Need For Speed Undercover (PS3) Review

Several years ago during the Xbox/PS2 days I walked into a Toys R’ Us and played a demo of Need For Speed Underground. I fell in love with the slick visuals, blinding speed and car customization. This was back before they re-added the cop chases and opted for cheesy over the top stories with equally cheesy FMV sequences. As far as I’m concerned the ultimate culmination of the current franchise is still NFS: Most Wanted. After the dismal NFS: Pro Street EA’s Black Box studio goes back to the ground work that was laid by Most Wanted and finds a way to cock it up with Need For Speed: Undercover.

Story:

I’ll give you the best rundown I can muster because it’s boring, lifeless and it’s something that you’re essentially just going to skip to get to the racing. You’re hired by federal agent Chase Linh (played by the foxy Maggie Q) to bust up some street gangs. But in order to get close enough to them you have to earn their trust by winning races. There’s a lot that goes on within the narrative and none of it is really too important, but I will at least say that it’s better than the story in NFS: Carbon. The FMV’s make a return and they’re not as over the top as Carbon’s (no fat dudes with really bad Elvis mullets). There are times that the camera angles appear to show some sense of style, but it tends to get lost in the lifeless performances. What makes the FMV’s bearable in stuff like Command and Conquer is the fact that the actors are hamming it up. Whereas in Undercover the actors are actually trying to take it serious.
Rating: 5.0

Gameplay:

What made Underground fun was its challenge. You had to be able to dodge oncoming traffic and normal traffic without slamming into another car. This was because you wrecked you ride and had to start over again. Once Most Wanted came out you were no longer penalized for hitting traffic. This I didn’t mind because you weren’t able to just smoke your adversaries. Undercover just might be the “noobification” of the franchise because for the most part it’s easy to leave people in the dust. This is actually something you’re rewarded for as well. It’s called “Domination” and this is the best way to increase your wheelman level as well as upgrade your stats. Whenever you gain a wheelman level it gives you a boost to certain stats. This gives Undercover an RPG like quality.

As nice as this is you have no control of what skills get raised. It will just randomly give you more points to something. I’m personally not sure if you’re able to feel the difference in the handling of your vehicle, but at least when you blow people away by ten seconds you’re at least awarded for it. I’m personally not sure if newcomers will even notice the difference between this and Most Wanted, but veterans can tell in a heartbeat. In Most Wanted the vehicles had a good sense of weight to them, and you were able to feel the tires bite into the pavement for traction. As you got used to breaking and easing up on the accelerator in just the right way you were able to drift into turns and slide right between cars and take corners just the right way to slingshot past people. Granted this is still here in Undercover, but the cars feel a lot lighter and are just too arcade like in their handling.

The alterations to the handling is somewhat expected since Undercover is operating on an entirely different engine, but what really grinds my gears is how much you get fined money. Once you start playing for a while you notice red numbers that appear on the left side of the screen. What this is is you losing money. You get fined for speeding, street racing, destruction of property, driving off road and numerous other things that didn’t matter in past incarnations (why the f*ck does it cost me $200 to go fast!!?).

In Undercover you still have boss races, but they seem to come less frequently and how you access them is open to interpretation. In Most Wanted you had the “Blacklist” in Carbon you took over their territory, but in Undercover I couldn’t tell you how it happens. I guess you just race until you get a text or cutscene where they ask to challenge you. Just like in every Need For Speed they introduce new ways to race. Some are entertaining while others are just infuriating. One such new addition is called “Highway Battle. (or some permutation of it)” It has you and another racer driving on the open road dodging traffic and at the same time trying to get as far ahead of each other as possible. As long as your opponent does not outrank you these tend to be really easy. The irritating ones are where the course isn’t blocked off; now as exciting as this sounds, there’s a reason why they stink. One reason is that they tend to be timed and the other is the amount of traffic that’s on the road at times. You’ll find yourself peering down at the map and almost driving via the map, and when you have traffic coming towards you it gets irritating. It gets to the point where you have to memorize the track, which can only be done by screwing up and starting over.

