Need for Speed: Undercover – Reviewed – Xbox 360

10 min read
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The Need for Speed series is one that has been going for quite some time now. It has seen many iterations, from the original badboy-in-a-supercar titles, down to the street racing series that we see today, with so many variations in between that it’s becoming really difficult to keep count.

When the news of a new NFS title called “Undercover” was announced a while back, I posted an article on this site saying that I wasn’t really excited about the news, mostly due to the fact that the series was stagnating badly. EA promised that the franchise was being looked at again and assured us that Undercover would be sure to put a smile on the faces of NFS fans.

Well, I am an old-school NFS fan, I played them from the first one, right down to the point when I started losing interest, somewhere around the release of Carbon, So I take it that I am the perfect candidate for one of these promised smiles and to be honest, I am more than happy to have my mind changed.

So I have playing it for the last couple of days. Click through to find out if we have a smile generator on our hands or not.

Gone in 6 seconds

The idea in NFS: Undercover is that you are a wheelman who has gone undercover to infiltrate and help expose a crime syndicate that is up to no good, so no real points for originality there. The story is mostly portrayed through short cinematics featuring real actors/actresses and some mighty fine camera work.

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I was quite looking forward to the whole “movie” aspect of the game, the cinematics in the trailers looked pretty cool and I thought that it was definitely time that the Need for Speed series got some depth. The problem is that after playing the game, you realise that the cinematics are incredibly short and barely add much to the game, effectively killing the story and even wondering if there really even is a story to begin with. Watching Maggie Q standing in a strangely dark lit room saying something like “Ok, your getting in deeper and that’s exactly where I want you” (I can’t tell if that is supposed to sound that bad) over the span of what must be around 5 – 10 seconds does not exactly make me want to break out the popcorn just yet.

We can’t expect too much of a story from a racing game but this time it looked like we were going to get given one, which is the only reason why it’s quite a letdown. I expected the characters to be a little more fleshed out and to actually have them matter somewhat.

Sunglasses recommended

It’s not too often that you will hear me say that the graphics in a game are a problem, but this couldn’t be more true in NFS: Underground. What were Black Box thinking? It seems as if they have tried to squeeze every single next-gen visual effect onto the screen at the same time, ultimately making it so overdone that you basically can’t see what is going on.

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All the races take place during sunset or sundown (and there is no excuse for not integrating day/night cycles into the series yet) , so you have the sun in your face a lot of the time. The sun will glow bright, making it difficult to see and the lens flare won’t help either, causing a lot of areas to basically be white on the screen. The dark areas are then so dark that you are able to actually travel down a pitch black alleyway during the middle of a race without the ability to see a damn thing. The roads are strangely reflective, as if they are constantly wet (but even more shiny than usual) and the cars themselves are also overly shiny and reflective, essentially making everything look so full of white reflection marks that it just looks plain ugly and the glow effects on everything can be such a visual distraction that you will end up slamming into a pillar at full speed just because it was too difficult to see what was in front of you.

All in all the graphics actually just come across as overdone and ugly, whereas by laying off of a couple of the effects, the game might have actually looked and played a lot better. The woes with the graphics don’t end there either. The framerate in this game can get really bad. Most of the time it will be relatively fine but it can drop like a brick through certain areas and is so inconsistent that it will pick up when you face your car away from the city towards the open seas, causing times where the framerate could drop down to around 5 – 8 framers per second and then jump straight up to 60fps as you turn a corner.

In short, Need for Speed: Undercover is just a visual disaster and may actually be better enjoyed playing with a blindfold on, using nothing but sound to navigate the streets.

12-Cylinder Symphony

The sound however, is quite the opposite. It is clear that the sound department at Black Box needs to be given the most credit in this game. Engines roar, brakes squeel, wastegates whistle and trucks ‘wooooooosh’ by as you pass them on the highway. What impressed me the most was actually the voice work for the police officers during pursuits. While I never really thought about them much in previous games, the sound guys have done such a fantastic job in keeping the dialogue realistic that I started to wonder if they had just plain stolen it off of some Real TV episodes.

