It’s easy to forget how long the Need for Speed series has been around. The original – our first taste of driving licensed exotica from the likes of Ferrari, Lamborghini and Dodge – existed in a world before Gran Turismo, at least five years before Midnight Club and when we were still playing the very first Ridge Racer. Over a dozen games and years later, it’s an achievement that EA Black Box (developers for the majority of the series) have managed to keep the desire to move around in a car quickly so stoked for so long.
Of course, it hasn’t been an easy life. The Underground years may have been hugely successful but now look tacky and unfashionable and as for ProStreet, well… EA’s attempts to keep up with the trends in modified car culture resulted in a disappointing change of direction that was as much fun as the driving laps of a car park. So, it seems obvious that the latest game should carry on where some of the best in the series – namely, Hot Pursuit 2 and Most Wanted – left off. However, unlike the previously mentioned games, NFS Undercover is different because you will get the opportunity to work for both sides of the law. As Maggie Q and Christinia Milian will inform you during the movie-style cutscenes, your position as a ‘wheelman’ requires you to infiltrate a car smuggling ring by convincing the bad guys you’re one of them.
In gameplay terms, this mean you’ll be taking part in the usual point-to-point and circuit battles to improve your status amongst the local street racers, as well as outrunning cops in ‘damage to the state’ missions. Your criminal activities will also include ‘theft and delivery’ jobs, where you’ll get the opportunity to sample some of the higher tiered cars early on. So far, so Most Wanted. However, as you’re really a cop, the tables will turn. Much like Burnout – and with a bit of a nod to old classic Chase HQ – you’ll be instructed to take down key members of the crime syndicate by literally smashing their cars to pieces.
That’s not to say that ProStreet has been completely overlooked; both the handling and damage model have evolved from it. So, some of the arcade powerslides of old have been replaced with a slightly more simulation approach with tangible understeer and oversteer noticeable in each of the cars. For the most part, Undercover is a successful return to form. But it feels like EA Black Box have taken away more than they have added. Okay, so the Hollywood cast and FMV sections give this NFS some real narrative substance and the action movie pace is maintained thanks to your ability to ‘quick jump’ to the nearest event on the map.
But it’s behind the wheel where it counts the most and the new grown up approach lacks some of the arcade lunacy that made Hot Pursuit 2 so enjoyable. Even the modifying sections (once a huge part of Need for Speed titles) have been reduced down to little more than a handful of tuning and styling options. And anyway, if it’s over-the-top motoring madness that you’re looking for, then you’ll find that Midnight Club: LA fulfills that need. Need for Speed Undercover, then, is attempting to look back while also moving forward. Black Box has taken little in the way of risks but it’s not faultless – the streets can feel quite empty (depending on race type) and the framerate can get a bit juddery. But you can’t say that EA hasn’t given us what we asked for.
Nov 17, 2008