Review: Need For Speed Undercover

Racing titles are ever-evolving. With the intoduction of the open world to the genre, it has seemed that subsequent titles especially after Burnout Paradise have followed suit. While Burnout Paradise was a glowing example of the open world mechanic done right, many of the games it has inspired have been less-than-stellar entries to their respective franchises. The latest evidence of this is Need for Speed Underground. While it aspires to be a “thrilling”, open exercise in evading the cops and rising above the ranks, it falls short in a number of ways, making the other racing contenders available right now the better choice, most definitely.

Upon starting the game off, you get no introduction into what’s going on. There’s a flashy cut scene involving a race, or something-or-other. EA’s top-notch production values are showcased, but as for now there isn’t too much shown. As soon as you can blink, you’re thrust into the world of Need for Speed Undercover, and what a small world it is. Right off the bat there is no car customization. You are presented with a starter car that you will need to blow away the competition in. Then you’re told to race. With that, the game has begun, and no questions have been asked.

It’s a good thing that racing is quite comfortable. The control scheme is identical to almost every other major racing release you’ve seen before. From the beginning car you are given to what is available to unlock throughout, the cars handle fantastically. However, the feeling of speed seems to have diminished radically since the last Need for Speed release and it greatly differs from more recent racers that have come out as of late. While it’s obvious you’re moving at quite the electrifying pace, it just doesn’t feel right. The cars are turned far too easily from one curve to the next, which doesn’t feel realistic in the least. Soon after the first race has been completed, it seems you’re free to roam the area.

That’s the first area of the game that begins to fall apart – if you are going to employ an open world within a game that seems as though it should utilize it to the fullest, then actually make some use of it. The open world that was promised in the early stages of the hype machine concerning Need For Speed Underground does not deliver. In order to get to an available race, you press down on the D-pad. Races can also be chosen via the menu’s GPS system, very similar to Midnight Club: Los Angeles. Since races are chosen in this way, there is no real use for the open world setting. Driving around may as well be only to take in the scenery or to scout out how tough you believe future races may be. You cannot visit new locations, unlock any hidden content, or do much of anything within the area. One wonders what use it is besides another bullet on a press release. It’s almost as if it was tossed in as an afterthought just so the latest iteration of the series could partially hang with more recent successful titles.

While careening through the open streets that aren’t even modeled after a real city, you’ll find that during regular race events, traffic is scripted into each race. This means you won’t have real traffic to contend with. Again, this is the “what’s the point?” aspect of the game that you’ll grow to hate intensely. The entire point of an open world game is to further immerse you in the gaming world and to provide more of a feel of exploration and a challenge. When you can’t even take alternate paths in storyline races, the feel of being on your own, making your own decisions diminishes drastically. I have to wonder what was going through the minds of the developers when they made the decision to cut out making the decision to go through each race your way rather than a predetermined one. In this, Burnout Paradise has the game beaten by a long shot.

It doesn’t get much better from there, either. As you progress through the game, you earn points from every race. Performing stunts like near-misses, takedowns, or drifting nets you Driver Points that will increase your Driver Level. You can think of it as leveling up on any random RPG, except you can’t unlock new cars or upgrades unless your Driver Level corresponds to whatever your upgrades take. This can get frustrating, as you progress through the game at a brisk pace, and those upgrades would be very useful to have around. However, if you’re not at the correct level to unlock new cars or better equipment, then you’ll need to waste time participating in more races in order to get there. This also presents a rather strange problem. You can unlock newer, faster cars before you could ever get around to upgrading your previous rides. As I have asked before, what’s the point? Unless you’re completely in love with the car that you have been using, why would you want to choose an obsolete car over one that you have just unlocked? Strange logic.

Not to mention, racing is extremely easy. If you can manage to get a solid lead in front of your opponents, then it’s ridiculously simple to “dominate” the competition, meaning that you’ve gotten at least 20 seconds on them. You earn more driver points for this at the end of the race, and it’s almost certain that you will be awarded first place. There is virtually no challenge until you begin competing against later drivers, but who wants to play 4-5 hours before the game decides to toss in any real kind of challenge? This is in direct contrast to the last racer that I reviewed, Midnight Club: Los Angeles, where you were lucky to place in the top three. However, it’s best to find a good balance, something this game has obviously not done.

As you may have seen in its previews and trailers, Need for Speed Undercover features live action scenes in an attempt to break the monotony between races. While they’re crisp and easy on the eyes, the acting is horrible. It’s almost as if they took whoever they could find and threw them on set. They rarely move the story along in any significant way other than setting the stage for who you are going to race against next to take down, hence the “Undercover” part of the title. That’s the only real connection to being an undercover cop aside from the occasional in-game chase, though. That’s another real head-scratcher…you’d assume the game would be much more action-packed due to the nature of the storyline, but it isn’t.

As for the graphics, this is one of the most bland racers I’ve seen. Nondescript signs and buildings dot the landscape, and the cars don’t even look that great, to be honest. While they do their fair share of shining in the sunlight, they look nowhere as polished as what we’ve seen in Burnout or Midnight Club. It’s like looking at normal Halo 3 graphics after turning the Juicy filter off in the theater mode.

The only thing that the game contains that can semi-redeem itself is the fact that its sound effects are done nicely. They’re realistic, just the right volume, and go a long way to immerse you in the driving experience. However, unlike most other racers out right now, there is a dearth of good music tracks to groove to while burning up the streets, and that’s just lazy.

Need for Speed Undercover is underwhelming in most, if not all, aspects. It should really be your last choice when choosing between potential racers. It does not deliver on its promises, and to use an open world mechanic, you don’t do a whole heck of a lot within. My suggestion? Ditch Need for Speed right now and go back to Burnout Paradise if you want an example of what a real, explorable open world is.

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