The narrative attempts of the Need For Speed titles have always felt a little unnecessary. In general, the racing genre doesn’t require any plot to make racing fans want to drive. But for the past several years, Need for Speed titles have been clearly influenced by The Fast and the Furious films, and as such, it is not surprising that similar story elements have made their way in. This is not inherently bad. However, the execution of these elements in Need For Speed Undercover is particularly lackluster. Leaping over the uncanny valley direct to live action territory gives the the cutscenes a distinctly campy quality, making it difficult to feel invested in either the plot or your character.
It’s not as though that should necessarily matter, of course. For games like this, it’s all about the driving. Much can be forgiven in the face of solid and fun core driving mechanics. Arcade-inspired racing physics can be intensely fun, and in fact they seem to be the bread and butter of the Need For Speed franchise. But in Undercover, the AI implementation and relative speed of your car versus the opposition in some of the events serve to make parts of the game far too mindlessly easy.
There are certainly a number of things that Undercover does well. The Cops ‘n Robbers online mode is certainly fun, if not entirely original. The overall sense of speed delivered by the game can make it quite a visceral experience as well. Further, the actual driving mechanics are well-realized. Unfortunately, Underground makes a number of missteps. While some, like the previously mentioned easy difficulty and poorly realized cutscenes, are a function of developer choice, others seem to have been due solely to a lack of testing and polish. The reviewed PS3 version had frequent framerate and clipping issues that make it feel as though it was rushed to market. The fact that the game is being released for an amazing ten distinct systems indicates how hard EA is pushing the title, and as such, it’s not entirely surprising development efforts were spread thin.
Still, none of Undercover‘s problems are enough to sink the title outright. Really, the problem that Need For Speed Undercover faces is that Burnout: Paradise has significantly raised the bar for this kind of game, and accomplished the open-world mechanics and online experience with more polish and flair than is on display here. It offers a superior experience in almost every way meaningful to the genre.
What makes this interesting is the fact that, though the two franchises were developed by different studios, they are both published by EA. In a sense, then, EA is openly competing with itself, given that racing fans only have so many dollars, and while one of their racing franchises is critically acclaimed, the other is content to be competent but mediocre. For die-hard fans of the Need for Speed franchise, or those that focus most of their gaming on racing titles, Undercover can be enjoyable. But for gamers who spread their tastes across a variety of genres, there are simply better racing games to be played.