Need for Speed Undercover
worth a rental or buying for cheap
Developer: Black Box
Genre: open-world racing
Rated T for language and mild violence
Version reviewed: Playstation 3
Hong Kong model/actress Maggie Q (star of movies like Naked Weapon and Gen-Y Cops) makes her video game debut with Need for Speed Undercover, the long-running series' entry into the realm of open-world racing, which has become fairly prominent over the past year or so, with entries like Burnout Paradise becoming critical and fan favorites. Is NFSU up to snuff, or is it better left in the garage, or rather, on the store shelves?
Have you seen any of the Fast and Furious movies, or rather any film focusing on street and/or underground racing? Then you know what to expect here. Maggie Q plays FBI agent Chase Linh -- the name's funny because her name is Chase and she deals in stolen car case, get it? Anyway, Chase taps you, a local cop with a Paul Walker-esque talent for both stealing cars and not really saying anything, to infiltrate local street racing gangs situated around the generically named Tri-City Bay.
The use of the term "gang" is probably a bit much, since these creampuffs are about as threatening as a soft pillow. Let's put it this way -- one of the bosses is played by Joshua Alba, brother of Jessica, who probably would have been a better choice for the role, because at least she could offer some eye candy. From top to bottom, the cutscenes contained here are some of the cheesiest full-motion video stuff put on a game disc since the days of "classics" like Night Trap on the Sega CD.
Initially, the graphics are impressive. The car models are well done, and do a nice job of showing the damage you accumulate during races. However, after driving around the city for a bit, especially at high speeds with the better cars, framerate issues become very apparent. The sometimes chugging nature of the graphics is surprising given how dead the city is. There's no pedestrians and hardly any cars on the streets, and there's not all that much variety in the buildings lining the boulevards, either. Combined with the fact that it always seems to be a clear day at sunset, Need for Speed Undercover's graphical presentation comes off as fairly lack-luster.
The sound also suffers from a similar problem. It's done well enough that you're not going to want to shut off your stereo, but it's nothing great, either. The engines sound decent enough at first, but there's not that much variety between different makes, and in particular, the muscle cars don't sound "meaty" enough. As for the musical soundtrack, the songs picked here are a little deeper than your usual "EA Trax" selection -- there's no Avril Lavigne making your ears bleed here, thank goodness. But with only about thirty-five tracks, you're going to hear a lot of the same tunes over and over, and not only is there no custom soundtrack support, you can't even edit the in-game playlists.
Despite the problems with the audio/visual presentation, Need for Speed Undercover does deliver the classic NFS street-racing action fans have come to know and love over the years, which is a welcome change from the ill-advised previous entry, Pro Street, which placed the action on closed tracks, with disastrous results.
The basic structure of the game is pretty simple: race in events around the city until you attract the attention of one of the local gangs, at which point you play through missions that advance the story. Winning races grants you "wheelman" points, which increase your overall driving ability, and you will also get cash, which allows you to buy better cars, or customize the ones you already own. There's a very solid variety of real cars available in the game, and while no one's going to mistake NFSU for a Gran Turismo-type sim, gearheads will find at least some enjoyment crafting their vehicles into the perfect driving machines in both areas of the areas of looks and performance.
Even if you don't really care about clearing the story, there are a ton of races and other events, like trying to evade the police in a high-speed pursuit, to occupy your time. With over one hundred included on the disc, and another sixty available from a free downloadable update, players can easily get twenty to thirty hours just doing the "side" races/events and hunting for trophies. Like many recent racing games, online competition is an option, but at this point in time, the online servers are basically closed for business, with only the occasional match opening up.
The actual nuts and bolts of the racing definitely fall much more into the arcade spectrum. Driving aggressively (getting close to other cars, etc.) will net you "zone" points, which build up your nitro and "speedbreaker", which allows you to slow down time to make those tricky turns. The races start off very easy, almost insultingly so, but soon become challenging enough to the point that you'll be celebrating quite a few close victories.
As good as the actual racing is, it still lacks that intensity games like Burnout Paradise offer, mostly due to the aforementioned framerate issues and lack of traffic, as well as the fact that many of the races put you on a set path. NFSU lacks that enjoyment many open-world racing games give you when you discover a new shortcut or hidden jump that allows you to get an edge on the competition.
The Bottom Line
Despite its' problems, at its' core, Need for Speed Undercover offers up solid racing action, and a whole lot of it. Frankly, this really is a distant third to the other major open-world racing games that came out around the same time, Burnout Paradise and Midnight Club Los Angeles in terms of both presentation and gameplay. But if you've already gone through those games, or own a system like the PS2 and Wii where open-world racers are less common, Need for Speed Undercover is at least worth adding to your Gamefly queue or picking up to own if you can find a good deal.