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Need For Speed returns to familiar territory, but it's not the re-invention we're hoping for...
There's certain things you come to expect from video game franchises and woe betide any developer that dares to try anything new. Rare recently found themselves such victims with the decision to drop classic platforming action for vehicular gameplay in Banjo Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts. Similarly the same could be said of last year's attempt to change the Need for Speed format. Since its inception back in 1994, one element has characterised the Need for Speed series, namely the police pursuits. So the decision to focus on legal circuit racing and tuning options in last year's Need for Speed: ProStreet unsurprisingly failed to set pulses racing and light up the charts.
Following up with the customary new title in time for Christmas, EA Black Box has taken Need for Speed back to familiar territory for Undercover. Posing as the titular undercover cop, the narrative and trashy FMV cut-scenes depict your efforts to infiltrate various gangs that make up the Tri-City area, working through their ranks by competing in events and undertaking various jobs that usually involve stealing vehicles and delivering packages. Call it a guilty pleasure but we're slightly partial to Need For Speed's throwaway dialogue and laughable efforts to put a narrative to the racing action. But in many ways Underground fails to realise its true potential in this area. Under the billing "You're not good, and you're not bad", it would have been satisfying to see EA Black Box jump on the good/evil bandwagon and allow players to make choices in the game. As it stands it's little more than sporadic FMV sequences featuring embarrassingly cringe worthy stereotypes packed full of "esses" whilst Maggie Q provides the titillation.
Despite EA Black Box efforts to create a more serious racing experience with ProStreet, Need For Speed: Undercover is unmistakably a return to the high-tempo and slide-heavy drifts that characterised the series since Need For Speed Underground appeared back in 2003. It's not the most developed or defined arcade racer around, but its blistering sense of speed still manages to provide plenty of entertainment as you rise through the ranks and unlock the considerable selection of licensed motors available.
In keeping with Need For Speed's mass-market appeal and a result of the odd upgrade system (more on that later), Underground begins far too easily for anybody who knows their accelerator from their brake. We found ourselves dominating every event we entered to begin with, which in turn made things even easier due to the increased upgrade points earned. Although we can appreciate EA Black Box's attempt to create a racing game for everybody, it could be argued that they got the balance a little wrong and could put off a vast majority before the challenge begins to intensify much later in the game.
The open-world serves as the hub for the game's various events in a similar manner to previous Need For Speed's, but in turn highlights one of the slightly oddest design decisions we've seen in quite awhile. Although we're big on time-saving quick travel options that allow you to jump directly to the event instead of meander between A and B, Undercover effectively forces you to use the option because it's impossible to actually drive to the event location. All that's required is to simply tap the d-pad downwards to quickstart the nearest challenge, so the game effectively becomes little more than a clinical series of events with an open world you're never particularly encouraged to explore. This effectively makes the decision to go for an open-world pretty redundant, which in turn reduces one of Need For Speed's - the police pursuits. It's an odd design decision that continues into the actual events. Given that you're racing with an illegal criminal syndicate it seems nice of the city officials to lay down the circuit with barriers, signs, etc... Now we can suspend disbelief for just a few seconds on this, but what we can't forgive is the fact that once again it removes the concept of open-world racing from the racing challenge - Midnight Club this certainly isn't.
Despite the hiatus from last year's Need For Speed, police pursuits haven't really changed in the years since Underground. Yes the intensity and chatter over the communication does raise the exhilaration somewhat and it's still Need For Speed's most enjoyable feature, but we'd like to have seen a considerable re-invention by this stage. Cops still hound after you without any indication of line-of-sight, so the tactic is to either burst through the occasional pile of pipes and scaffolding that serve as unconvincing pursuit breakers, or drive fast enough to escape and reach a hiding spot. After five years of much the same, surely now's the time for EA Black Box take police pursuits to the next level.
As an undercover cop you've got to impress the local gangs before they'll trust in you. Your reputation as a Wheelman increases with each successful event, in turn unlocking new challenges as your trust with the crims increases. Depending on whether you successfully complete an event or dominate it points in various attributes become available, which again highlights an area that feels particularly at odds. It's not entirely unlike an RPG where your character attributes increase with experience, but it's inclusion in Undercover is a little strange to say the least. It seems to suggest that it's your skill as a driver that increases, but the categories are all vehicle related, such as a 'Forced Induction' bonus. It's bizarre to say the least, but does work in a twisted kind of logic.
As part of the criminal scene you'll also have to convince the underground that you're genuine by randomly smashing up traffic or property to incur a 'Cost To State'. Although this will increase the criminal syndicate's trust the downside is the increased heat you'll face from the law. Finally Undercover also rewards you for driving with style and pulling off Heroic Moves, which fill the 'In The Zone' meter for enhanced use of the Speedbreaker and Nitrous. Beyond the typical close scrapes and driving against oncoming traffic, a selection of specific 'heroic moves' also ties in with the system and rewards you for performing screaming 360s and j-turns. All of these mechanics work together well, and whilst there's nothing that we haven't necessarily seen in a racing game before, it does at least add a sufficient dynamic to the racing action.
The open-world Tri-Cities area that Underground takes place in is vast and varied. EA Black Box typically never disappoints when it comes to creative fictional gameworlds. Whether it's the intersections of the three cities, the countryside in between, the highways or the many shortcuts on offer, the Tri-Cities area provides the perfect backdrop for Need For Speed: Undercover except for one thing - traffic. Yes like Burnout Paradise before it, Need For Speed: Undercover is strangely devoid of any traffic at whatever stage in the day.
Like much of Underground even the multiplayer fails to really provide anything new for NFS fans. The customary race events all feature, along with the inclusion of an all-new, but thoroughly predictable Cops n' Robbers. It's essentially capture the flag, pitting two teams of four players against one another as the robbers try to pick up stolen cash and deliver it to a drop off point whilst the cops try to stop them. Don't expect Need For Speed: Underground to be a firm fixture in Xbox Live or PlayStation Network 'most played' lists for that long.