Need for Speed Undercover Review (Xbox 360)
From the outset, Need for Speed: Undercover does its best to imitate a summer blockbuster: a Michael Bay-like credits sequence, loud over-the-top chases, high-contrast lighting, and heavily stylized cut-scenes set the scene. Unfortunately, like so many big-budget summer films, the game also features a rather shallow experience with forgettable characters and a meaningless plot.
Picture it: A camera gracefully pans over some waves, finally focusing on a distant metropolis. Then, the camera quickly cuts to circling helicopters. Below, a car chase ensues as cops weave in and out of traffic -- the criminal always one step ahead.
This opening scene is the first indication that this game cares more about style and cinematics than traditional racers normally do, and for the most part, this approach works. At times, you feel like you are playing in a movie, albeit a second-rate "Fast and the Furious" imitation.
The game tries to be a epic, cinematic experience in a lot of ways.
This focus on a film-like experience leads to pre-race sequences that blend seamlessly into actual gameplay. You may be watching cars careening through traffic, and before you know it, you are at the wheel. Like the quality of all of the cut-scenes, it's an effect that's very well-produced.
All the cut-scenes you watch will add context to the large series of races you will find yourself in. The plot deals with smuggling, street racing, gangs and being undercover, but I never felt connected to the story. At one point, you are tasked with taking out two street racers; a voice over warns you not to let personal feelings get in the way of your job. Not only did I not know that I "should" have personal feelings, but I only had a fleeting idea of whom these characters were. They were simply "leaders of a street racing syndicate."
As a whole, the cut-scenes and story element of this game provides a stylistic, but very shallow, alternative to progressing through a ladder of unconnected races.
The game certainly loooks good enough on the surface, but....
Open-world racing is not a new concept, and it seems to have been nearly perfected in games like Burnout Paradise. Need for Speed: Undercover seems to be an open-world racer: You can indeed race aimlessly around the three-city map, earning the scorn of the local police force. But instead of navigating toward a specific point to begin an event, you can, at anytime, press down on the D-pad to start the nearest event. This makes the open-world portion of the game pointless. In fact, even if you want to drive from point to point, I've found no way to mark waypoints on the GPS.
So, despite the "open-worldness," you most likely will find yourself finishing an event, then tapping down to immediately begin a new one. If there is a specific race that you want to attempt, it's easier to pull up the GPS and just select the race, which will then immediately load and begin. While I appreciate and use similar time-saving measures in games like Fallout, at least you have the option to get easily find places the "hard way." Here, if you don't choose to jump to races, have fun switching back and forth to the GPS and memorizing routes. Plus, once you get there, guess what? You will just press down to start the race.
One other piece of information to note: With just a few exceptions, the races are closed courses. There's no way to get creative when racing to checkpoints since giant orange arrows block your path. This is common in arcade racing games, but it removes any lingering reason to explore the "open world."
The speed, the action, the....high contrast?
"I've got a 510 in progress..."
Once you have jumped into an event, the best and worst parts of this game come to the surface.
First, the driving engine is extremely accessible and forgiving. Generally, the cars handle well and it is fun to drive them. Corners are easy to take, and are made easier by the "bullet time" option that is a leftover from previous NFS games. I had no problem nimbly throwing the cars into reverse or doing 180s to evade the police. The handbrake seems to offer just enough touch and control to use when needed; usually, I simply had to let off the gas to make turns.
The accessibility makes for some boring racing, though. I don't think I lost a "standard" race until I advanced to the second tier of cars. Many times, I would win by seven to 10 seconds -- and I would in no way categorize myself as a world class virtual driver. In fact, when I did lose at the higher level, it was usually because my car was simply outclassed or I made a mistake (more on this later). Never did I feel as though I was being "out driven" by superior A.I. I realize that this is an arcade racing game, not a sim, but computer drivers with some kind of personality or even a modicum of advanced skill or strategy would help.
While the competition might make the game repetitive, the types of racing offered should help quell that repetitiveness. In addition to standard formats like circuit, checkpoint and sprint, you will find "mini-races" or jobs where you need to hold the lead for 90 seconds or gain a 1,000 foot lead. These last two modes represent the more challenging aspects of the game, and because they are usually tied into the "story," you will tend to jump to them as soon as they are available.
