It's a sobering thought that when the original The Need For Speed came out in 1994 - on the ill-fated 3DO, no less - the original PlayStation wasn't even on shop shelves. The series is now over 14 years old, which makes it one of the oldest racing franchises that's still active today; Only Mario Kart and Ridge Racer are longer in the tooth.
Over the course of the past decade the Need For Speeds have adopted several different styles and forms, but they reached a new level of popularity after the release of Need For Speed Underground. The sequel introduced a free-roaming element and the series never looked back, making its debut on the current crop of consoles with Most Wanted. It is to these instalments, prior to the disappointing ProStreet, that Undercover harks back, with a strong emphasis on criminal goings-on and baiting the police in the manner of the borderline motor-porn that is The Fast and the Furious.
As it goes, this latest Demand For Velocity outing will feel closer than ever before to the petrol-soaked antics of Vin Diesel and chums. While we were only shown a brief cut scene during our recent rendezvous with EA, it's clear that the devs at Black Box have stepped up their efforts when it comes to the game's back story. Unless you've been avoiding Undercover news like the plague, you'll know that Hollywood actress Maggie Q is taking a starring role in the title's supporting narrative. The delectable Ms Q plays the federal agent who asks you to infiltrate a naughty troupe of car smugglers - so she'll be the one dishing out advice as you work your way up the network of bad guys. The developers promise that plenty of other decent actors have been enlisted for the FMV, so expect something a cut above the ham n' cheese of Most Wanted.
To be fair, we really haven't watched enough footage to pass judgement on this claim - but what is immediately apparent is that the cut scenes themselves will be as polished as Mr Sheen's privates: Film sequences combine real footage with pre-rendered backgrounds, creating a seamless transition into the main gameplay. In both cases, the action will be glossed with an aesthetic EA is calling the Magic Hour effect - an attempt to recreate the golden quality of light during the first and last hours of sunlight. This look will be familiar to you if you're into photography, or more likely if you saw the stab-happy action film 300. At any rate, it looks lovely.
We could prattle on more about Underground's production values, but we suspect that some of you would like to know how it plays. The first thing to note is that EA has returned to the open world structure of the games pre-ProStreet, so you'll have 160km of the Tri-City Bay area to explore, encompassing three cities and a large expanse of surrounding highway; it'll take you eight minutes to do a lap of the area at top speed, apparently. A handy little pop-up GPS system will guide you to assignments around the game world, or you can warp straight there - but if you're like us, your first instinct will be to simply go for a spin. Between missions you're free to drive where you like, and getting into impromptu car chases is always an option.
As soon as you wind up the boys in blue, you'll realise that they're a lot smarter than in previous Need For Speeds. They'll ram you, head you off at a junction up ahead, set up road blocks - in fact, they'll generally do anything they can to make life hard for you. This means that losing the cops can be quite challenging, but it's also that much more satisfying when you pull it off. EA Blackbox has kindly blessed the map with several 'chasebreaker' sites, where scenery can be used to take out pursuing vehicles: it's highly amusing to ram through a set of scaffolding, triggering a cut scene that shows your opponent being crushed under a tonne of debris. Realistic damage modelling is now in place, so you'll be able to fully enjoy the fruits of your destructive labours.
Out-running and out-manoeuvring the authorities is also pretty fun in its own right, thanks to the ease with which you can pull off 180 degree turns and other slick moves; your brake and accelerator triggers can now both be used simultaneously - a touch that affords you a surprisingly high level of control, given its simplicity. Vehicle handling seems to be a decent halfway house between simulation and arcade, and the cars themselves have a pleasing sense of weight - which makes smacking into things that much more enjoyable. They move at a fair old lick, too. There was quite a bit of stop-start level loading in the rough build we played, but we hardly expect this to be present in the game's final form.
If we're honest, cop-baiting was the clear highlight of our hands-on with Undercover. Spontaneous chases proved to be quite addictive, and the ante was further upped by a test mission which asked us to steal a high-speed police cruiser from right under the authorities' noses. That's not to slight the other assignments we tried, though. The drag race we sampled ticked all the right boxes, and we think there's quite a lot of potential in the new Highway Battle mode too. Here you'll have to take on a rival driver in a one-on-one race across the land - the catch is that there's no set finish line. Instead you'll have to simply get over 1000 ft ahead of your opponent, a goal that encourages you to disrupt your rival by driving like a lunatic through oncoming traffic. Like the cops, civilians have received a brain boost for Undercover: they'll drive carefully, slowing down and indicating when they switch driving lanes - and they'll also panic if you manage to freak them out. The idea, then, is to scare Johnny Straightlace so that he drives into your competitor. It's a neat idea, and though we ended up concentrating more on our own driver, we can imagine it being a useful tactic once you've become more seasoned in the game's controls.
Undercover looks to be shaping up rather nicely. It was a smart move on EA's part to listen to their fans, and while slick production values are certainly a stylish touch, it's the return to illicit motor mayhem that will grab the attention of the NFS crowd. You may be playing an undercover cop, but law-abiding driving will get you nowhere here. Somehow, we can't imagine that's going to be a problem for most of you.
Need for Speed Undercover will be out on Xbox 360, PS3, Wii, PS2, Nintendo DS, PSP and PC on November 21.