Need for Speed: Undercover Review
RETRACTION of Original Review: With this new age of downloadable updates that bring the act of game patching to the console horde, it is only fair that our reviews reflect the product at hand in its current light. NFS: Undercover launched with a problematic game engine that struggled to maintain a steady framerate, which hurt both gameplay and the visuals. The gaming press made it very clear to EA that the sloppiness of the framerate really hurt the game. Well, EA listened and last week they released a patch for Need for Speed: Undercover that cleared up the game's most crippling issue, and in turn fixing it. Read the bolded parts below for the new bits of the review...it's amazing what a 17MB patch can do.
Every year for the past six years, the fall lineup of games has graced me with a new Need for Speed title. Yes, that's six consecutive years that an NFS game has not failed to launch just around this very time. Need for Speed games hold a special place in my heart, you see; Need for Speed: SE was the very first racing game, that wasn't F-Zero or Mario Kart, that I ever got my hands on. Moreover, the very first game I installed for my brand new, top of the line, 155MHZ PC back in 1996. Oh, yes, those were good times. I've owned every single iteration thereafter, and enjoyed almost all of them. And now, it's time for me to tell you about the 12th entry...
The other reason I look forward to NFS games every year is also because they tend to have a pretty wide scope and generally feel epic in certain cases. Take for example the aftermarket component of the series for the past couple of years. It's always fun to have so many options to tailor your car specifically to your needs. I personally use NFS games as a shopping tool for when I'm looking to make a new wheels purchase. So where does NFS come in? Well, I'll fire up an NFS game and start slapping on a whole bunch of rims to my in-game car, just to get an idea of how the wheels will look like on my actual car. It may not sound important to you, but to me it's always been the little things in the franchise for the past six years that have kept me coming back to it.
For Undercover, gone is the ProStreet gameplay that pitted cars against each other on closed courses and back comes the open-ended world, albeit with some very user friendly features. Choosing a race is as simple as pressing down on the D-pad or manually selecting the event you want to participate in by opening the game's map. This takes away the headache of searching around the city just to find a race, allowing for a more streamlined experience.
No more is the setting limited to just a nocturnal atmosphere, as Undercover takes place during the daytime, but this time in a city that's reminiscent of Burnout. The world is enormous and very well done, boasting 80 miles worth of road, on top of having individual cities separated by highways. And these highways are home to the game's highway battles, a tribute to racing games such as Tokyo Xtreme Racer, and many others.
In addition to the excitement of highway battles will, obviously, be the return of cops, as the game's name indicates. With the return of cops comes a new game engine that EA has dubbed the Heroic Driving Engine, which allows the gamer to perform epic high-speed maneuvers while traveling at breakneck speeds approaching 200MPH. These high-speed maneuvers and the "Heroic Driving" aren't exactly the core of the game, more like an add-on. Basically, pulling off stunts, dodging cops, 180-degree turns, among other maneuvers earns you points which increase your in-game rep. It's nothing that's terribly complex, it's just sort of there.
Essentially, Undercover is Need for Speed: Most Wanted and that's not a bad thing, seeing as how Most Wanted remains the most adored open-ended NFS game to date. So yes, the cops are back and they're even more aggressive than ever before. Much of the game's race events revolve around cop chases and so you'd better get good at losing them, because you'll need to learn how to make the most out of every intersection by turning from one block into the next. Building speed won't help much here, you'll need to be cunning and quick with your reflexes.
Race events are made up of a variety of race types, both new and old. The old ones include Circuit, Checkpoint, and Sprint (point-to-point), but unfortunately dragging and drifting is completely gone, and that's a total shame. New modes include Highway Battles, Outrun, and Cost to State, which are fun, perhaps not as much as the modes they replace. Highway Battles are simple, there's a highway, an opponent, traffic, and a race - the person who is first when time runs out or gains 1000ft wins. Cost to State is a mode where the player has to destroy as much property as possible to rack up a certain amount of damage done before time runs out. Outrun requires you to put a distance on your opponent and hold it until time runs out; granted it doesn't take place on a highway, but it's essentially the same as a Highway Battle. Which leads me to ask, there really was no room for at least a proper drag race event? Shame.
