With the focus that current-generation consoles have placed on reinventing wheels, shifting paradigms and other promotional jargon, it's always interesting to find the occasional title that doesn't just avoid change but actively works against it.
While publisher Electronic Arts has certainly had a streak towards the boutique lately, a studio can't survive on new titles alone and for that, titles like Need for Speed: Undercover exist. The Need for Speed series has kept a dogmatic adherence to its arcade-racing roots and while Undercover, the 16th entry in the franchise, does have some strengths within these limitations, it ultimately doesn't do much to break the mold.
The game revolves around players competing in various events, strung together by a paper-thin narrative that's essentially The Fast and The Furious by way of a B-movie; Undercover continues the franchise's tradition of live-action cut scenes, but the mess of a plot makes them more useful as a break between races than anything else.
Players earn experience points for performing tricks during races, which go towards improving performance during a race and progressing through the career mode. The accessible controls help to make wracking up points easy, though the casual bent does sacrifice some precision.
While it's not hard to do tricks like whipping your car around while going in reverse, driving can feel imprecise. Especially on the lower tier cars, it's easy to end up spinning out into a concrete post after the slightest overdrift, though customization can help with some of these problems.
Like with most gearhead-centric games, this customizability is extensive, as players can adjust everything from engine type to the color of the spoilers on their cars. While the wear and tear cars earn during races is purely aesthetic, performance improvements do actually matter, as adding new parts and adjusting various stats actually have tangible in-game weight.
Going through the career mode also opens up more opportunities to earn and buy progressively fancier cars; it's definitely not something that most players will really care about, but the detail the game pays here makes it more than just a throwaway feature.
Undercover's presentation is especially slick, thanks to generous amounts of eye candy; the single-player campaign features a massive overworld for the race events and the variation within the city's four districts, from sleek urban areas to grime-encrusted industrial districts, keeps things from becoming visually repetitive. Sharp visuals and copious amounts of bloom help carry this diversity, though Undercover's tendency to chug when the on-screen action gets hectic kills the action.
The biggest strength of the Need for Speed series has always been its vehicular combat though, and it has just as strong of a presence in Undercover. The police pursuit mode and a large portion of the story revolve around combat, as players use their car and pursuit breakers, predetermined locations that drop obstacles into the road, to eliminate enemies.
Compared to the caffeine-addled gameplay of games like the Burnout series, combat in Undercover moves at a slower, more deliberate pace, but that helps to give it an especially visceral nature. While the game lacks the exploding cars and 50-car pileups of its peers, moments where players barrel down the highway at 200 mph, side-by-side with an opponent, and slam them into the tail end of a truck more than make up for it.
This focus on combat also carries over to the highlight of Underground's respectable online features, the "Cops & Robbers" mode. In addition to the basic exhibition modes, "Cops & Robbers" transplants capture the flag onto a racing track and the variant strikes the right balance between action and strategy as opponents try to broadside the flag carrier. Online play worked fine, as finding and playing games was quick and relatively pain free, though it requires players to register with EA Nation, EA's online hub.
Unfortunately, even with all of these separate strengths, Undercover doesn't really find a way to bring them together into a cohesive package; it's technically competent, but it's far less than the sum of its parts.
For example, the game does try to integrate sandbox-style gameplay aspects into the overworld: having a higher heat level, which ranks a player's notoriety as they commit crimes and is persistent, increases the chances cop cars will try to hunt a player down, but the overworld is virtually useless beyond this.
Going through the map or pressing the onscreen notice, which takes the player to the closest event, lets players access all the available events and as these make up the meat of the single-player game, it essentially turns the overworld into little more than a glorified menu screen.
It's not as if exploration is an option though: visually, there's a distinct lack of attention towards anything beyond graphical prowess. While the city might look great in high-definition, minor details like nonexistent traffic and mostly static environments add up to give Undercover a distinct lack of character, which makes driving through the world feel like more an extended tech demo than an actual game.
Even with these faults, the repetitive campaign is one of the game's biggest problems: career progression is anchored around earning experience points from the eight event types, but as all of the variants are essentially the same race or combat event with minor tweaks, they all tend to bleed into one another, which makes the prospect of having to play through 50 or more races to get to the next section especially droll.
On the whole though, Undercover certainly isn't a terrible game; considering the glut of games on the market this holiday season, Undercover gets enough things right to bring it past bargain bin status, but the problem is, there's not much to dig into beyond that. Solid mechanics and moments like sending a police car flying into the air don't make up for the fact that, with a shallow career mode and the lack of a larger direction, Undercover is neither an evolution or a revolution for the series.