You, a largely unidentified Caucasian male, work for an investigative agency that needs a “deniable asset”: That’s essentially somebody that the agency can send deep undercover with no ties to the agency itself. If the asset – that’s you – is discovered or compromised in any way, the agency denies any affiliation. This effectively seats you into a solo mission to take down an automotive black market don, though you’ll have some star-powered guidance on your T-Mobile contacts list.
Maggie Q (Live Free or Die Hard, Mission Impossible III) plays Chase Linh, your most frequent point of contact within the agency. From contemporary hotel rooms, Chase flips through criminal files as well as anecdotal evidence of your shady, car-racing/car-thieving targets, all while the cameraman makes the most of her sharp facial features and dress size 0.
Opposite her, the streets themselves have broad child-bearing hips, wide-berth driving lanes, and fast, dry conditions to keep the need for speed well-met. The map of the Tri-Cities area – generously held together with long-spanning freeways through the hills and bridges across the bays – consists of four zones, all sporting an Anytown USA feel to their makeup.
Throughout Palm Harbor, Sunset Hills, Port Crescent and the Gold Coast Mountains you’ll climb your way up four tiers of American, European and Japanese street-legal racing cars. America represents with a mediocre spread of Chevrolet, Dodge, Ford, Pontiac and Shelby vehicles. Europe rolls in with Audi, BMW, Lamborghini, and Mercedes-Benz. While the Japanese drive up in Mazda, Mitsubishi and Nissan (notably thin in the tier 2 arena). Other brands make a spackling of appearances, but these are the main contenders. The showing isn’t phenomenal, but suitable for anyone that isn’t waiting for this month’s duPont Registry in the mail.
The real joy comes in customization, of course, with the entire Roy G. Biv (Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, Violet) color wheel at your disposal, along with scaleable vinyl decals that look sick, but will increase your “Heat” signature with the Fuzz.
And Need for Speed Undercover is predicated on a whole lot of interaction with local law enforcement. Evading and foiling 5-0 is a high point for Undercover, which is a look in the rearview mirror for the series. This return to Need for Speed’s roots is a big high-five with Need for Speed Most Wanted and – even further back – to Need for Speed Hot Pursuit. The intercepted CB chatter from the Tri-City Police Department dispatch and the individual cruisers is fantastic (and surprisingly non-repetitious), maintaining a brilliant sense of interaction with the TCPD beyond simply seeing red and blue lights flashing mixed with the sound of sirens.
The excitement plateaus and wanes, however, and will gradually be replaced with the occasional tossed controller. Many chases find that subtle balance between thrilling and challenging, to be sure. Blasting through barricades, outmaneuvering cruisers as well as SUV-sized K-9 units, tearing up construction sites; all of it adds up to good times when that precarious balance is maintained. But nothing can save your sanity when you can’t seem to shake the eye-in-the-sky choppers, you’ve hit a nail strip that’s shredded your tires, and the entire police department is blocking you in like they’re about to score a five-line Tetris. But without risk, there would be little in the reward.
And surprisingly, there’s a game-ending scenario that can play out if your evasive maneuvers continue to fail you. If you’re busted three times in a particular car, then that car is impounded forever. Three strikes, you’re out. And if you get all the cars in your garage impounded, then your single-player campaign has entered a fail state. You’re gone. Sayonara. Start over.
Thankfully, even as you trade in and out different cars to reach higher tiers – with great power and handling come great fiscal withdrawals – the storyline hands over a trickling of back-up cars won via pink slips. They probably won’t be your favorites, but if you’re strapped for cash (through customization, upgrades, or just getting plain busted) then a pink-slip car is your best friend.
Who’s a friend and who’s an enemy play out in generally cringe-worthy live-action cutscenes. Maggie Q’s stiff delivery never warms up, and R&B singer-songwriter Christina Milian (playing luke-warm love interest, Carmen Mendez) never quits sniveling about her taken-down friends long enough to spark much else between you two. The entire movie is genuinely in the “so bad it’s good” category, though, and makes progression excitable through the dozens and dozens of bite-size races.