As far as the extras go, the Autosculpt feature is still here, but it seems like the overall selection of parts has gone down. Additionally, the story's nothing too exciting, and I doubt people will care enough to concentrate on it. There are 55 cars to chose from, unfortunately my prized possession isn't one of them anymore, marking it and Most Wanted the only two of the past six NFS games to not feature a 350Z. On the other hand, NFS: Undercover is the very first game to feature a 370Z, the successor to the 350Z. Then there's the online component which boasts the standard set of race events, on top of the all new Cops and Robbers mode. Here, up to eight players can participate and play either sides of the fence. The goal is to stop the robbers from delivering a package to their destination, and vice versa if you're the robber. This is certainly the mode that'll end up the most played and with good reason, mark my words.
Retraction 1: When I first reviewed NFS: Undercover in November, I noted that "yet again (!), a crippling issue prevents Undercover from achieving great status." I then went on to rant about how it is unacceptable that after two PlayStation 3 iterations, EA still hasn't got the framerate right. Well, with this new patch, I'm very happy to report that the issue is a thing of the past. The 17MB patch fixes the framerate to a point where it seems to be locked to a very steady 30 frames per second. Where as I previously complained that the original framerate made it very hard to see where you were going, especially during tense moments, this patch clears all of that and improves gameplay in the process. In case you're wondering, the old gameplay score was a 7.9, which I've bumped up. And the old graphics score was a 7.8, again which I've bumped up.
Retraction 2: In the original review I noted that perhaps Black Box could've made a few visual sacrifices, particularly with the over saturated lighting and it's blinding sunburst yellow hue. It looks like that's been done, as well. The sunburst hue, while still present, has been toned down enough to allow me to see the upcoming turns during my races. Before, I had a hard time seeing the yellow turn indicators on the tracks, thanks to the equally yellow sunshine obscuring them, but now I don't have that problem anymore. Weirdly enough, in the original review I had actually written "get a patch out there or something, EA, [the lighting] and the framerate are extremely annoying." Thanks for listening EA.
Visually, the story unravels similar to that of past Need for Speed games, but this one is weighed much more heavily towards live-action than CG, utilizing computer generated lighting effects to dress the scenery up. A fantastic damage system also exists, allowing you to really demolish the look of your car. As far as other details go, the cars look very good, boasting nice texture work and accurate lines everywhere. Unfortunately, many will be disappointed to hear that there are no modeled interiors, so no in-dash camera option exists.
Because the game boasts an 80 mile city, there's a lot to see in Tri-City, with backgrounds ranging from a congested skyline full of buildings in Palm Harbor, to a more rural and open setting in Gold Coast Mountains. There are some draw-in and pop-up issues that can be noticed on a rare occasion, but nothing terrible. Lastly, the 720p image is largely free of any noticeable image defects, which is nice, but the framerate doesn't just hurt the visual integrity, but also the gameplay.
The audio is a mix of great and average. The roar of the engines, which has been one of the most prominent features of the last six NFS games, returns again to assault your speakers, and the boomy exhaust notes help. Tires screech and squeal, and crashes sound forceful. Unfortunately, there is no custom soundtrack option, so you're stuck with an unusual assortment of tracks to listen to...or you can just turn them off like I do and listen to the roar of your vehicle. Voice acting is decent throughout the story, but some parts bleed cheese and can be hard to stomach.
On the other hand, the audio presentation for the cops is absolutely incredible. Black Box has always done a great job with the cop banter in past NFS games, but this one takes the cake. For as long as I have played Undercover, I can't say that I've heard the cops repeat themselves very often. The banter is so diverse, that you often hear/intercept casual conversations between the police officers - a great touch. Moreover, their dialogue is extremely responsive to the action, as you'll hear an officer announce that he's been hit or taken out of action immediately after it happens.
Retraction 3: In the original review I had stated that "my frustrations with the franchise and its never ending framerate troubles are getting on my last nerves." I'm happy to report that my nerves have been calmed and I can properly enjoy Need for Speed: Undercover. No longer should you have to opt for the Xbox 360 version for a slightly smoother framerate, both games have been patched and run nearly identical to one another. I applaud EA and Black Box for listening and having a team of people work on giving us this patch. It is a testament to how important framerates are, especially in this day and age. Need for Speed: Undercover went from being a game that only the devoted fans would enjoy, to being a solid game that everyone should enjoy. I'm bumping the original score of 8 to an 8.5. Bravo, EA.
2/18/2009 Arnold Katayev