Aug 15

Written by: Thryon
8/15/2009 1:22 AM  RssIcon

Box Art
52 Weeks of Canadian Gaming - Week 32
Need for Speed Undercover
Release Date: November 18, 2008
Developer: EA Black Box
ESRB Rating: Teen
Reviewed by: Brian Wray
There is really nothing quite as fun as a good racing game. I have loved the genre since the days of Pole Position (back in 1982 for those too young to remember). A name synonymous with racing games is Need for Speed. Each time I pick up the newest title in the Need for Speed series of racing games, it brings back memories of all the great times I’ve had racing against my friends. We would all gather around our gaming machines with our eyes glued to the screen in front of us, hands firmly gripping our racing wheels (we were competitive racers after all) as we battled for road supremacy by manoeuvring around tight bends and hairpin turns, trying desperately not to crash just before we reach an open stretch of road allowing us to just press down on the gas pedal and enjoy the feeling of the need for speed washing over us. Unfortunately those memories are from playing Need for Speed II SE, a game with that special magic that EA has yet to recapture. Indeed each time I pick up a new Need for Speed title I always hope that this time they will get it right. Did they?

It did not take long for me to drop all semblance of hope that this title would be anything other than the same recycled gameplay that EA has churned out for the past decade. The game started on the right foot beginning with a great cinematic that transitioned seamlessly into gameplay. Once I took control of the vehicle, the first order of business was to evade the cops…..what again? OK, I’ve had to outrun them many times before, what is once more for good measure. The chase is on. I pull out a few artful driving moves of my own creation (patent pending) and quickly outpace the filth. Good riddance! Now on to the game….oh no, my biggest fear came to fruition as the game suddenly slowed down allowing the camera to pan over and focus on a few squad cars ahead of me blocking my escape route. I must have driven so fast that I somehow created a wormhole that destroyed the fine balance between realities and somehow warped me back in time into Need for Speed Most Wanted.

Undercover does borrow a lot from Most Wanted. The plot in Undercover is that our hero must impress a bunch of hipsters (with more money than brains) that he can drive really really fast. The twist is that our hero is actually an undercover operative (bet you never saw that one before). Other elements that have been recycled from Most Wanted are the police chases, the speedbreakers, pursuit breakers, cooldown period and even the T-Mobile is back. The similarities with Most Wanted go beyond gameplay elements. Visually the two games look very similar as well. Undercover takes in a large open city and this time open actually means open. The entire city is completely open to exploration from the first time you take control of the game. The city is divided into four large distinct areas offering plenty of beautiful scenery to enjoy. The only issue is that the scenery was very familiar. Even on my first drive through the game area, I found myself knowing already the location of specific streets and shortcuts. It would appear that EA Black Bock pulled a Garfield and simply cut & pasted a large chuck of Most Wanted into Undercover. Is this not supposed to be a new city? I guess they could simply explain that both cities must have hired the same urban planner.
Screenshot
(Click for larger image)
The decision to re-skin Most Wanted must have been a cost saving measure as EA must have forked out a small fortune to have “stars” Christina Milian, Maggie Q, Lawrence Adisa and Joshua Alba (who’s claim to fame is his very famous and gorgeous older sister) appear in the cut-scene videos. I do have to admit, the videos were entertaining…at first. By the time the third video sequence started, I was pounding on my controller looking for the skip button (which I never did find). At least the acting is quite good, even if incredibly predictable.

I cannot say that Undercover is a simple Most Wanted clone. The game does introduce a few interesting new concepts, one of which is upgradeable skills. As the story progresses and missions have been completed, our hero driver will gain skill points that will enhance his driving skills. This is a very interesting idea that EA did not go far enough with it. The increase in stats is added automatically to a specific skill. I would have preferred that the developers allowed the player to choose the skill to improve based on their driving habits. This would have added a very cool role playing game element to the title. The way it is currently implemented in the game makes me feel that my driver was somehow stunted at the beginning of the game. Still the idea is very intriguing and one that I do hope EA would explore a bit more. I would love to play an actual RPG/driving game? How about it EA?

