When it comes to evaluating a racing game, it can be tempting to simply squint your eyes and estimate where the game falls on the sliding scale of simulation vs. arcade. So, to get this bullet-point quickly out of the way, Need for Speed Undercover is wholeheartedly racing in the arcade lane.
To wit, vehicular damage modeling is purely cosmetic and, in fact, the body molding automatically fixes itself back up to pristine condition at the conclusion of each race; said damages are charged to the State as opposed to garnishing your own wages; and straight-up driving posits greater emphasis on forward momentum as opposed to precision handling and sharp cornering.
The four tiers of cars do, however, handle differently enough from one another that some getting-to-know-you time is required for each. The variations don’t exactly run the gamut from monster trucks to Vespas, but more like from Chevy Camaros to Ford GTs, Volkswagen R32s to Pagani Zondas, and Mazda RX-8s to Nissan GT-Rs. As expected, it’ll take a lot of miles raced and a lot of money in hand to unlock those third-, second- and first-tier vehicles. I’m counting over 50 vehicles on the block, with a reasonable spread between American, European, and Japanese models.
The car selection isn’t going to knock your socks off. The hook lies in its B-movie cutscenes filmed with a so-bad-it’s-good eye for melodrama. Actress Maggie Q (Balls of Fury, Live Free or Die Hard) is Undercover’s poster girl, delivering not-so-smoky lines like she’s doing an excellent “cold reading” of the script. Faint praise, I know, but it’s the most I could muster. As far as B-movie characters go, the Command & Conquer series has taken up an unreachable lead on the competition.
You’re an unidentified undercover agent, working his way into the underground criminal world by way of street racing. The likewise unidentified agency employing you is keeping you as a deniable asset, meaning that you’re essentially on your own out in the Tri-City streets. If you get caught by the TCPD, you’re busted. The bailout comes out of your own billfold. But street credibility stacks up as fast as the cash does, and that type of currency is what keeps the deliciously bad cutscenes rolling.
It’s worth noting, if only for a moment, the level of corniness that using live actors in a videogame lends. These same trite story bits might go overlooked or even grab some tacit acclaim if they were delivered by non-genre-hopping videogame characters. But with live action calling the shots, the campy nature of it all is unmistakable. That can’t be held against Undercover, really. It feeds the Need for Speed universe with a, dare I say, somewhat thrilling impetus. Along with the sturdy police chases, the cutscenes -- typically short and sweet -- make for some good headshaking viewing.
Though I’ve never seen my character’s face (it’s blurred out in police videos when I get busted), an RPG-esque character skill progression is tacked onto the end of each race. As the win screen pops up, I might gain a few percentage points pinned onto my engine, transmission, nitrous, or forced induction “skills.” It’s all a series of little building blocks in order to reach those top-shelf vehicles, since the skill-building lacks enthusiasm as well as player-input. And while flipping through menus is sleekly-designed, it doesn’t measure up to the level of cool seeping from DiRT. Even though you’re making money and gaining ground with the shady criminal element in Undercover, it doesn’t have the fist-pumping gusto of stacking cash in GRiD. And even though racking up damages is a bipolar aspect of the open-world races (tearing up a construction site is charged to the State, while bumping into a civilian vehicle is charged against you), the process still doesn’t pack the arcade punch of a Burnout Revenge.
Need for Speed Undercover isn’t necessarily doing anything wrong (if you discount frame-counting your way through busy screens’ slowdown). But it’s decidedly spinning its wheels in areas that have already been left in the dust by other racers.