As a fan of racing games, I am offended by Need for Speed: Undercover. Having seen games such as Burnout Paradise, Grid, and Pure this year, a substandard effort such as this barely deserves a second thought. However, Undercover is the latest installment in the most recognised racing game franchise, and by that virtue itself, it is a game that demands every gamer’s attention.
So while every new Need for Speed game is worth your attention, is this one worth your time? Short answer – No. Undercover is a technical mess, but we’ll come to that later. With this game, Black Box have attempted to make the player feel like the star of an action movie, complete with live-action cutscenes with supposedly Hollywood-level production values and “professional” actors, including the star of the game – Maggie Q. She’s even on the cover; and here I was thinking I’m the star.
For the player to feel like the star of an action movie, every event and every race should somehow be connected to the story. But here, you’re forced to compete in anywhere from five to ten generic events between each story cutscene followed by a driving mission. These cutscenes are appalling, both in terms of production quality and acting, which often reaches low-budget porn levels. You play an undercover cop, who is tasked with infiltrating the underworld and recovering a top secret that would help dismantle their network. Maggie Q plays Chase Linh, your handler. Up until the final stages of the story, she plays no role whatsoever, besides the completely unnecessary blink-and-you-missed-it cutscenes every so often. The story is uninventive and never really makes you eager to know what happens next.
Undercover is supposed to be an open-world racing game, but it really isn’t. Missions can only be accessed by the GPS map and prompts at the bottom of the screen. Very often, your mission is to go to a specific part of the city and take out a thug. But rather than making you drive there, you are asked to press down on D-pad to start the mission right there. The GPS map, rather than serving as a waypoint system, is more like an event selection screen. So it really makes you wonder why Black Box went with the open-world setting at all.
Then there’s the lifeless city that Undercover is set it. The architecture looks uninspired and, as a whole, the environment seems soulless. To add to that there is excessive bloom and a bizarre lighting system whereby everything looks yellow. There are no day and night transitions; simply, what the devs think, looks like dusk. And although on loading screens it will tell you the time of day, whether its 7 am or 7 pm, it will all look the same. Poor architecture and lighting aside, the city can throw up some fairly fun and challenging race environments, from the tight, bending streets of the city centre, to the narrow, grid-like suburban roads, to the vast, open highways.
To make the best use of the various city environments, there are a variety of events on offer in Undercover. Circuit and Sprint races pit you against seven other opponents, whereas Checkpoint events are you against the clock as you aim to pass a series of checkpoints before you run out of time. There are also one-on-one events such as Outrun, where your aim is to stay in front of the opponent for a fixed amount of time, and Highway Battle, set on a busy stretch of highway, where you are tasked with putting a fixed amount of distance between you and your opponent.
Then of course, there are the cops. You have various events that involve the police, including Evade, where the aim is to lose the cops, Cop Takeout, where you are required to incapacitate a fixed number of cop cars, and Cost to the State, where your job is to cause damage to public property. The key to emerging unscathed in cop events is the pursuit breakers, which are objects in the environment that can be used to block the path of your pursuers. Cops, too, will do all they can to stop you, including roadblocks and spike strips. Depending on your heat level, police choppers and surprisingly fast fed SUVs will also be occasionally deployed to take you down.
On the online side, you have the usual Circuit and Sprint races, and Cops and Robbers, a team-based mode, similar to capture the flag. Lag isn’t much of an issue, although finding players on the PC version wasn’t easy even this soon after the game’s release. There is no offline multiplayer option. On one hand, it’s for the best due to the game’s horrible frame rates, but on the other hand, Highway Battle could’ve been fun on split-screen.
These events give you lots to do in Undercover, and there is enough variety here to make sure the game doesn’t get stale fast. The game also has a nice array of cars, and the ability to upgrade them as you earn more money. The Autosculpt feature returns along with an exhaustive list of visual upgrade options; everything from body kits, tyres, spoilers, exhausts, etc.
Car handling seemed a little inconsistent with the slower cars, particularly when slowing down around corners or using the handbrake for turns. And while the handbrake is a bit unpredictable throughout the game, it’s only when you get behind the wheel of a high-performance car, that you really start to enjoy the game. Yes, the game can be enjoyable. There are some flashes of what made Need for Speed Most Wanted one of the most loved games in the series here. You can see the attempts made by the devs to try and replicate the Most Wanted formula in Undercover. Car chases are intense and often involve up to ten cop cars pursuing you as choppers circle above.
But it is when the game starts to get fun that its technical drawbacks are most evident. The game’s frame rate seldom climbs above the low 20s, and at a time when developers are managing to lock their games at 60 fps, this is unforgivable. During intense police chases or races with multiple vehicles around or even when driving off-road with dirt being kicked up, the frame rate drops even further, making the game almost unplayable. And herein lies Need for Speed Undercover’s undoing. All the fun that the various events provide and the thrilling sense of speed experienced when driving a high-performance exotic is nullified by the game’s technical inadequacies.
Issues such as inconsistent frame rates and frequent texture pop-in are inexcusable considering this is the third Need for Speed game of this generation. Visually, this is possibly the worst Need for Speed game ever made. The cars look strictly okay; everything else is dreadful. To add to that you will see pedestrian cars drive through barricades, and cars fly 50 feet in the air when hit by your speeding Lamborghini. Sound is a mixed bag as well. While the engine sounds are brilliant, the soundtrack is less so, especially this one Spanish love song (a bizarre choice for a racing game soundtrack) that you will hear way too often, when it shouldn’t have been in the game at all.
Need for Speed: Undercover is fun at times, but for most part, it is a disaster. The action-movie-in-a-game approach falls flat on its face and the open world setting is a waste. While driving around the city can be thrilling at times, each time you start having fun, the game’s technical incompetence will come as a slap in the face. Those who loved Most Wanted could enjoy this game, but don’t get your hopes up. This is the Need for Speed franchise’s darkest hour. If you thought it couldn’t get worse than ProStreet, well, it just did.
(+) Great sense of speed
(+) Intense chases
(-) Frame rate issues often make it unplayable
(-) Uninteresting story, dreadful acting
(-) Waste of an open-world environment
IndianVideoGamer Verdict: 3/10 (Avoid like the plague)
Note: This review is based on a retail copy of the PC version of the game