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Need For Speed Undercover: Playing it safe

With another Need For Speed game approaching, everyone is anxious to know if Black Box will redeem the franchise after the disastrous ProStreet or hit ‘refresh’ and take it back to the glory days. IndianVideoGamer had the opportunity to test drive a bit of Need For Speed Undercover at the recently-held Games Convention Asia in Singapore.

EA has been talking about Undercover being a successor to Most Wanted, and at first you will feel like you’re indeed playing Most Wanted; it feels instantly familiar. Whether that’s a good or bad thing remains to be seen when we get to sample the full game. But it sure does feel like EA have taken the safe route in terms of gameplay to concentrate more on the story side of things, with the much talked about Hollywood-style live action cutscenes with the likes of Maggie Q.

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The game employs, what EA calls, the Heroic engine. It is basically a physics engine that tweaks the handling of each car to make it feel different, while still firmly maintaining the series’ arcade gameplay style. Essentially, they want each car to feel different, but they also want you to feel like the star of a Hollywood action film, hence the name – Heroic. I tried two cars in this build – the Audi RS5 and the Nissan GT-R. Although both did feel different, I wasn’t wowed by Heroic physics. It just felt like a regular arcade game. For instance, a handbrake turn was equally easy to pull off on both cars.

The two race modes I tried were the highway battle, which is a one-on-one mode, and a frantic cop chase. In the highway battle, you take on another AI car on a busy highway stretch, which doesn’t contain too many twists and turns, but throws at you some serious rush-hour traffic. The object is to get a fixed amount of distance between yourself and the other car. To do this, you can use the traffic vehicles as roadblocks. Nudging or side-swiping traffic vehicles will bring them to a standstill or careening into barricades and blocking traffic behind it. There were a few graphical issues in the build we tested; mostly pop-in and unstable framerates. Sometimes traffic vehicles would appear out of nowhere, leaving you little time to avoid a head-on collision. But it does feel quite exhilarating as you pick up speed and manage to successfully weave in and out of traffic. The nature of the track and the traffic vehicles, which react to the way you drive, will keep you on the edge of your seat, knowing that you’re just one lapse in judgement away from junkyard scrap. There were, however, many blind spots on this particular track, and at high speeds, collisions were inevitable.

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The cop chase looks like it’s been lifted straight from Most Wanted. It’s got the pursuit breakers, which allow you to block the road with objects in the environment. Then there are the customary road blocks at regular intervals. You are also frequently greeted with on-screen updates of the financial damages your adventure has inflicted on the state administration. It’s all too familiar. What is new however, is the Cops and Robbers 8-player online mode, where the robbers try to get money to a safe house, while the cops try to bust them.

Since all of the damage in the game is cosmetic, you don’t feel your car’s performance dropping the more you crash. However, in both the modes we played, you can only crash a limited number of times before your car gets totalled. The cop chase is a little more liberal in this regard, whereas 3-4 crashes in the highway battle will end your race.

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Visually, the game looked a little off to us, although this was an early build and lacking some of the polish that will go on the retail version. The entire game plays out at, what looked like, dusk; the developers describe it as ‘just before sunset on the Gulf Coast of the US’. Whatever they were going for wasn’t working for us. It seemed dull and saturated and the colours looked drab. It would’ve been nice of the guys at Black Box to include day and night cycles, but producer John Doyle has confirmed that that isn’t forthcoming. Being an early build, it wouldn’t be right to analyse the graphics in detail, but there is still a lot of work required to bring it up to par with the likes of Grid or even Burnout Paradise.

It certainly seems like EA have decided to play it safe with this year’s instalment of Need For Speed. The environments look repeated, the cop chase has been lifted from Most Wanted as is, and the new driving engine seems less than Heroic. There are also some serious texture pop-in and framerate issues that the guys at Black Box will have to fix in order to make the game playable and, more importantly, enjoyable. If you liked Most Wanted, you’ll probably like Undercover as well. And unlike ProStreet and, to an extent, Carbon, the gameplay in Undercover doesn’t seem broken. It looks like the game could be quite a lot of fun if you’re willing to look past the lack of innovation. There will be no downloadable demo for Need For Speed Undercover, so fans will have to hold on till the game’s November 21 release date.

Join the discussion at the IndianVideoGamer Community forums

Check back in a bit for an interview with the game’s producer John Doyle. We will also have two gameplay videos – one of the new Highway Battle mode, and the other a cop chase walkthrough with John.

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