Need for Speed Undercover (PC)
Who on earth is this terrible game supposed to be for? The target audience certainly isn't gamers with next-generation systems whose frame of reference will be titles like Burnout Paradise, MotorStorm and the superlative Midnight Club: Los Angeles. They'll laugh at the lifeless streets, bad driving, dated multiplatform graphics and pathetic attempt at a storyline in Need for Speed Undercover. Maybe it's for fans of car culture who've never seen a videogame. Those are pretty much the only people who won't be dismayed at having shelled out money to buy this sorry excuse for a multiplatform driving game.
Ready for its close-up
Undercover's angle is shallow enough that this one should skip right across the water into the bargain bins on the way to oblivion. You play a nameless and literally faceless protagonist working on behalf of minor celebrity Maggie Q. Miss Q, along with a pair of high heels and a tight dress suit, plays a law enforcement agent filmed with multiple cameras from laughably tight angles. Here is Maggie Q's eyebrow, here is her ankle, here is the back of her head, here is -- My god, what is that? Oh, it's her elbow -- here is the swoop of her waist, and now here's a race for you to drive.
There are also various "actors" (i.e., attractive people who may or may not be talented, but you'd never know given the material they're working from) playing the criminals, the corrupt former cop, the love interest, the rival and so on. If only "The Fast and the Furious" had known what it was going to get us into. A car culture yarn with Vin Diesel and Paul Walker seemed harmless enough at the time. At least Midnight Club: Los Angeles, which is like Robert Altman in comparison to Need for Speed Undercover, doesn?t take itself seriously.
"Yeah, yeah," you're saying, "but how's the driving, Tom? This isn't a movie, you know." To which I reply, yes, I know it's not a movie and you know it's not a movie, but someone should clue in EA. Tripe like this and Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3 are doing more to set back the viability of live-action footage than the entire decade of horrible FMV games in the 90s. If you're going to write a story, hire actors, and shoot footage, rise to the occasion. Quit it with this stuff in which the camera is the perspective of the mute protagonist (which is particularly tricky when you're shooting from three or four different camera angles). It barely works in a videogame, and it certainly doesn't work with live-action cut scenes. Either get some material to go with the resources you're squandering -- actors, sets, a willing audience -- or don't bother trying.
When the rubber hits the road
Okay, enough of that. You're here for the driving. Sadly, it isn't any better than the storytelling. Driving feels like it's on rails, scripted to go forward with no regard for any real-world dynamics that might get in the way. You get canned drifting, glancing blows instead of collisions, and no sense of weight. Most of the challenges are races of varying flavor, usually along unconvincing city streets. Circuit races travel along closed-off paths, sprints are more open affairs, and highway battles are challenges to navigate light traffic well enough to pull ahead of the competition. There are also police encounters that bring out the worst in Undercover, showcasing how poorly this world handles anything but moving forward unobstructed. Once suicidal police cars start trying to ram you, they might as well try to ram the game itself. The idea is that here, all the rules are suspended and road hell will be unleashed. But this game isn't in any state to unleash anything. It's too buttoned down by its own limits.
The graphics are terrible, with cars that mysteriously appear in the middle distance, either singly or in tiny groups. There's no sense of traffic beyond the occasional vehicle dropped in your way. This city is mostly a set of roads with a few rare shortcuts. Undercover carries over the "Pursuit Breaker" system, whereby you can drive through clearly labeled points to drop stuff onto the road, which magically disables nearby police cars. This is usually some sort of construction apparatus, and it invariably looks thin and contrived. You'd think EA used some 90s-era Tony Hawk engine.
However, the PC version at least has the advantage of higher resolutions over the console versions, so it looks sharper and even runs more smoothly. It has some frame rate hiccups, but they are nowhere near as bad as they are on the Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3. Using a keyboard to steer actually works pretty well.
Why we drive
The gameplay progression would be pretty good if it didn't force you to repeat races until you come in first place. You get absolutely nothing for not finishing first place in a race. This will mean a lot of grinding in the harder races until you can pay for the horsepower to brute-force your way through them. And some of the races, like the highway battles, have more to do with blind luck than skill. Will that bus jog left as you're trying to pass it? At least the artificial intelligence doesn't get an artificial speed boost to keep up with your car. Except for the supercops, the other drivers seem to play fair most of the time.
Every car in the Tri-City Bay has the "ND 4 SPD" license plate, which must make it tough for the cops.
Instead of focusing all the upgrades on the individual vehicles, your driver persona also upgrades as a set of skills (never mind that these skills are actually car parts). It seems a little silly to finish a race and be awarded +3% induction or +1% brakes, but as you accumulate enough improvements, it'll presumably be easier to beat the challenges that force you to use a specific car. Beat these challenges to move through the various milestones in the storyline, which include unlocking different regions around the Tri-City Bay. Yeah, it's called Tri-City Bay. The only more generic name for this unremarkable place would have been Generic City, USA. To its credit, it's big and wide-open from the very start, but there's no reason to go anywhere until you unlock the challenges specific to each area.
You'll also progress along a reputation system that determines when the storyline challenges will be available. You'll get reputation multipliers by building up an "In the Zone" meter when you drive with precision. Driving recklessly will build up "heat" for a particular car, which makes it more likely the police will chase you, forcing you into one of the "evade the cops" challenges. Since you can essentially teleport to any challenge, running into the cops on the open world is rarely an issue. However, as the game progresses and your heat level rises, the police will sometimes interfere during races. The idea is that heat will encourage you to switch cars from time to time, letting the heat die down on a particular vehicle. Alternatively, you can customize the appearance of a vehicle, essentially paying to reduce its heat. EA's "autosculpting" system lets you shape individual parts of a car, but it's hard to tell what's going on without tinkering with a bunch of slider bars and then applying the results before you even know how they'll look.
Multiplayer can be played online if you can find anyone else playing, but only by registering yourself for Electronic Arts' EA Nation. Furthermore, the game seems to require logging into EA Nation (you do have an account, don't you?), running PunkBuster in a DOS window in the background, and EA's dreaded SecuROM copy protection. While it might be tolerable with better games such as one of the Battlefield series, it's just adding insult to injury with a piece of forgettable fluff like this. This is a racing game about the lowest common denominator, in terms of technology, gameplay and storytelling. If you really must drive on a PC, you can do much better than this.
This review is based on a retail copy of the game provided by the publisher.