Having realised that Carbon was a little bit rubbish, and ProStreet was an aquired taste that wasn’t really in keeping with the Need for Speed’s demographic of mod-hungry Supra drivers, EA have gone back to what was the best in the recent games: Most Wanted. Bringing back the flashing blue-lights of the fictional city’s Police force was a bright idea and clearly Black Box have been playing a little Burnout since the last in the series given the sun-bleached, Paradise-like 160km of road you’re free to drive around.
As ever, this latest Need for Speed-er is a petrolhead’s wet dream. The introduction throws you right into the driver’s seat of a souped-up 350Z, and from there even the basic cars pack some serious punch, with the upgrade path to a sporty Elise barely 15 minutes into the game via a generous pink-slip arrangement. The premise is the usual hocum, although this time the cut-scenes are entirely FMV with apparently famous actors, although what they’re doing here, against seedy lighting and smoke-filled offices, is barely acting.
Regardless. The movie sections are a means to an end, a big HD arrow pointing you, the undercover cop, to your next objective. It’s closer to the first The Fast and The Furious movie than EA have been before, with similar twists and the same route up through the ranks to the top racers in the city, who are naturally involved with all kinds of nefarious, no-good antics such as car smuggling and dodgy haircuts. Your GPS points you to the next location, but a tap of the d-pad transports you instantly to the nearest race if you can’t be bothered driving there.
Around the city’s districts are a few hidden shops, both performance-wise and also for visual modifications. Although you’re free to pause the game at any time (if you’re not currently racing, obviously) and change, boost, swap and mod your car in the garage, if you’ve not found the required shop in the map you can’t make the modification. That is, unless you pay. Real money. Yes, EA have introduced an in-game system whereby if you can’t be bothered to wait until you level up, or find the right location on the map, you can use your real, hard earned cash. A quick tally suggests there’s £35 worth of upgrades to be had, and you can even leapfrog the difficulty curve and buy the top-end cars.
This, in our opinion, stinks. Sure, you’re not forced to do this, but sudden spikes in the AI’s ability suggest that a few quid to jump to a Skyline wouldn’t be money badly spent. Whether or not you oppose this type of in-game progression is entirely up to you, but we’d imagine that if you’re the sort of person that can happily spend £3.99 on a virtual t-shirt in this time of recession and uncertainty then surely a similar amount to unlock a few high-end cars wouldn’t be an issue. Again, it’s entirely optional, but the way it’s presented doesn’t sit well with us.
And our problems with the game don’t end there. Although the vehicles in the game looking absolutely stunning (seriously, better than Gran Turisimo 5 Prologue) with some gorgeous lighting effects and beautiful environments, the game runs like a dog. It’s roughly 30FPS, but even in the very first intro the game manages to drop to single figure frame rates seemingly at random. This can occur at any point in any race, and doesn’t seem to be restricted to a specific camera view or even the number of racers on screen, and does indeed ruin the game’s sense of speed and makes handling the cars considerably trickier than it should.
And yeah, there’s also the handling. Whether it’s the huge understeer, the ridiculous deadzone on the analog sticks or the floaty physics we’re not sure, but bundled altogether even the usually reliable motors like the Lotus drive like shopping trollies. Granted, we seldom take 90 degree corners at 80MPH in real life, but when you’re resorting to pinging off barriers and other cars because the brakes don’t work and the handbrake acts like a magnet to the nearest wall, races just aren’t really all that fun. Combine all this with rubberbanding AI like you’ve never seen before, and, well, it’s hard to recommend.
If EA can patch the framerate issues and tweak the handling, Undercover could be a great game. The map is massive, the range of cars superb and when not in motion the visuals are breathtaking, and the game sports a massive array of online modes in which fans will find much to enjoy. The game’s problems, however, outweigh anything it has going for it because they’re essentially game-breaking. Whether the game was rushed at the end to make the usual November release-spot we don’t know, but as it stands this is absolutely only for the hardcore Need for Speed fans prepared to look past the issues. Everyone else should look for either EA’s own Burnout Paradise or Rockstar’s Midnight Club: LA for their arcade racing action.