If only Undercover could’ve kept up that momentum. The mid-game is tricked out with increasingly dull amounts of grinding. What begins with a syrupy flow of campy cutscenes in the early-game becomes mired in nudging up your Reputation inch by inch. The difficultly level is ego-swelling at first, then drops your progress into low gear as you step into the higher-echelon cars. I dreaded stepping into a Chevy Corvette, Bugatti Veyron or Nissan GT-R for a particular mission simply because the driving speeds are out of control at that top tier. The scenery is flying by at ludicrous speed (Spaceball One would have trouble keeping up) and there’s entirely too much potential for totaling your vehicle against oncoming traffic or immobile railing.
Discovering exactly what’s moveable and what isn’t in Undercover can’t particularly be painted as a joy. Cement barriers between lanes get tossed aside like cushioned LEGO blocks, as do a variety of chain link fences, mailboxes, lamp posts and bus stops. But sometimes-deceiving track designs (along with high-contrast lights and shadows) will place those breakable elements on a curb or behind some other impassable geometry on the map. Whiplash ensues. And while off-road shortcuts will frequently move you to the head of the class, those dusty trails are a hard read with loose traction, providing plenty of ways for you to reach for the Restart Race button rather than reach the finish line.
And crossing finish lines only provide unassuming victory parties. Your wins -- through circuits, sprints, outruns, highway battles, checkpoints, cop takeouts, escapes, jobs and Cost to State events -- count up seemingly arbitrary numbers which fill your pockets with arbitrary paychecks. How much is 10,000 Rep Points worth? Hard to say. And as you get deeper and deeper undercover, the payoffs seemingly grow fewer and further between. Again, their placement and pacing is a great hook at first, but will tire anyone out before the long haul is done.
And that long haul is run by a game engine that isn’t completely capable of keeping up the necessary framerate. Even if you’re alone on the screen, going too fast around corners will jilt the pace noticeably, while off-roading through a construction site with a couple cops on your tailgate will manage the same epileptic stuttering.
Undercover throws in some fun destructible environments along the way that can stop traffic and pursuers. You might knock out some scaffolding that drops industrial-sized pipes in the road. You might topple a radio tower. You might bring down a section of highway overpass. Great ideas all.
But their cinematic nature takes the camera away from your car and places it on the destruction, which is jarring once the camera returns to you and you’re speeding off in an awkward-to-recover-from direction some 100 yards down the road. Or slammed against a building. Or if you’re not up to speed (or happen to hit the destruction point from a poor angle) you may find yourself stuck inside of that problem you’d hoped to leave for the cops instead. Bring a gas station’s roof down on your own head, and you’ll be spinning your wheels. Manage to get a construction vehicle hitched onto your car (I did it more than once), and you’ll be reduced to non-movement while the cops have all the time in the world to swarm your situation.
Playing over Xbox Live, of course, isn’t going to impress you with improved framerates. Aside from the usual problem of everyone on Xbox Live not playing on a T1 line – and it’s not like I did either – I saw scores of individuals getting disconnected inches from the finish line, in the middle of races, and sometimes within seconds of take off. I once completely froze only two curves after leaving the starting line (reboot!), and one crash during another race completely knocked out all audio from my successive matches (reboot!).
The most fun you’ll have online is playing 4-on-4 matches of Cops and Robbers. The Robbers will scramble for a money icon on the map, then scramble for the safehouse icon. The equally-balanced numbers of cops will be ramming into the robbers and generally making their life miserable. Even lesser-populated and unevenly-balanced matches will be fun. I once played a solo robber against two other cops, and still snatched up enough cash for the win. But here’s the part where I leave out the fact that one cop against two robbers is a no-win situation for the boys in blue.
Undercover doesn’t cover any new ground, and the campy cutscenes – which are a better motivator than earning higher-tier vehicles – lose sight of the game’s pace car. The police chases are knowingly the high point, but even those grow subdued through saturated exposure.