Need for Speed has been around for a long time. Since 1994 to be precise, with more iterations than you can shake a stick at.
A total of eleven Need for Speed’s have now come and gone, and it is with fondness that we think back to the early days of the series, when it became one of the top arcade racing titles available. Need for Speed even set the bar back in the day, including an open world and diverse body customisation in Need for Speed: Underground.
Unfortunately, since the success of Underground, the shift to next gen consoles has been somewhat less stellar. Has the ultimate Need for Speed finally arrived in the next gen with this latest iteration?
The game starts out in a fictional metropolis called Tri-City. You play an undercover cop who is attempting to infiltrate an illegal car smuggling syndicate. The story is presented to you in a number of live action cutscenes and this gives the game a gritty feel and seem of reasonably high quality, although the acting is hardly Oscar material. Many of them do seem a little too short, providing often only titbits of story between the racing, but they do make you feel inclusive. The game starts out with you running from the police (which is something you will be doing often, as you are after all undercover). Once having successfully made the escape the city is opened to you, and it is a massive world.
All the more unfortunate then, that as the game is explained to you in the early stages you are shown that by pressing down on the D-Pad you can automatically jump into the closest race, or by pressing "up" get onto the GPS and again jump instantly to a race of your choosing. This takes the emphasis away from the open free-roaming world and makes it relatively pointless, as it is far simpler to simply jump to the races.
Although you won’t miss much by doing this, as the world that EA have created is relatively dull in light of what other similar titles recently have produced. The environment looks and feels bland. The graphics look good enough, but the city lacks any vibrancy or flavour as you would expect from any metropolis.
There are no pedestrians and there are virtually no other cars on the road, which really makes you wonder if anyone really lives in this city. Not to mention that most surfaces in the game have too much glare, to the point that it can really strain your eyes and you may soon be reaching for the brightness settings. The cars themselves though look quite impressive, with some pretty smooth looking curves, although its nothing that similar titles don’t also do equally well, if not better. The race transitions - rife with loading screens on top of simply pressing the D-Pad - manage to break any immersion you might have accumulated thus far, and really, the game may as well be a number of circuits strung together. The only time that the open world is really used is when you are running from the cops.
Need for Speed: Undercover displays a shocking frame-rate for the majority of the racing. There are moments where it is fine, but if there are any competitors cars around you bumping into each other the game slows down considerably making the car very difficult to handle, and really damaging any sense of speed the game tries to convey. This may be because of the damage system EA have implemented that allows parts to fly off the cars, and the game seems to struggle when this happens, but as we know all too well, racing titles need to be silky smooth to convey a good sense of speed, and when this doesn’t happen it really is a game breaker. It doesn’t help then that the controls seem quite loose rather than tight and precise, and when the game is dropping frames here and there you will struggle to hold the car on the road.
Most races are on cordoned off streets so that you can’t make a wrong turn, although traffic will pass through these barriers unimpeded, which simply looks odd. It seems that EA want to make everything accessible, but as it is, the game is simply too easy and most of the races you will win without much of a challenge. The game will give you a number of ‘jobs’ to complete, basically to increase your rep and to get close to the bosses of the individual syndicates so as to be able to take down their boss. These include delivering a stolen car, making a getaway, or some kind of boss chasedown which generally involves you using your car to take down the boss before the crews take you down. Then there are other races, highway battle, sprint, circuit, outrun, and checkpoint. Most of these are pretty self-explanatory and lacking any real innovation. The most exciting one is probably highway battle where you have to beat another racer down a main arterial highway whilst darting between traffic, and this is occasionally a bit prickly.
Need for Speed: Undercover features the Heroic Driving Engine. This will reward you for pulling risky manoeuvres, and these rewards will give you a boost to your nitrous. It will also give you something called "speedbreaker", which slows time briefly and allows you to dart between small gaps, or through police barricades without totalling your car. Breaking police barricades is going to be something you will have to do reasonably often, as EA have done a good job at bringing cops into the equation. Even here you will have missions, with such events as cop take-out, cost to state, and escape.
Cop take-out will require you to total a number of cop cars, using any means necessary. In this mode, there are pursuit breakers littered around which (for example) may involve kicking out some steel piping used to retain logs, allowing them to wipe out any cop cars on your tail. These are fun to hit, and we spent a considerable amount of our time simply taking cops out in this fashion.
Cost to state is another fun mode, which requires you to do a certain amount of damage by taking out cops and any fixtures you find around the city, but the bland maps and relatively empty environments don’t make this particularly easy on you.
Dominating a race, which involves completing it under a certain time will mean you will unlock Driver Upgrades, which gives any vehicle you race a slight edge in a number of different categories. Similarly, doing damage around the world will result in your wanted level increasing, and the more it increases the more unlocks become available for your car at the shop. At the shop you can buy a number of different performance upgrades, and also change a considerable number of things appearance-wise making the cars very customisable. It's all relatively simple though, so if you're new to car tuning there is no need to worry, and the difficulty curve means you won’t be punished for getting it wrong.
As you win races you will gain access to better parts, and also new cars which will be available from various shops. These are accessed from different regions around the world, reflecting the sort of cars that are available in those countries, from Nissan, Jaguar, Pontiac, Toyota, Porsche, Audi, Ford and several more. There are enough cars to satisfy most preferences.
The AI for both cops and other racers is average at best. The cops will ram you when they get the chance, implementing the infamous PIT manoeuvre, but they really don’t feel very intelligent, not ever doing much more than giving you a bump. The inclusion of some decent police chatter helps though, with the reports fitting your behaviour very accurately, and giving you audio feedback on their actions. The AI competitors don’t do anything amazing either, they seem to just chug along and react reasonably well to the oncoming traffic, doing a believable job and making occasional mistakes along the way. But combined with the way the tracks are laid out, they don’t provide any real challenge.
The multiplayer is the answer though, human opponents are certainly a fair bit more challenging. Three game modes are available to you here, circuit and sprint races, and then cops n’ robbers which was actually a real surprise. The other two modes are as expected, although online the handling feels somewhat unpredictable and lag was noticeable, although our connection was showing as good. But cops n’ robbers is fun, regardless. A small portion of the map is cordoned off, and the game pits two cops against two robbers. The aim of the robbers is to pick up some cash and drop it off. The aim of the cops is to prevent them dropping it off by ramming them off the road. This works much like tag team with two cars working together constantly to keep the others away. In the games we played, one person would usually act to ram the cops out of the way of the car that was transporting the gold, which was quite fun and would definitely provide for some laughs particularly with some friends. Other than this though, the online mode is nothing special.
Need for Speed: Undercover is an uninspiring arcade racing experience. The loading screens between races continually eat away at your attention span, and the quick travel really fails to give you a sense of being part of a real world. Although with the number of problems, the lack of any really distinguishing or stunning features, and the easy difficulty level there is no reason why one would choose this over the plethora of other racing titles available.
If you’ve played them all, and you need something new, there’s no reason why you won’t get some fun out of Need for Speed: Undercover, but it certainly won’t be winning any awards. Certainly not one of the series' strongest performances.