Need for Speed Undercover Review
A significant step down for the racing franchise
There are three types of people who will want to play Need for Speed Undercover: NFS fans, driving fans, and people who are just looking to get into the franchise. Of the above, I feel sorry for the poor souls (mostly the NFS fans) who get this game ignoring the warnings from the community - this review is for you, so I'm not going to go into detail about what the game is (arcade driving) or where it comes from. But let me say - This game is poor. There is no going around it. The game was reviewed on my fast system (Q6600, 8800GTX, 4GB ram), with all settings maxed out.
Being an Avid NFS Fan myself (having played through and finished all previous NFS games, especially the classics of the pre-Underground era) I was looking forward to this game. Sure, EA may be pumping out a new game every year, but hey at least it's passable. I was severely disappointed with last year's ProStreet, and wasted no time giving it the title of the worst game in the franchise. Well, much to my disappointment, along came Undercover and did the impossible - it was even worse. As I tried to ignore the negative hype, I picked up a copy to see it for myself and... decided to write this review so that you may not repeat my mistake. If you're more of a numbers person, skip down to the end to see my scores for the game. And so we begin...
Here is where things really go downhill. The graphics engine in Undercover is absolutely horrendous. The technical issues are endless. Words really cannot describe the poor quality of the visuals found here. And this is surprising, more than anything, because it actually looks almost as poor as Underground does by today's (and even ProStreet's) standards. It seems alot of work went into.. downgrading the graphics engine. The shadows look completely rough, the vehicles look barely ok in closeup. The streets and cars have a very strange blight glare to them, even in the shadows of the buildings. The cities themselves look ok. Granted, there is not any way to look up when you are close by, so all you can do is see the high rises from the distance. Speaking of the draw distance, it is extremely poor. You will see buildings, cars, and street signs appear as you turn the corner as if the engine can't keep up with your driving speed. The sun is just strange, it literally flies across the sky in some areas for no apparent reason. And as you approach the same corners in your next lap, you will once again see it fly across the sky. You will also notice shadows move as you drive, and their speed is dependent on yours. To conclude, this is the worst looking NFS game in a long time, and it's one of the worst looking games of the year. The menus look ok, there is no main menu to speak of. After loading the game, you are in the car right away and need to hit ESC to get your garage and gameplay options.
The sound is passable, the engines sound ok and tires squeel. But they lack the quality of previous NFS games, even the oft-mentioned Most Wanted had a better sound feel to each different car than Undercover does. The soundtrack is entirely forgettable, and only acts as background noise. The music during cutscenes is either non-existent, or filled with rap from the cars of the "hip crowd" you are about to race.
The characters are poorly developed. You are not given a name, or any kind of a back story. Just that you were chosen to go undercover and break up a drug trade operation by racing (how that works is beyond me). A few hours in you find out that your name is Zack (I think) by some guy yelling at you via cellphone call. The much-anticipated live cutscenes fall very flat, you get about 10 seconds of loading, a 5 second cutscene with Maggie Q saying "Good job" or "Keep winning, they will find you" and another loading time back into the streets. Its a waste, it's too short, and it doesn't work (she would be better off telling you these things via in-game audio). The acting is sub-par, and it's hard to tell anyway because of the extremely short length of the scenes. The scenes do look all Hollywood style, with quick cuts and never showing you the complete picture, but it gets annoying more than anything to keep staring at Maggie's cheeks or lips. Half the cutscenes you don't even know if you are being spoken to in person, or just being shown a story-progressing third person show. As I mentioned, the story is sub-par and very poorly told so most of the twists will just confuse you, rather than surprise you. The ending is the usual grand chase you expect from NFS series.
The game comes with an admirably lengthy campaign, but you've seen and done this all before in previous NFS games. A variety of races to choose from at any point in time, such as circuit, sprint, and the new highway and freestyle battles. In Highway chase, you and another opponent square off down a very long highway trying to stay in the lead for 1 minute, or to break away from your opponent by a certain distance. This is usually won by the clock, as your opponent actually does fairly well not to hit traffic and to keep up with you. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about the Freestyle battle mode. Here, the concept is the same, except the leader of the race gets to choose where to go. The AI will keep driving fairly straight forward when it's in the lead, however, the moment you take the lead and take a few quick turns, the AI is bound to hit the wall and you are left cruising at your leisure, watching the clock run down. It's a good mode in theory, but the AI is too poorly scripted for it to work once the player takes the lead and can set the course of the race.
The online mode features the new Cops and Robbers mode, where the robbers need to get away from the cop players and deliver money to a location. The robbers have a good advantage as it's easier to run than to chase, but you get to play both sides in a match. The lobby system works Ok, but it's pretty dead and I doubt it will gain many players.
