Need for Speed has never looked likely to win a game of the year award, but for a long time it's been a fairly dependable series. You could more or less bank on EA delivering a fun arcade racer that didn't take itself too seriously, and because of this it's won a huge number of fans. Need for Speed ProStreet threw a spanner into the works with its drastic change of style from open-world arcade racer to closed circuit sim, but we thought Undercover was going to set things right. Playing an undercover cop who has to infiltrate an illegal street racing gang sounds like the Need for Speed of old, but it seems EA let this one leave the work shop without passing its MOT.
Undercover is set in the fictional Tri-City Bay area, a virtual world that consists of over 80 miles of roads and highways. As a cop with a love for fast cars, you're asked to go undercover in an illegal street racing gang, with the goal of infiltrating the operation, stopping the sale of stolen vehicles and bringing down the leaders. With Hollywood actress Maggie Q playing your handler Chase Linh, who appears in a number of live action cut scenes throughout the story, and plenty of EA's expected flashy presentation, things sound like they've returned to the Need for Speed of old, but Undercover is plagued with problems.
The most jarring problem you'll face in Undercover is the terrible frame rate. Previous games in the series have had the odd patch of trouble here and there, but in Undercover the game rarely runs smooth and more often than not chugs along at an unacceptable level. It's detrimental to the gameplay too, with the choppy visuals making racing at high speeds far trickier than it was surely designed to be. At times the game almost stops for a fraction of a second, before continuing at a pace not too dissimilar to how we imagine a modern game would run on the original PlayStation. It seems as if engine optimisation simply hasn't been done.
It might seem unfair to slam the visuals before talking about the gameplay, but we've just never seen a big budget, high profile release like this ship with such glaring technical problems. To make matters worse the city is bathed in a fair amount of fog and parts of it will suddenly appear as if teleported in from the Enterprise's holodec. During one high speed pursuit we appeared to be heading towards the edge of the map and a large mass of water, only for what looked like a small town to suddenly pop into view. Visuals aren't everything, but here they cause problems and suggest the game wasn't close to being ready for retail.
It's a real shame, because the core gameplay is a strong return to what the Need for Speed games prior to ProStreet provided. Cars corner as if you're a Hollywood stunt driver, the sense of speed is incredible (especially from the bumper cam), police drivers are aggressive and smart, and the game world has a style that is pleasing on the eye. The main story to take down the illegal operation runs throughout, but you'll need to take part in various races, cop chases and damage runs (racking up damages that amount to a certain cost) in order to prove you can be trusted. With an open world to explore and the ability to instantly hop to an event you've effectively got the best of both words. As soon as you've finished a race you'll be shown the closest event and you're able to access it with a simple press on the d-pad.
If you've grown tired of the endless driving from point to point in order to start an event, you'll appreciate the more streamlined approach EA has taken here. It could be seen as hand holding, but you're always pushed along, moving from event to event and through the story, with very little down time. As you complete events you earn rep which goes towards your overall wheelman rank, driver skill points and cash - and the occasional keys to a new car. Cash can be used to upgrade the performance of your current cars (ranked in tiers from four to one) or to modify their appearance - the car sculpting seen in previous Need for Speeds returns and upgrading can be as simple as buying a package or as complex as tuning various aspects of your ride.