EA's Need for Speed franchise has been in an odd position the last couple years. While the franchise often worked to mix up the formula from year to year a decent bit, the release of EA's own Burnout Paradise posed a bit of a conundrum for the publisher. With Burnout switching to an open world setting, it meant that it competed directly with Need for Speed in that space. Last year's Need for Speed ProStreet was a diversion for the series from recent years, going to track-based racing, plenty of tuning options and focusing entirely on the events than exploring the city or running from the cops.
ProStreet didn't turn out too well, so Black Box went back to the drawing board and returned to an open world setting with this year's Need for Speed Undercover, but that wasn't the only design change. Undercover also seems to be directed right at the casual market, both in terms of presentation and its extremely relaxed learning curve.
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The end result, however, is a game that has practically zero redeeming qualities. It fails on almost every front and is a major step backwards not only for the franchise, but racing games in general.
Part of the reason for this is the game's complete and utter misuse of its open world setting. The major reason for having an open world is to allow gamers to explore their environment, find new challenges, perhaps some hidden locations and generally hunt down people to race. That doesn't happen one bit in Undercover. You cannot even drive to an event to start it or enter your garage. To begin an event, you can either head to the overhead map, which requires a couple of seconds of loading despite its utter simplicity, or simply press down on the D-Pad. This will load up whatever your nearest event is, or in some cases, the next major event you're supposed to take part in.
All of this means that unless you're running from the cops, there's absolutely no reason to drive around the city when not in an event. You can't come across any hidden events, new racers or anything of this sort. Unless just feel like testing out your ride or just feel like exploring, there's no reason to drive around on your own.
The open world setting is also ignored in many of the game's events. When you take part in any standard race, the game closes off the streets so that you can only drive on the correct route. It's the game's way of putting you in a pre-defined track and not letting you veer from the beaten path. While transparent arrow walls would have been fine, this restricts not only you and your competition, but the traffic to the set race course as well. In other words, there's no cross traffic to deal with. How can you have an open world game and not have any cross traffic to contend with in races?
Not all events are like this, but they don't get much better. One event type challenges you to get out in front of your competition and then stay ahead for a minute or so (or just pull away entirely). Once you're able to get ahead, it's an absolute piece of cake to dominate them, especially if you head to the highway since they'll likely crash into someone and leave you with such a gigantic lead that you can come to a complete stop, start again and still have plenty of breathing room.
This brings me to my next issue - the game is incredibly easy. It was fairly often that I'd win events by a good 20 seconds or so, and I'd have the worst car in the pack. In fact, I've been able to smoke a lineup of Lamborghinis and Corvettes with an Audi TT, and that should never happen. If your car's ratings are half of what your competition has, you can probably win with ease.
The game's upgrade and general car acquirement system also has its problems. Most of the cars are locked until you get to certain driver levels (which I'll come back to in a second), so you have to wait for them to become purchasable even if you have the cash. I'm not a fan of the system, but that's fine. The car upgrades work the same way however, and things are not unlocked in an order that makes sense. I've had low tier cars in my garage that I've only been able to purchase the first of three upgrade packages for, while I've also been able to buy significantly faster vehicles. Why would I ever upgrade the lesser cars at that point? Why wasn't I first allowed to fully upgrade them before earning the right to buy better cars? The whole order of things is very screwy.
As for your own personal level, you'll earn driver points for winning races and performing stunts like drifts or near misses and so forth. Every time you either dominate a race (which means beating a set time in addition to winning) or gain a level, your driver abilities increase. Many of these stats don't make much sense to be assigned to a person. Things like a discount on parts make sense, but why would you have a Forced Induction rating on your person rather than your individual vehicles? Also, since you gain points when you dominate, that means racers who are already good (or even just competent given the very low difficulty level of the game) will just get better, while people who are struggling (which will be about three people) will only be able to rely on the new level upgrades to help them out.
It's worth noting that while the game retains the slick Autosculpt customization feature of the past couple titles, unlike last year, it doesn't have any effect on your performance. It's still cool to see it return, however, as it's a very cool customization feature unique to the franchise.
One of the bigger things hyped about the title since its first showing is the presentation and its live action cutscenes. By and large, these fail to do what was intended in a pretty big way. Most of the scenes feature one of two sequences - a bunch of jackasses in a back alley talking trash to the camera before or after a race, or Maggie Q sitting in a room and telling you what you should be doing next. The whole thing winds up being pretty laughable and doesn't make a whole lot of sense. Maggie will tell you that you need to do to get on the inside of a racing group in order to get dirt on them, and then after a race she'll say "We have enough, let's move in." How did that help at all? They're going to just bust someone for street racing while they're tied to drug trafficking? You do run missions where you steal cars, make "special" deliveries and things like this now and again, but you never actually see any sequences that show how the cops are putting the evidence together or anything of that sort. It could have been so much better, but it falls very flat. It's also so overacted that you can't help but wonder if there was any sort of scene director on site because this is the stuff you see on the first day of acting school.
While the gameplay is a big miss, the graphics don't help the case either. The game is very bland looking, with only reasonably detailed cars and a city that almost entirely lacks a sense of life. There are no pedestrians, there's very little traffic and on the whole there's very little to convince you that people actually live and work there.
While the game certainly isn't a graphics powerhouse, it can look decent at times. The lighting design can look cool, though unfortunately there are some issues. Shadows are only drawn at certain distances at times, so you'll see them appear on building sides as you cruise along. You'll also find lit polygons appear near the front of your car when they should be dark, especially when you drive through a tunnel, and it's most certainly not supposed to be your headlights. It's just another shoddy glitch that goes to show that the whole game lacks a feeling of any sort of refinement, both in terms of production and overall design.
The online component is competent, but very simplistic. You have three modes, which are really only two - Cops and Robbers, circuits races and dashes. The latter two are straight-up races, one of which has multiple laps and the other just having a separate start and finish line. Cops and Robbers is essentially a variant on one flag Capture the Flag where the robbers are trying to deliver the cash to their hideout while the cops are trying to bust them (which resets the cash). All of these work reasonably well and can be fun, but there's not much variety here, as you can tell.
The only two positives I can speak for about the game are its sense of speed and its great sound samples. When you get into a fast ride, like a McLaren F1 for example, you really get a sense of absolutely flying through the city. This part was at least done well. The sound samples for the cars (and tire screeches for that matter) are also quite awesome, though they're not mixed as well as could be. When you hit the gas the game sounds awesome, but letting your foot off the gas results in a dulled engine sound that's barely audible at times. So the sound is good overall, though it isn't perfect by any means.
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