This latest in EA’s undyingstreet racing series teaches us that there’s nothing that can’t be solved by high-speed racing. This is a crass game – which would be fine if it would admit it. It shares much with EA’s other recent star-studded sequel, Red Alert 3, in that it stuffs HD FMV between missions in order to add a story to its formulaic challenges. But while RA3 is chuckling along with us, NFSU is deadly serious.
Maggie Q headlines as the perma-sour superior officer, appearing in a sequence of lasciviously-filmed five-second cutscenes in which she drones at you to get deeper undercover. By racing, obviously. It’s trying to be The Fast and the Furious, but lacks the cheerfully mindless adrenaline of such cinematic horrors. There’s zero sense of narrative progression or of what repeatedly earning the trust of various stereotyped ne’er-do-wells is actually accomplishing – it’s just a token attempt to add context to performing endless minute variations on the same half-dozen race types.
The racing offers a far better time. It’s very much NFS sticking to its slowly drooping guns, but as a ‘plug yerself in and play’ arcade racer, it’s fine. It’s reasonably pretty, there are plenty of licensed cars (with damage modeling, a rarity for games featuring real-world cars) and braking is an option, not a necessity. This isn’t a simulation – it’s purely a brain-off muckabout.
It stumbles by setting its fairly undemanding races within a free-roaming city, which places it uncomfortably close to Burnout Paradise, also from EA. Whether its devs are simply less ambitious or it’s under a directive from on high not to stand on its cousin’s toes, this element is entirely meaningless. There aren’t many races to choose from, there’s no purpose to driving around beyond antagonizing the police – which is a necessary part of half the races anyway – and everything looks so similar. Like a Michael Bay film, it’s constantly sunrise and sunset simultaneously. You’ll have a bit of a free-roaming prat about once, but from then on you’ll just jump directly to whichever race most appeals, via the magic teleporting in-game map. After every few races, you’ll Level Up, which activates a cutscene ’n’ boss race to propel the paper-thin story onwards.
It’s also really tight with the cash that you’ll need to unlock new cars and upgrades, so you’ll spend a tortuously long time grinding through events with the same boring car. This is another reflection of NFSU’s most critical failing – it’s just not exciting. We think it knows it, too. That’s why it increasingly tries to throw more crap at you to create an artificial sense of adrenaline. The occasional stolen car delivery missions, for instance, escalate from having a timer hanging over you, to the timer and an order not to damage it too much, to the timer and an order not to damage it too much and cops on your tail, to the timer and an order not to damage it too much and cops on your tail and a helicopter hounding you... It’s always do-able, but it feels petty rather than exhilarating, simply making life difficult rather than really challenging you in a fun way.
Really, Undercover is exactly what anyone who’s watched from afar would guess that a Need for Speed game is like. It’s repetitive, it’s forgettable, it’s cynical and sweet Jeebus it’s dumb. It’s also kinda fun – but when GRID’s still flexing its manly muscles, that’s simply not enough.
Dec 4, 2008