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Review: Need for Speed Undercover

Need for Speed Undercover goes back to the Most Wanted formula by combining illegal street racing with pulse pounding police chases. This time, the twist is that you're playing as an undercover agent whose job is to infiltrate an organized crime ring. The only way to get into the inner circle is to improve your reputation as a wheelman and impress people as you work your way up the hierarchy. However, things quickly drive into a wall, and the game becomes too infuriating to play.

It becomes painfully obvious within seconds of loading up the game that this is a quick and dirty port from the console version. There's no access to the main menu to adjust the graphics options until you're already playing the game. Similarly, there's no way to start a Quick Race or multiplayer session without loading up the main campaign first. Another oversight is the lack of rumble feedback support when using an Xbox 360 or similarly equipped controller to play. The full motion cinematic sequences that feature the talent of the actress Maggie Q. come out looking blocky and washed out at high resolutions. These quick video sequences, which jump back and forth between extreme close-ups, don't really add a whole lot of suspense or plot but considering how EA recently published Red Alert 3 with excellent quality video, there's no excuse for this problem. We've only just covered the surface issues. Things get worse from there.

The game switches between a number of pre-designated racing events across the city and a free driving mode. Completing racing events and jobs (which blatantly advertise T-Mobile) earns money, access to cars and increases driving skill and earns reputation among the underground racers. Meanwhile, driving around the city to become familiar with its streets and occasionally dodging the cops while causing acts of vandalism also brings in rewards. The main problem with Undercover is that it tries way too hard to be cool, and doesn't pay enough attention to the actual driving. It's all flash and little substance. The bloom effects are far too heavy, making oncoming obstacles difficult to see. This especially becomes problematic during racing events, when certain roads and shortcuts get blocked off and the player can't tell until it's too late. Driving physics are exaggerated, as to be expected with a Need for Speed game, and cars take on damage as they crash into things. However, damage doesn't impact car performance and everything is miraculously fixed once an event starts or finishes.

Although there's a decent variety of race modes, including classics like Circuit racing and Sprint, one only needs to get good at one or two of them to be successful. Most storyline jobs involve stealing a car and evading the police with minimal damage, so learning to escape is essential. Adrenaline pumping police chases are the game's strongest aspects. Unfortunately, the game clearly cheats during the first phase of any job. For the first few minutes, all the police are psychic and can see through walls. They'll home in on your car like laser guided missiles, so there's no sense of strategy like ducking into a garage until patrol cars drive past. This isn't a terrible problem when it's just police cars, but things get sticky when players need to also outrun a police chopper with X-ray vision on top of a tight time limit.

The city is littered with Pursuit Breakers, like signs and bridges ready to collapse once players drive through them. They're meant to disable or delay pursuers, but they can also backfire. First off, the game doesn't have enough on-screen indicators to show where these points are. Drivers need to glance over at the GPS map to find them. Taking eyes off the road even for a second could mean a collision with oncoming traffic. Incidentally, the GPS by itself is a finicky device that doesn't always show the way to the destination. Secondly, the game takes a moment to show off how cool the event is by breaking from the chase to show your car driving through and things falling. Unfortunately, it shows this little instant replay whether the stunt worked or not, and your car is at full stop once you come out of it, forcing you to get your bearing and re-accelerate to escape pursuers. To make matters worse, hitting the nitro doesn't do very much, since we unloaded a whole tank of the stuff into our engine and the cops no trouble keeping up. Police also have a knack for spotting you when there's no pursuit in play, you're driving the speed limit and following all the driving rules. Most times, it's worth it to simply skip the free driving and use the world map to automatically join racing events.

Other great racing modes include Highway Battle, where players need to catch up and pass a racer in the middle of heavy traffic. The most annoying thing about Highway Battle is that the camera automatically shifts to the bumper view each time the event starts, so players need to waste time putting it back into position. Outrun is very simple mode that requires players to pass their opponent and stay in the lead for a certain duration of time. There's no set path, and the game is pretty loose with determining who's ahead, so drivers can pretty much go in circles and win this mode. Unfortunately, there's no diversity among the racing modes themselves, like changing weather or day and night effects. All races take place in broad daylight and the skies are always clear and sunny in the Tri-City area. The game also includes an eclectic mix of music that ranges from the semi decent to "what the heck am I listening to?" There's no way to manipulate the playlist settings so that it only plays the songs you like.

All the little annoyances build up, but our game broke on us altogether. We don't know why, but Underground would suddenly fall victim to severe stuttering, where we could hear engines revving and tires squealing, but the screen remained frozen for a short period of time whenever we hit the accelerator, making the game unplayable. Sometimes this would happen as soon as we loaded up the game and decreasing the video options didn't help. At one point, a critical mission suddenly stopped working and the game crashed each time we tried to access it. We had to reinstall the game and copy in our save game file to resume playing. Surprisingly, the broken game wasn't our biggest problem.

Our biggest disappointment with this port is with the multiplayer. Multiplayer automatically registers your game with EA and requires official online servers. There's no offline LAN option. So once the servers go offline someday in the future, all of Undercover's multiplayer features, like the Cops and Robbers mode (where one player grabs cash and drives it to a destination while the other tries to stop him), will become absolutely useless.

It's bad enough that Need for Speed Undercover is a racing game with numerous oversights but it's also a pretty lazy port from the consoles. Although the PC version supports high resolution graphics, it doesn't make up for all the frustrating gameplay elements. This is one game that fell asleep at the wheel.

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