Need for Speed Undercover


posted 12/18/2008 by Randy Kalista
other articles by Randy Kalista
One Page Platforms: 360
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.

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