The Need for Speed series has always been a huge franchise for EA, but it was only really when Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit 2 was released that the series started to become both critically and commercially well received. Since Hot Pursuit 2 EA Black Box has released the excellent Need for Speed Most Wanted, the conversative Need for Speed Carbon and the disappointing Need for Speed ProStreet. Well, here we are another year later and with plenty of competition EA Black Box has a lot to live up to. So does Need for Speed Undercover deliver or has it been pipped at the finish line?
Need for Speed Undercover scraps everything that EA Black Box did last year with Need for Speed ProStreet and returns to the Need for Speed Most Wanted days. Speedbreakers are back and most importantly for Need for Speed fans, the cops are back as well. The 'hook' for Need for Speed Undercover is the fully fledged story mode. This 'interactive experience' simply consists of a few corny B grade cut scenes, mixed in with the usual formula where you need to win races to progress up in ranks and earn new cars. This story mode unfortunately under delivers and the single player experience winds up feeling rather similiar to Most Wanted's..
The entire game is set in the fictitious city of the Tri-City Bay area. You'll start off with an average car, but as you win races you'll earn pink slips, as well as the ability to customise your car. The autosculpt feature from previous Need for Speed games is back, but customising your ride doesn't make too much of a difference this time. As with every Need for Speed game there is a large variety of cars to unlock from manufacturers such as Nissan, Dodge, Cadillac, Lamborghini, BMW, Aston Martin, Mitsubishi, Ford and Porsche.
The strength of the story mode is the large variety of challenges. As you drive around the Tri-City Bay area you'll come across new challenges, some of them are basic, like races or dashes from the cops, but other challenges such as one where you need to cause as much damage to the city as you can, are enjoyable and a little bit unique. Those who enjoyed the drag races from Need for Speed Underground will be disappointed to know that they aren't in Need for Speed Underground at all.
The game also includes online support and the highlight of the online package is the cops and robbers mode, where a player assumes the role of a robber and the other player tries to hunt down the robber. It's a lot of fun and Undercover should have a great lifespan when it comes to online play.
On paper Undercover sounds like a faithful and enjoyable addition to the Need for Speed series, but this unfortunately couldn't be further from the truth. It is the frame rate which really becomes a huge problem on the PlayStation 3. At times the game can slow down for five to seven seconds at a time, which can automatically throw you off the race and can cause some big accidents. It's absolutely unforgivable and very surprising, considering Need for Speed Carbon had no such slowdowns on the PlayStation 3 and Carbon City is about the size of the Tri-City Bay area. The frame rate is detrimental enough to the game that it takes away any enjoyment that Undercover provides. The graphics aren't anything special either and the entire city looks like it has been coated with a blue tint, ala Burnout Paradise. While the frame rate on the Xbox 360 version is better, anyone who enjoys becoming involved in lengthy cops and robber chases and taking down the pursuit vehicles will unfortunately have to experience some slowdown.
The difficulty level for the game has also been toned down. Within 2 hours of playing the game we had won every race that we participated in (by a very long margin) and completed nearly 25% of the story mode. While we understand that Need for Speed is a franchise that appeals to a casual market, we don't understand why the difficulty level has been toned down just so much. Evading the cops seems so much easier than in previous Need for Speed games and it takes quite a while for the game to actually become challenging. Anyone who has completed or played through a decent amount of the previous Need for Speed games will have no issues at all in completing this game.
Overall it is hard not to be left feeling disappointed by Need for Speed Undercover. The cheesy story is just boring and while the career mode is adequete the game barely presents any challenge at all and the frame rate issues are quite simply unforgivable. The game is very similar to Most Wanted, but with some severe issues, anyone who has even a passing interest in the game should simply return to Need for Speed Most Wanted.
The success of the Need for Speed series dictates that we will probably see a new title in the franchise every year. Last year EA Black Box learnt from their mistakes and we can simply hope that this year they do the same, but as it stands, Need for Speed Undercover isn't pipped at the line by the dozens of other arcade racers out there, it simply cannot even compete.