems absolutely huge, with four distinct regions waiting to be explored at 140 miles per hour: Palm Harbor, Sunset Hills, Gold Coast Mountains and Port Crescent. Yet while the world looks absolutely huge on the map, the speeds at which you cover ground in the game actually render the map considerably smaller than Burnout Paradise, and you’ll find yourself cruising through the same areas much more often than you’d like.
That’s not to say the variety of activities isn’t impressive, just that they take place on the same routes and streets. In fact, the activities in Need for Speed Undercover are quite diverse, ranging from multiple types of Races (circuit, outrun and checkpoint) to Escape missions (evade the police in a certain amount of time) to a fun mode called “Cost to State” (you attempt to cause a certain amount of damage in the time allotted). However, approximately two-thirds of the drivable streets exist in about one-third of the game world, so no matter which activity you’re doing, the chances are high that you’ll be weaving in and out of traffic on the same basic thoroughfares. What’s more, although the game is technically open world, a simple pause to bring up the GPS world map brings up an indicator of every mission available to you, which you can then hover over and choose to launch directly from the world map rather than driving to it. As a result, the open-world structure seems basically pointless for anything other than finding cops to evade, but even then, Escape missions are also just a D-pad press away.
Regardless of whether you drive to or manually launch these missions, you’ll want to play as many as possible, because the more activities you complete, the more you’ll be welcomed into the crime syndicate and thus be able to bring it down from the inside. The speed with which you’re adopted into the syndicate is based on your performance in each race. Win a race, and you’ll win cash, but you’ll also win Wheelman Rep, which is the equivalent of experience points (XP) in a role-playing game. Each time you win a race or evade the police, you earn Wheelman Rep, which gradually builds up your Wheelman Level. In turn, you’ll unlock a host of Driver Skills that improve the performance of your car and your own core abilities. These driver skills are: Engine, Transmission, Nitrous, Forced Induction, Suspension, Brakes, Tires, Earnings Bonus (the amount of money you win per race), Parts Discount and Zone Bonus (the “XP bonus modifier” you have in each of the four zones).
When you earn enough Wheelman Rep, you get to race against a gang leader, which generally advances the paper-thin plot and gives you a new car (the races are pink slip races). Theoretically the pink slip races are cool, because once you win the race, you’re given not one car, but a full list of cars from which to choose. However, the practical lack of choices is rather glaring. For instance, the first leader you encounter gives you eight cars from which to choose. There’s a Volkswagen, a Nissan, a Mazda, a Camaro SS … and a Lotus Elise? Yeah, the choice is obvious, especially when you look at the cars’ statistics. The “choice” is obvious, and it’s basically made for you.
Even more troubling is the lack of choice when it comes to assigning your Wheelman Rep (XP). In short, you can’t. As you earn Rep points, the skills you unlock and the boosts to each one are determined by the game. Wish you could improve your handling? Tough stuff; the game doesn’t want you to yet. Crave a bit more horsepower and top speed? Sorry; the game thinks you need some improved brakes instead. The concept of having RPG-like statistics, categories and upgrades is great, but by making the decisions for you, EA has effectively taken the “R” and “P” out of “Role-Playing Game.” Why not just give racers a more-powerful car with each level or milestone and call it good? It would have had the same effect.
When you reach new levels, however arbitrary it may be, you unlock new tiers of cars as well, either to purchase from the Shop or to activate after winning them in pink-slip races. The cars all do handle slightly differently, but one thing is universally true with each of them: if you upgrade it, you will win. As in previous Need for Speed games, players can tune various aspects of their car, either by intricate decisions or by implementing “quick upgrades” that make them street-race ready. This may be fun for tuners, but for game players, the upgrades can make the competition ridiculously easy. As the game itself says, the point of each race is “total domination,” but seriously, the ease with which you can win after making two simple upgrades is a bit much.
Perhaps it’s this ease that compelled EA to borrow a page from Project Gotham Racing through the “new” Heroic Driving Engine. This is essentially a fancy name given to a series of moves that players can do at high speeds, including a 180- or 360-degree turn, a reverse 360, drifting, a nitrous drift or slamming it into reverse. These high-risk/high-reward moves earn you a bit more Wheelman Rep than playing it safe, and they also look cool. In essence, though, the Heroic Driving Engine is simply Need for Speed’s application of the Kudos concept in a semi-realistic way, which makes the concept behind Kudos seem practical. Well, as practical as a racing game can be in which an undercover cop is trying to bust a crime ring by racing 20-something punks.
When it comes to police pursuits, though, “semi-realistic” is about the last word you’ll utter, because all realism is tossed out the window in favor of gleeful, high-speed avoidance and destruction of cop cars. Police pursuits are by far the best part of Need for Speed Undercover, much like they’ve been the best part of the series for years. It’s fantastic to see them return. There’s nothing as intense as hearing the cops call for backup, describe your car and detail your reckless driving exploits via the police scanner in your car. After evading the cops, there’s the requisite cooldown period during which you have to stay out of their line of sight long enough to cause them to give up the chase. It’s a game within the game, though, to see how many police cars (and helicopters) you can get to give chase before you ram into an environmental obstacle that crashes down and gives you room to breathe.
It can also be a bit of a game — the guessing type — to race through these streets at high speeds, because the overexposed and monochromatic problems that plagued Need for Speed: Most Wanted return in Need for Speed Undercover. The color palette is slightly more diverse this time around, but the hues are inexplicably low in contrast and are far too overexposed and bright for their own good. The game also suffers from numerous instances of extreme framerate slowdown, which is a total buzzkill when the point of the game is fast action and faster speeds. A couple of times I actually thought the game was going into slow-motion for dramatic effect. I realized after the third time in a single race that it was a technical mistake, not a stylistic choice.
With these multiple issues in mind, it’s hard to recommend Need for Speed Undercover. The police chases are incredibly entertaining, but I’m disinclined to suggest that someone pay $60 for what amounts to a single game mode. The open-world racing is a nice concept, but Burnout Paradise has already done it, and on a larger scale. So, too do the role-playing aspects hold promise, but not if the attributes are chosen for us. With so many options out there for spending your hard-earned holiday gaming dollar, Need for Speed Undercover juts doesn’t quite make the grade. Instead, save a few bucks and buy Burnout Paradise, which you can probably find for a discount at this point in its lifecycle. All you’ll be missing are the police chases, and at the rate Criterion is making updates, that’s probably just one small patch away.
- Score: 7.8
- The police chases are fantastic, but the plot’s bad and the gameplay is confined to an area that’s much smaller than it seems like it should be.
— Jonas Allen