An open-world racer where the world is your oyster… except it’s not oyster season.
Any man of a certain age gets a special, indescribable tingle inside whenever he hears Goose and Maverick tell each other that they “feel the need, the need for speed!” It’s the expression of a special love that only two men who share a cockpit can understand. And if not for that fatal flatspin, their “need for speed” might have blossomed into something truly magical, something needier and speedier than anyone could possibly imagine.
[image1]The Need for Speed series has always had a similar effect on me. The name alone is enough to summon up prepubescent fantasies of Kelly McGillis on a motorcycle. For a while, the Need for Speed games were the hotshots of the genre, buzzing the tower of much lesser street racing games. But after the release of Most Wanted, the series went into its own irrecoverable flatspin with its own failed ejection seat.
The latest entry in the series, Need for Speed: Undercover, is the equivalent of Meg Ryan drinking away her sorrows in the aftermath of Goose’s airborne smashup. After two successively worse Need for Speed titles, Undercover attempts to pick up the scraps and rearrange them into a semblance of the series’ former self. And while it ditches ProStreet’s Tony Hawk-like dude-isms, its return to “da streetz” has none of the goofy charm and tight gameplay of its predecessors.
Undercover stitches together a derivative storyline told through live-action sequences full of more ridiculous urban stereotypes than a 1980s rap video, and more K-Fed look-alikes than a suburban mall. The plot is an unabashed rip-off of The Fast and the Furious in which you—as an undercover cop—are tasked with infiltrating a gang of street racers and car thieves. You work your way up through the ranks by racing cars, destroying state vehicles, and stealing new wheels.
The series is also known for including models as eye candy narrators. This time around, we’re treated to Maggie Q who serves as your police contact. While undeniably a beautiful woman, her beauty is wasted in this game. Most of her scenes consist of unflattering close-ups of her hands, shoulders, and ears—a far cry from the curvy pin-up images in prior Need for Speed games.
[image2]While it doesn’t make much sense for me to focus on these superfluous details in a racing game, the fault is not mine. Black Box has subordinated racing itself to these ill-conceived live-action sequences, leaving gameplay as nothing more than an afterthought.
The open-world environment serves little purpose and is merely there to give the illusion of depth and detail. Any available event can be played and replayed at the push of a button, obviating the need to drive anywhere. While many of the events take advantage of the game’s open environment, there’s no real need. The city and its outlying areas are relatively small, and considering how few alleyways and hidden paths there are, Undercover is incredibly limited in scope.
Events include basic sprint and circuit racing, as well as a handful of special event types. These latter events differ only slightly in their goals, ranging from winning a race, destroying a car, escaping the cops, or a combination of any of the above.
Regardless of what these events are called, they all blend together indistinguishably. Very early on, you’ll begin to think that you’ve played all that Undercover has to offer. Not much further into the game, you learn just how right you were. “Repetitive” doesn’t even begin to summarize how dull this game gets.
[image3]Worse, Undercover technically underperforms at literally every turn. On nearly every curve of the road, you’ll experience headache-inducing framerate stutters, and whenever more than two cars appear on the screen at once, the game enters near-catatonia. Since you’ll often be racing against many more than two cars at a time, Undercover hits more graphical speed bumps than a Formula car in an elementary school parking lot.
Worse still, in some of the races, cops will enter the fray and start chasing you down. It’s a wonder I didn’t see smoke coming out of the console during these events since the game was trying so hard—and failing—to keep up the processing pace.
The driving physics feel like the equivalent of driving a bowling ball on shag carpet. While your driving skills improve as you win races and you can buy better parts and better cars—using real money, no less—the core physics model had me longing for the comparatively realistic Pole Position. I don’t expect, or even want, realism in a Need for Speed title, but I do expect responsiveness and consistency. Expect neither in Undercover.
There’s also a very strange graphical quirk worth noting. Drive towards a building’s shadow and you’ll see the shadow grow. Drive in reverse, and it shrinks away from you. Look toward the sky, and you’ll see that the sun moves left or right as you drive forward or backward. Why? I don’t know. I do know, however, that it makes for some crazy distractions while you’re racing—either that or some ego-stroking fantasies of godhood.
[image4]Online modes do nothing to save this horribly unpolished title from itself. Its sole glimmer of shining hope is the team game “Cops and Robbers” in which one team tries to steal a money icon and return it to a home icon while the cops try to incapacitate the robbers’ vehicles. It's fun for a few minutes of play, but it’s also plagued by the same lack of polish evident everywhere else in Undercover.
Unfinished, underdeveloped racing efforts like Need for Speed: Undercover leave the acrid taste of stale engine oil and greasy do-rags in my mouth. Luckily, it’s nothing that a little time spent with Grid or PGR4 can’t wash away. Undercover attempts to return the series to its former glory, but it’s obviously lost that loving feeling. And it’s most certainly gone, gone, gone.