However, the highlight of this game isn't the racing, it's the police chases. These are, by far, the most interesting portions of the game; though, they do not seem to have changed much since Most Wanted. You still must evade and outrun until you've managed to slip under the radar. It's a blast listening to officers calling dispatch, looking for a description, describing your offenses, and asking for backup. You can derive a great deal of satisfaction by out-maneuvering a single patrol car or causing a massive pileup by destroying some scaffolding. The longer and harder you flee, the higher your "heat" level, resulting in more cops -- some in the aforementioned helicopters.
Police chases are a highlight for this game.
I mentioned before that when I lost races, it was occasionally because I made a mistake. Granted, a few of them were just the result of bad decision-making. However, I also need to share the blame with the graphical style of this game.
First, I don't have an issue with the entire game taking place in the day, or to be even more descriptive, the morning. I understand that the lighting style -- advertised using the Hollywood term "golden hour" -- was a design choice, and really, it fits the overall style of the game. While a day/night cycle might be nice, I can live without it. What is frustrating, however, is that everything is shot in a very high-contrast lighting. There are portions of the tracks that are just too dark to easily navigate. Too often I found myself driving right into a pylon as I went beneath an overpass.
Most games might recognize this problem and offer a slider to adjust the brightness. Not NFS: Undercover; it sticks to its fake-film roots by requiring you to reconfigure your television using a THX-like series of color blocks and scales, just like some DVDs. I found this a little presumptuous -- I've never needed to reconfigure my TV (which I have painstakingly configured using a professional calibration disk) for a game before.
So, let me be clear before I say this next thing: This is not an anti-EA ploy, even if this needed recalibration is part of "EA's Optimal HD gaming." Madden looks fine, Rock Band looks good. However, it is curious that one of the first things to pop up when loading NFS deals with how to find this recalibration screen. While I won't cry conspiracy, it's not hard to imagine testers saying that "this game looks too dark in spots," and the publisher slapping a "here's how to fix your TV" title screen on the problem.
On top of the high-contrast issues, this game's frame rate occasionally drops (it's not that good to begin with). I did not find it happening too often to be really bothersome, but it is noticeable. I also saw some "civilian" cars doing some funny things. One was spinning around on its roof in the middle of the street; I watched another drive straight off a raised stretch of road. These are small glitches, but they certainly remove you from the experience.
For what it's worth though, the lighting really makes the environments look good.
While most of the cars are initially locked, there are a fair amount of vehicles to choose from, and an adequate number of customization options. Unfortunately, none of the visual options change the performance of the cars; so, adding a spoiler simply adds a spoiler. Autosculpt is back from past games, but again, it's just for show. That said, except for a few races where I was clearly using a car much slower than those I was racing against, I did not feel performance upgrades were necessary.
What does affect your performance -- beyond the three levels of upgrades -- is your "driver rating." This is a skill set (brakes, transmission, etc.) that increases after each successful race. Driver rating is clearly an attempt to add an RPG-element to the game. Unfortunately, you don't select where to put your points. Beyond that, it's not even clear how you earn points. After a race, you see that you have a reward, then it might add seven percent to your nitrous rating. I don't think it has any relationship to your driving performance; it may just be randomized. I found no help in the slim pamphlet (see: manual) that came with the game. As it is, it's like an RPG where everything is chosen for you.
Again, I think that this game wants to play like a big-budget summer movie. To that end, it succeeds. However, think "Armageddon" and not "The Dark Knight." This game is fast, furious and pretty much dumbed down for the masses. While the game lacks a coherent plot, memorable characters, or a deep experience, it does have style -- and helicopters.
On the Street: A very approachable (easy) racing game wrapped in a movie-like package. Cars are fun to drive, but the A.I. doesn't give much of a challenge. Events, outside of the police chases, get pretty repetitive.
Graphics: Heavy on style and the cut-scenes look pretty good. The cars are nice, but the city is pretty bland: no pedestrians, limited traffic. Pop-up and slow down can occasionally be detected.
Sound: Typical racing music, except for some interesting cinematic scores used during a few specific races. Police chatter adds to the excitement of a hot pursuit. Engines sounds seem real enough.
Entertainment Value: You probably won't have a strong desire to finish this game unless you really find the story rewarding. What you are paying for then, is some exciting police chases, a nice variety of cars and some mundane racing.
Learning Curve: Again, very easy and accessible for the casual racing fan. Even engine and transmission tweaks are limited to make them easier to understand. Unfortunately, accessibility doesn't ever transition to challenging.
Online: Three basic modes limit what fun can be had with other players. No additional features, like trading or selling cars online. A good example of subversive "micro-transactions" at work: You can pay for all in-game upgrades with real cash.
Score: 6.5 (Decent)