Name: Need for Speed Undercover
Platform: Xbox 360, PS3, PS2, PSP, Wii, PC, DS (Reviewed on Xbox 360)
I don’t really consider myself a huge fan of racing games. To be clear, this doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy them, because I have for most of my life. Not the humorless simulation racers, though—I like racing games arcade-style, ones that encourage you to crash and make completely unrealistic jumps and turns. In other words, I like racing games that don’t take themselves too seriously, which is why the Need for Speed series is one I enjoy. I’ve just never been one to get excited about the release of any racing game, because few of them have been engaging enough to keep me interested for more than a brief period of time. The last one I really got into was Need for Speed Most Wanted, which was a 360 launch title, and I hoped that Undercover would be even better. Unfortunately, it didn’t quite live up to expectations.
It’s clear right from the start that Undercover is very much like Most Wanted, which was notorious for law-breaking and police chases. In Undercover, you take the role of an undercover police officer (I know, you never would have expected that) trying to infiltrate a gang of street racers. Honestly, the story is one of the weakest parts of this game, and the cheesy live-action cut scenes filled with generic characters don’t do much to help this. I found myself turning the sound down, since I couldn’t skip most of the scenes, and waiting for the plot parts to be over so I could get back to racing.
The actual races are the game’s high point, which is good, because that’s what gamers want from a racing title. The controls are simple but intuitive, and it will only take a few moments for you to get acclimated to them. In addition to racing game standards like changing camera views and nitrous speed boosts, you can also slow down time for a few seconds by hitting the X button, which is fantastic for making tight turns and otherwise-impossible 180-degree spins. There are also several different types of race modes, which range from your standard checkpoint and sprint matches to speeding down a highway in attempts to stay in the lead for one minute or get ahead by 1000 feet.
In addition to straightforward races, there are also some different driving missions that range from very entertaining to kind of repetitive. Attempting to rack up a certain amount of monetary damage, take out cop cars, or run from the law is always fun, although it’s sometimes a little too easy to escape the police; after a certain amount of time, they seem to just disappear. There are also some assignments that feel like they’re ripped directly out of the Grand Theft Auto series, which isn’t necessarily a good thing. If I wanted to do three straight “get a car to a chop shop” missions, I would just play GTA IV; I came to Undercover to drive fast, not cautiously follow a yellow line on a GPS to deliver stolen goods.
There is a lot to do in Undercover, but much of it involves doing the same types of missions over and over again in different areas of the map. There are four boroughs of the Tri-City area to unlock and explore, as well as different shops to buy and upgrade cars. You can either work on boosting stats individually, or, if you’re impatient like me, just get an upgrade package and get back on the road. It’s always easy to find a nearby race or assignment by simply pushing a button on the D-pad, but you can see everything that’s available by checking your map and selecting a mission elsewhere in Tri-City.
Graphically, the cars and environments look good, but not great. I never found myself disgusted by the way the game looks, but I was never exactly overwhelmed, either. Honestly, most of the time you’ll be so busy focusing on the race that you won’t even notice what you’re passing by. Like I said before, there are live-action cut scenes and an extensive soundtrack, but I didn’t find it anything to get excited about. This is one of those games that will probably make you want to mute the TV and put on your own music.
The main problem with Need for Speed Undercover is that even though it is a lot of fun, it’s just not compelling or interesting enough to keep you coming back for more. While playing, I kept thinking, “Man, this would be a perfect weekend rental or budget title”, but I never thought about dropping $60 to get it new. Actually, I did consider picking up Need for Speed Most Wanted instead, because it would probably be just as satisfying. While Undercover does many things right, it doesn’t do enough to differentiate itself from other solid racing games, and ultimately, it doesn’t warrant a buy in this overwhelmingly crowded holiday season.