In terms of the actual driving, EA seemed to have realized their mistake with the terrible sim attempt in ProStreet, so they went back to more arcade driving. The cars handle Ok for the most part, but there is still way too much sliding even if you set your suspension and tires to 100% grip. This is partly because of the new engine code which allows you to do fancy 180-degree turns at high speeds. It works a little to your advantage during cop chases, but not in real racing. The physics are mostly unchanged from previous games, and objects will break/bend as you crash through. A change that was adapted from ProStreet is the damage model, but do not be afraid, it's purely visual and there is no performance changes to your car as you smash it into a pulp. A weird design choice is to let your car get smashed up during races and cop chases, but as soon as you evade the cops/win the race, your car is instantly repaired.
Ah yes, we've come to the main part. Congrats if you are still reading, I am seriously impressed that someone still wants to know just how poor this game is. As mentioned above, the driving is ok, it's pretty much a copy of what Most Wanted did. The controls are fairly sharp but the serious understeer can be annoying on some vehicles. You start with the trademark getaway race in a good car, but after you escape you are thrown back on the street in a clunker (which you don't even get to pick) and told to drive. The garage menu is lacking any presentation, your car seems to be sitting in an empty black room with little light. You are not told when new parts or cars unlock, you just have to keep checking back to see if you have anything to buy or upgrade.
Speaking of cars... there is a nice variety of them, but for one reason or another they aren't sorted according to Tier, so you end up scrolling through a list of locked cars just to see what you can buy. The stats are WAY off on some vehicles, so I keep wondering what EA did to the usual NFS team who had it right. They put a Lotus Elise into Tier 4, the lowest tier, and gave it the same top speed stat as a Volkswagen GTI hatchback and the Toyota Supra... If you know nothing about cars (if that's the case, why are you still reading?? Just don't play this game) then you should know that Lotus should up there with the Ferraris and Porshes. Not cheap Japanese imports. And again, all they had to do was copy Most Wanted, but they decided to shuffle the cars into tiers and nobody double checked the results it seems.
The customization is back, with the trademark FreeSclupt mode which lets you completely customize even after-market parts. However, the selection is less than ProStreet, and there is no impact on your car's stats. Which may seem disappointing now that we've seen it in ProStreet, where certain parts gave you realistic aerodynamic advantage and increased your stats in various ways. Even the customization is frustrating, because for some reason you cannot hover 360 degrees around your car with the camera.... you are limited to 200 degrees or so from the default view. To see the back or the other side of your car, you need to go into a customization options, such as choosing a spoiler, and the camera will finally swing back. But from there, you are now again limited to 200 degrees, this time from the rear of your vehicle...
One new feature related to stats is the Driver Skills. Apparently, as you win races you get bonuses in various areas, which then translate to whatever car you drive. It seems reduntant, as the stats categories given to you are identical to what the cars have. Not to mention you can't even choose what stats you increase after the win, they are assigned randomly as far as I can tell.
The game is easy. I know this is coming from a veteran of the series, and I'm pretty good on the sim side as well (GTR2, rFactor), but it just feels wrong to lead by 10 seconds on the first lap. If fans were complaining about difficulty, EA, why not just bring back the sliders from Underground or something? I have literally won each race I attempted on my first try, and 95% of them I "dominated" according to the game. It made me try and crash on purpose to give the AI a chance. Speaking of AI, it's pretty straightforward, same as previous games. If you get in the way, they hit the brakes and keep on your tail. If you try to push them over the road, you'll end up spinning out as your opponents seem to be driving tanks. But even if you do spin out... expect to see yourself in the #1 spot again in the same place by the next lap.
The usual transparent barriers that designate the tracks are gone, replace by actual yellow arrow blocks. Sure, this works I guess... except wouldn't you think cops would notice that there are some yellow bricks blocking major highways? And not to mention the civilian cars... it looked perfectly normal for them to drive through the invisible barriers in previous games - it wasn't realistic, but it's a game after all. Here, they are now driving through the solid yellow blocks and it looks ridiculous.
NFS Undercover is a flop. It is a poor game. Poorly presented, poorly executed, and looks even worse. The technology here should be barely out of alpha, not a finished product. The much-hyped live action falls completely flat and fails to impress due to its shortness and lack of storytelling ability. The game plays ok, which is not to say it's bad, but it's time to try something new. The game also suffers from many technical and gameplay issues that seem to appear out of nowhere following (now not-so-bad) ProStreet and previous games. This is not Most Wanted 1.5 folks. This game should have been a poor prequel to Most Wanted. It is the worst in the series of post-Underground NFS, and I wish everyone, hardcore NFS buffs included, would avoid this title.