I am not sure why they opted to return to the Most Wanted formula. Most Wanted was fun for about half the game before the relentless police chases become tiresome and boring. The concept was fully explored even before Carbon was released rendering the release of that game completely pointless. ProStreet in my opinion was a breath of fresh air with its closed tracks that really emphasized driving skills over memorizing possible escape locations. The game had its faults, but the premise should have been explored a bit more instead of returning to more police chases. Undercover did inherit some of the cooler features from ProStreet. First and most importantly is the ability to fine tune cars before races. Is the next race filled with curves? Maybe a stiffer suspension would be in order. Do not think that Need for Speed has gone Forza or Gran Turismo, this is tweaking at its simplest form. Another element that was ported over was the damage system. There is still no way to really render a car inoperable as the damage system has been reduced to a mere cosmetic deterrent. Only in specific modes does damage affect the outcome of a mission, but never the performance of the vehicle itself. So you lost control of your vehicle, crashed into a series of light poles & mailboxes then got side swiped by a large truck and flung head first into a concrete pillar? Do not despair, just hit reverse and be on your cheerful way.

Another downfall of the game is the controls. The controls in Need for Speed Undercover are not bad, but they are far from great. Maybe it’s not really the controls at fault, maybe it’s the poor physics engine that causes all cars in the game to handle so poorly. I first attempted to play the game using my wireless racing wheel. After a few races I gave up in frustration. The game was designed for a gamepad and not the wheel. Controlling the car with the wheel is like trying to control a bowl full of jello while playing ice hockey. Not a pretty picture. The addition of the ability to tweak cars before races did help create a car that could be controlled effective with the gamepad, but I could never get a good feel with the wheel. Another issue with using the wheel was that the game did not offer any form of in-car view, my preferent view style when playing with the wheel. Sure there is a hood view, but this does little to assist in lining-up for a potential tight squeeze.
Screenshot
(Click for larger image)
Maybe I am not being fair towards the game as Undercover is technically not a real racing game. The game is made up of a series of evens and racing is just an event in a series of events that includes delivering stolen cars, wasting tax payers’ money by initiating police chases, driving from checkpoint to checkpoint as quickly as possible and other similar driving but not racing related tasks. This may appear foolish as first, but these juvenile events are required to take down the illegal smuggling operation. Heck EA Black Box should have called EA Montréal and just borrows Salem and Rios and cleared out this entire mess in about 15 minutes without all the need of wasted fuel or burnt rubber.

I will not say that everything is bad with the game. I did like the fact that you needed not drive around the city looking for events. Black Box was nice enough to include a shortcut that allowed gamers to jump directly into events indifferent of their location on the map. As I indicated previously, the city is quite large so all this extra driving would become monotonous after a few events.

Once the main story mode has been completed, or more likely abandoned, there is still plenty of horse power to keep gamers interested via online gameplay. In Undercover, gamers can join a flock of friends and race till someone wins, then race some more. One caveat though, gamers will need to ensure they bring their own flock as there are few racers online anymore to compete against.

When will EA learn that racing games should be about racing? They need only take a quick look at some of the most popular racing franchises available such as Project Gotham Racing, Forza Motorsport, Gran Turismo or even Mario Kart. None of these games feature elaborate storylines, gimmicky police chases or cheesy acting. What they do offer is an incredible racing experience. The reason I have such fond memories of Need for Speed II SE is that the game was about racing plain and simple. No cops. No traffic. No nonsense. I am saddened that EA Black Box is no longer developing games for the series, but maybe this was a required change that will allow the new developers to bring the franchise back to its former glory. I know that on come this November, I will be once again heading towards the cash register, a copy of Need for Speed Shift in hand while remembering the good old days. Time for an Internet petition for EA to bring Need for Speed II SE to the XBLA (make it happen folks).
--Brian Wray

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