What I do find interesting is how infrequent the new cars are. In Most Wanted and Carbon after every boss race you had the chance to win a new car so you always had ended up with a new ride. Granted that depended on how fast you got bounty and milestones (in Most Wanted), but hey at least you knew you would eventually get a new set of wheels. In Undercover I think I was driving the same car for four hours, it drove me nuts. I was constantly muttering, “do I finally get a new car” after about every race, and buying isn’t the best option. I finally got a second set of wheels once I hit 40% completion. How they handle that is actually interesting. When you do challenge a boss you don’t do it in your car, it’s done in different car. You have the option of taking that car, or taking the bosses car.

The greatest allure of the franchise is the car customization and it’s a lot more toned down than it used to be. Since autosculpt came in with Carbon they’ve decreased the amount of body kits and even this works differently. In Carbon you had specific body kits used for molding and in Undercover you can sculpt the preset body kits. I’m personally not sure which method I prefer, but it’s at least good to see that this feature hasn’t been taken out.

There are still cops and they’re actually pretty tough. You can’t ram the crap out of them like before because their cars seem to be made out of submarine grade titanium. You hit them and you bounce off unlike in previous games when you could’ve taken them out by ramming them. Also there are a lot less pursuit breakers than before, which seem to be the only ways to get cars off your ass. Yes you can still out run them, but when you have loads on your tail it isn’t that easy.

Pretty much Undercover can be called the most inconsistent Need For Speed. It does some interesting things like try to tell a story, but it seems like by going after all the actors the team probably had to cut corners in gameplay for budgetary reasons. The racing isn’t as smooth or challenging as it used to be. The police chases are still exciting at least and the vehicles at your disposal are pretty nice. To sum it up if you’re not a huge Need For Speed fan then don’t touch it. If you are one then it’s best to lower your expectations.
Rating: 6.0

Graphics:

For some odd reason Most Wanted a three-year-old game looks better than Undercover. I do believe Undercover has better lighting, but when it comes to car detail Undercover loses. While this I can live with the most blatant problem lies within the frame rate. The frame rate stumbles and wobbles more than Robert Downey Jr. (don’t worry I know he’s clean now) during his years of alcoholism and drug abuse. It really hampers the racing, because there are times when it will hitch up during a turn and throw you off. Next thing you know you’re spinning out of control or you run into a car. Since I know developers are just in love with patching games I can only hope to god that they release a frame rate patch (which better include trophies and a custom soundtrack option). Other than this the sense of speed, tricked out cars and vibrant colors are still here. The sun seems to be blinding at times and does a good job of reflecting off your car.
Rating: 6.0

Sound:

For starters I really hope that Sony demands mandatory custom soundtracks in every game (especially racing games) from this point on. Because I can’t stand the music used in this game, but aside from that Undercover does a decent job of conveying the growl of certain engines. While anything mechanical doesn’t distract the same can’t be said for anything organic. The dialogue is both boring and flat or over the top and makes me reminisce about the time when they simply made racing games sans story.
Rating: 5.0

Replay:

There’s online multiplayer, which I didn’t bother to use because the last time I played an NFS game online it was a debauched lag fest. Granted I’m pretty sure that the servers are a lot better now than the last time I played Most Wanted online I’m pretty sure that my sessions would be with people using the most powerful car with the stats maxed out. So if getting smoked by strangers is your idea of a good time then have at it. If you plan to race with friends only than it shouldn’t be too much of a problem. Only real problem might be that they disable vinyl’s for online. That and you have to create an account with EA Nation, which I’ve had for a while on my 360, but I guess you need a new one for PSN games, but if this is the case why the hell didn’t I need this for Battlefield: Bad Company?
Rating: 7.0

Overall:

After the dismal NFS: Pro Street this is more of a return to form, but this form isn’t in the best of shape, it’s practically fat and ridden with cellulite. EA and the now defunct Black Box studios needs to figure what made Underground and Most Wanted entertaining experiences. When stacked up against the competition of Midnight Club: Los Angeles (which is only hampered by its obscene amount of traffic and invincible cheating A.I. that smashes you onto oncoming traffic) it just can’t compete. The car customization is better, the cars are more varied and it’s presented much better. While Undercover doesn’t drop the ball completely in entertainment, but it does fumble said ball more times than an epileptic quarterback with leprosy.
Rating: 6.0

"Need For Speed Undercover (PS3)" is on sale November 18, 2008 and is rated T. Racing. Developed by Black Box Studios. Published by Electronic Arts.

Jan
06
2009
Marcus Beasley

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