Need for Speed: Undercover Review
“You're not good, and you're not bad.” This is one of the lines that pops up repeatedly during loading screens in Need for Speed Undercover. It's a phrase designed to flatly establish the coolly antiheroic nature of your role as a street-racing undercover cop, though there's no such grey area when it comes to the actual quality of Undercover. After last year's Need for Speed: ProStreet, an oddly street-less street-racer, I saw some good potential in Need for Speed's return to the heady blend of cops-n-robbers gameplay and goofy live-action cutscenes that made Most Wanted such intense and intensely silly fun. But execution is nine-tenths of the law, and Undercover feels careless and mercenary, lacking the enthusiastic verve that made Most Wanted more than the sum of its parts.
You play Undercover as a silent protagonist who, with the help of a chilly FBI handler played by Maggie Q, is plunged into the world of criminal street racing gangs, with the hopes of finding, uh, something. Or maybe a guy. I think the guy has a thing, or some stuff, and you're trying to get it back. Your motives for risking life and limb to infiltrate and then take down these gangs of tough-talking male models are muddled, but then, so is most of the plot. The disjointed live-action cutscenes are all slickly produced and filled with pretty people, but they rarely mean anything, and half of them involve an especially wooden Maggie Q delivering serious-sounding cop-talk to an empty room. With a few rare exceptions, everyone else comes off as disaffected and/or bland, with only a few fleeting moments of hammy overacting to lighten the mood. It's all bad nonsense, but not nearly bad enough to be good again.
In between the bloodless cutscenes, you'll race on the streets of the Tri-City Bay Area, a trio of small, caricatured cities linked by highways and causeways that reminded me of Florida, or at least Florida as it is portrayed in something like CSI: Miami or Miami Vice. The layout isn't anything special, but the geography is a healthy mix of dense urban areas and winding back country roads, though there were a few turns that seemed like they were pulled straight out of previous Need for Speed games. What gives the game much of its personality is the way it piles on the special effects, giving the game a hazy, dusky look with orange and black hues that really pop. There are some rough spots, such as the game's rather smudgy sky box, and the alarming speed with which the sun will sometimes streak across the sky, but the real killer is the frame rate. It constantly chugs and sputters, regularly turning into a slide show, and it only gets worse as the cars get faster. It destroy the game's sense of speed, and it interferes with the gameplay so thoroughly that it makes Undercover's other problems harder to forgive.
The format is nearly identical to what Most Wanted and Carbon featured, offering up straight street races against AI opponents, checkpoint races, and missions that force you to rack up property damage and outrun the cops. The big new race type is the highway battle, which is effectively a flat and straight version of the drift battles from Carbon. You and another racer go head-to-head on the game's sprawling highway system, with the objective of pulling ahead of your opponent by a certain distance. Weaving in and out of traffic can be intermittently thrilling, though the ease in which you can trip up your opponents by nudging a few civilian cars can make these events pretty short. The different race types provide you with a decent amount of variety, and while the licensed cars you can drive generally don't feel like they've got much weight, they also feel slippery in a good, action-movie kind of way. What sucks a lot of the fun out of Undercover is that it's way too easy. The race AI can be shamelessly rubber-bandy, and it gives up halfway through many races. The cops are similarly uncommitted, and I often found that, even when I was allotted three or four minutes to lose the cops, it took little effort to do it in less than one. Aside from the police pursuits, the game doesn't make very good use of the open world format, especially since you can select any available missions from the in-game map.
This brings up the game's often arbitrary domination system, which rewards you for winning events in a certain amount of time. You'd think the domination bonus would be based on how thoroughly you trounce your competition, but it rarely seems like it's reflective of your actual performance. There were races where I blew away the competition by a good ten seconds and didn't get the domination bonus, and others where I just barely scraped ahead, but was rewarded for it. Another minor point in Undercover that really got under my skin was how blatant it was about pushing EA's filthy downloadable content agenda. Playing the Xbox 360 version, every time I tried and purchase cars or upgrades, the game asked if I wanted to use in-game money (which it confusingly refers to as “cash”) or Microsoft Points (which are actually cash) to pay for them. All told, you could easily spend as much money on in-game items as the game itself costs, which is especially pointless since it doesn't take much effort to earn it honestly.
I'll admit that my fondness for Need for Speed Most Wanted colored my expectations for Need for Speed Undercover, but this game's general failure as a racing game ends up being so significant that its inability to recapture the fun of Most Wanted in particular is kind of a moot point. There's no shortage of street racing games on the market right now, and there's simply no room for a game that can't nail down some of the basics.