The Need for Speed series has been around for a very long time, and has constantly switched directions to keep people coming back. Need for Speed: Most Wanted, which hit stores in 2005, was viewed as a high point in the series as it brought high-speed police pursuits into the open-world racer. The latest entry, Need for Speed: Undercover, attempts to build upon what worked in Most Wanted and is fairly successful, but also introduces a number of speed bumps along the way.
Undercover casts you in the role of a police officer posing as a member of an underground street racing crime syndicate that hopes to take down the major criminal players from the inside. The story in the game is very jumpy and poorly planned out, yet is presented well via live-action cutscenes that are shown before certain missions. These videos feature some awful acting and clichéd plot twists, but can be greatly enjoyed if you are a B-movie aficionado.
The missions of the game are divided into two categories: free and story. The free missions are the basic race, chase, and takedown missions that net you the experience and money that you will need to further your progress and upgrade your vehicles. The story missions advance the plot, open up new areas, and usually contain a bit more variety than the free missions. The types of free and story missions that you will encounter are a mix of traditional racing and unique objective-based modes that focus on the police chases. The latter are far more entertaining, as they have you taking out cop cars and damaging property around the city while you try and evade capture.
The main problem with the free missions is that there are only six different types of them spread out across the entire game. What is fun early on quickly grows tedious and boring, as nothing really changes about these no matter how far you get. You aren’t forced to complete every free mission available on the map, but you will have to complete enough of them to unlock future story missions and earn skill points to better your driving. Story missions are generally more interesting than free, as they sometimes include additional goals like boss fights that have you slamming into a specific car enough times to disable it or transporter missions that have you moving packages and stolen vehicles from one side of the map to the other.
While the racing action is fun, Need for Speed: Undercover is at its best when you are in a police chase. The cops will send everything they have at you, from spike strips to helicopters, and you have to maintain control of your car while staying clear of the various traps laid in your path. To help you a bit, the city map has a number of environmental hazard zones placed strategically around the game world, and blowing through one of these will cause a mess that can take out any cops who are on your tail. These hazards, which include construction vehicles that can be knocked over, gas stations that can be detonated, and water towers that can be dropped onto the road, become your only means of escape in many cases, as the cops will try and bash you, flip your car, and fish-tail your vehicle into the guardrails until they either corner you or lose sight of your car.
Regardless of what mode you are playing, the controls of Need for Speed: Undercover are always smooth, requiring that you alternate between the gas, e-brake, and boost to glide your hot-rod to the finish line. Despite the lightning-fast speed of the game, you almost always feel like you are in full control and able to make hairpin turns without issue. The problem with all of this is that the simplistic control makes the game feel way too easy, especially once you start buying new cars and upgrading your vehicles’ capabilities. You usually feel like your car is more powerful than your opponents’ vehicles, and even when you are very far behind in a race, you can almost always catch up and take the lead. Even the cop chases, which were notoriously tough in Most Wanted, feel scaled back in difficulty here. You are able to bust through police vehicles with ease, skate by their traps without problem, and escape their containment tactics simply in all but the last few missions of story mode. I was only arrested a handful of times during my entire playthrough of the game despite being in dozens of police chases.
In addition to the campaign, Undercover allows you to take the police chase action online, offering multiplayer racing and the new Cops ‘n’ Robbers mode for you to play with up to 8 people. All of the games that I played ran smoothly with no lag, but none of them were particularly engaging. The racing was dominated by players that had unlocked the fastest cars, leaving the rest of us in the dust with no chance of catching up. Cops ‘n’ Robbers is a car-chase variant of Capture the Flag that has the Robber team racing to pick up a money bag that has to be dropped off in the capture zone while the Cop team attempts to stop them. The problem here is that the Robber cars are faster and more limber than the police vehicles, leaving the Cops with little hope of taking back the loot.
While the car models, lighting effects, and texture work on display in Need for Speed: Undercover are very well done, the overall graphical presentation is brought down by a flurry of graphical and technical problems. The most significant of these is the framerate, which drops consistently no matter where you are or what you are doing. This is especially problematic during hectic police chases and when multiple vehicles are onscreen at the same time, as the framerate will dip down to dangerously low levels and stutter constantly until the road is clear. There is also a significant amount of draw-in to be seen, where distant buildings, trees, cars, and even mountains will fade into existence as you get closer to them. Another problem that pops up relates to the shadows in darker areas, which are sometimes so dark that you can’t see what is ahead. This occasionally leads to you to misjudge a turn or crash because you couldn’t see a pole that was in your path. Another gripe that I had with the visuals was with the city itself, as it felt very generic at times and there are barely any memorable locations or landmarks that stand out. There is also very little traffic and no people walking around, which makes the city feel more like an empty movie set than a lively metropolis.
While the game’s visuals are flawed, the audio presentation of Undercover excels. The soundtrack is loaded with various licensed techno, rock, and rap tracks that feel like natural fits to the in-game action, and the music is eclectic enough that you should be able to find something you like. The sound effects in the game are very powerful, with car engines sounding like the roars of untamed beasts and cringe-inducing crash audio that sounds as painful as the crashes look. The game also includes authentic sounding police chatter that comes across your radio as you are being chased. This adds a nice element of immersion to the environment, as you will hear the cops talking about your exploits in real time and give you clues as to what trap they are about to lay down for you and where.
Need for Speed: Undercover is not bad, but it is a game that needed a few more months of development time. With a little more polish and less repetition, it could have truly been something special. If you are a fan of arcade racers and can look past a few issues, you should enjoy your time with Undercover. Just be prepared for a bumpy ride.