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.
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