Need for Speed: Undercover (360) – Review

NFSU_cover Blackbox/EA’s Need for Speed series has been suffering in the most latest offerings by focusing less on driving hard and fast, and instead focusing on more technical driving, and most consider the last good title being Most Wanted.  The latest offering, NFS: Underground, does try to recapture the flavor of Most Wanted while ditching several modes such as drifting and drag racing that were met unfavorable by critics, the game still suffers both design problems that make the game too easy, and technical problems that mar its presentation.  It’s still a fun racing game, but just not a tight package that older NFS have been.

Story: C

Racing games should never have stories, and NFSU continues that great tradition with only a small bit of some game modes having relevance to the story.  You play as a street racer working for the local authorities, going undercover to help break up a car-smuggling ring.  As only a few in the police know about your position, you otherwise have to deal with the rash of the law if you are caught in order to keep up appearances for the criminal underworld.  It is certainly nothing surprising or deep, and if anything, the story interrupts gameplay instead of just being there.  At least they’ve moved away from the plastic-looking cutscenes from NFS: Carbon.

Gameplay: B+

For what its worth, strictly considering gameplay, NFSU gets back to the style of racing that the series is known for, and probably closely resembles Most Wanted in overall play.  A certain number of races are required per the story, and to unlock those, you need to build up a reputation as a dangerous street racer by completing other races in order to build street cred.  Most of these other races fall into the classic modes: point-to-point sprints, 2 or 3-lap circuits, checkpoint runs, as well as borrowing from Most Wanted with escaping from police, causing a certain amount of damage to the state, or disabling a certain number of vehicles.  There is also a “keep ahead” mode that requires you to get ahead of a foe and maintain that lead for a certain amount of time.  The newest mode is a “highway battle” against another foe where one tries to get 1000 feet in front of the other competitor among the heavy traffic on the highway.  There is no drift mode, there is no drag mode – thank goodness!  Simply from the modes offered, this is already a better game.  When you get to the main story mission, the bulk of these are variations on the above modes: a highway battle with a “boss” character, or hightailing a just-stolen car across the map to a specific point while avoiding cops and goons sent to stop you.

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The game is an “open world” which spans a tri-city area and features a number of different course types.  The whole area is available to start, but races will only appear in certain areas to begin with and new races appear after completing certain main story missions.  While you can opt to drive to any race point or practice freely in the city, the game makes it very easy to jump to any race by switching to the map and finding that race, or in most cases, offering you the option of starting the closest race or mission using the d-pad.  While this does lose the “open-world” approach, you can still explore around to find the shortcuts and hidden areas that may be useful later in races.  Along with races, you’ll unlock new car shows and parts shops with which to build up your ride with money won from races.  Nearly all the courses available feature wide-open roads with lots of banked turns and the like, and almost no “technical” sections with tight turns and narrow sections – aspects that I remember fondly of some of the better NFS games, and certainly a good feel compared to the city of Most Wanted.  The city area feels realistic yet sufficiently well designed to make numerous variety of tracks.

As you race, the car that you are in will build up a negative reputation with the cops, with most dangerous and destructive driving building this up faster.  The heat level of the car will cause more and more cops to be patrolling the road, and by the time you’ve gotten to the fifth level, you’ll likely run into cops mid-race or even between races, meaning you need to ditch them somehow.  If you fail to do so, your car gets one strike against it, and after the third strike, is impounded.  Fortunately, by switching to a new car, you can cool the heat on the old one while reducing the heat you have in general.  The cops themselves are certainly not as challenging at Most Wanted – luring them into the various crash breakers (obstacles you can smash through to block the road as to disable cops) is simple, they don’t break out the spike strips until well late in the game, and they are rather easy to get away from.  Heck, I was about to lose the cops on two separate occasions after being spike-stripped, simply by using the crash breakers effectively.  They aren’t a walkover, but this is one area I wish it was most challenging.

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Completing races earns you reputation as well as money.  Nearly all races can also be dominated by beating them in a given time limit, which grants you special driving skills that boosts one of several characteristics regardless of the car you are driving or other bonuses such as increasing the amount of monetary rewards from a race.  This RPG-like system thus allows you to “grind” if you really need to boost your skills for later races by going back to previously completed races and dominating them with better cars.

There are generally two major problems with the gameplay, and the first is, as noted, the easiness of the game.  While EA’s classic rubberbanding is there, it is not as significant as previous titles so winning most races, as long as you have the right car, is easy.  Breaking away from cop chases is too easy as noted.  While it is possible to crash by running into a fixed barrier headon, any other type of collision, including ones that send you flying, always seem to end with absolutely no damage to your car (beyond visual).  By the time I got back my NFS legs, it was just going through the motions of running each race offered and beating it, so something seemed to be off between the race progression and what cars and parts were offered you, as it was very easy to overpower the other racers in matches.  The second aspect is the repetitiveness.  While the city seems large, with the number of races you have to complete there are too many sections that get overused time and time again.  Familiarity is a good thing as you can learn landmarks for certain turns, but there was just too much of it here.  Either the races needed to be cut down (which would have shortened the game) or the size of the city needed to be about 50% to 100% larger just to help cut down on which sections you see over and over again.

Value/Replayability: B-

The full game took me under 15 hours to complete, so lengthwise it felt ok, if not a tad short.  There are multiplayer modes to help keep the game fresh.   Replaying through the game will likely only give you the option of changing what vehicles you select but not the races themselves so there is very little there to use.

Graphics: C+

Visually, stills from the game look stunning – the city does have a lot of detail and the fact that races all operate in daylight lets you see all that.  Where the graphics get a big negative is that the game, at too many times to count, runs at less than optimal frame rates, and particular worse in the first area that you start the game in.   No game, this late in the console’s cycle, should have that type of problem, and while it doesn’t interfere with winning races, it is annoying and really should have been caught by quality control.

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Audio: B

Racing sounds are fine.  The voice /acting work on the cutscenes is acting-school level but as they really don’t impact the game that much, its skippable.  The music soundtrack does have some high points, but a good chunk of the songs seem forgettable, though certainly not in the way that will make you run to replace the soundtrack with your own list.

Overall: B

NFS Undercover does represent a good spin back to the roots of the series, removing modes that really don’t deal with the namesake of the series, and presenting a city layout that make for good interesting routes.  Unfortunately, the game does miss the mark in terms of difficulty, still has an over-the-top premise, and has several technical problems that mar the impression of the game.  Given recent news of EA’s closure of Blackbox , this may be the last NFS title, which would be a shame as it’s not a strong note, but at least there’s promise for improvement if there is another game in the series.

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