Too much Fast and not enough Furious

With most of the technical aspects of the game out of the way, I want to just focus on the game as a whole. Just like in previous games, you are presented with a bunch of varied race types or missions which need to be done. From circuit and sprint races to losing the cops and leading for a certain distance in a highway battle (say goodbye to Drift and Drag race though). While you are able to see all of the races and missions from your GPS, you can always just press down on the d-pad to activate the nearest one. From your map however, you can quick jump to any specific race that you want.

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This might sound convenient but actually boils down to one big problem. NFS: Underground is nothing more than a whole bunch of races stuck together. The open world of the game is rendered completely useless, considering that you don’t really do much in it and almost everything quick jumps you to areas. With the cinematics only really coming in to play everytime you reach a certain level, you are left feeling like you are doing nothing but grinding away at random events until something special happens.

Honest Joe’s Car Dealership. Big Bargains and Big Savings.

You can modify your vehicle, although you won’t really care for it much other than buying quick upgrades and doing some quick visual touches. The customisation has been cut down, which I don’t really see as a bad thing to be honest but to make things even more laughable (especially when compared to other titles on the market), elements like simple vinyls don’t even show up in online Multiplayer races. Just like with the open world and the story you wonder why they really even bothered with some of the elements in the game.

Something that really does bother me and is something that gets on my nerves immensely is the in-game option to buy cash with Microsoft points. While I can understand that yes, maybe there are some people out there who are short on time and would rather pay to get ahead, It is not in the spirit of gaming and comes across more as a willingness to make extra profits in every way possible and with no shame. I’m not marking the game down for it but I think that things like this are preposterous and unnecessary.

Stuck in 3rd

What really hacks my goat the most is that the driving physics in this game are actually quite good. Cars handle similarly to their real-life counterparts but simple enough to keep the action fun, the controls are solid and each car really does drive in it’s own unique way. So as far as the driving part of the driving game is concerned, the game succeeds and puts a smile on my petrol-head face.

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Take that great driving mechanic and destroy it’s fun factor with low framerates, repetitive races, lack of motivation from the story and an almost useless open world and you are really left with nothing but a game that feels like it has only moved backwards.

At the end of the day the game feels like a stripped down and emptied out version of some of the past titles and while that may be fine for handheld titles, it really is unacceptable for a Next-Gen title from a large company such as EA. It has really become apparent that the “street racer” generation of Need for Speed games is over and that EA needs to start looking in a new direction.

County roads, take me home

I miss the old days of Need for Speed when it was all about feeling like some trust fund baby, driving fast, expensive and exotic cars around highways and the country side. Those were the good old days of the Need for Speed franchise and while I really did enjoy the move to street racing with the Underground series and even Most Wanted, I think that it should have ended there.

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Underground, Underground 2, Most Wanted, Carbon and Undercover feel like they are still the same game at their core and while I commend EA on trying something different with Pro Street, it isn’t the kind of “different” that many of the fans are looking for. Bring back the glory days of the original “Road & Track” branded NFS or the exhilarating high speed chases of the Hot Pursuit series.

I really cannot recommend this game to anyone looking for a fun racer to play on their console because in all truth, I would rather recommend picking up a cheap copy of NFS: Most Wanted instead, purely because it feels like it is a more advanced game. With other titles like GRID and Midnight Club: LA sitting on shelves there really is just so many better and more entertaining experiences available out there.

Scoring:

Gameplay: 6.5/10 [ Driving is fun but hampered by too many other factors ] Presentation: 4/10 [ No, no ,no ,no, no ] Sound: 8.5/10 [ A magnificent gem in a bucket of rocks ] Value: 6/10 [ While there is quite a lot to do, there is little motivation to carry on and the multiplayer is easily trounced by rival titles ]

Overall: 6/10 [ Nothing more than a reminder that the Need for Speed series is in need of a serious change. ]

Last Updated: November 26, 2008

Nick De Bruyne

Video games writer, editor and critic since '08. Living and breathing video games, movies and cars since the 80s. Follow me on Twitter if you love tons of gaming talk, and @pennyworthrevs for fun stuff and links.

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