Platform(s):Xbox 360, PS3, PC, Wii, PS2
If you're unfamiliar with the Need for Speed series, it's worth pointing out that this isn't an action game. Yes, you're playing an undercover cop but you do all your police work behind the wheel of a car. This is a racing game with an action game flavor. Don't pick it up expecting Grand Theft Auto or some other sort of driving/shooter hybrid.
Players control a cop who poses as a street racer in order to infiltrate a smuggling ring. The story is pushed forward by short live-action scenes with decent enough actors like Mission Impossible III's Maggie Q - but they're made awkward by the fact that the main character isn't actually seen. When speaking to "you", the other characters speak to the camera, Sega CD style. I don't know that the story would've been automatically better if it were pre-rendered but as is, the gameplay feels detached from the main plot. Maybe actually seeing your character walking and talking would have distracted from the fact that you never leave your car in gameplay.
So how do you infiltrate this smuggling ring? Undercover is structured similar to Saints Row 2 in that you perform side missions until your reputation is high enough to accept the next story mission. The difference is that while SR2's side missions were diverse activities that offered a change of pace from the main storyline, the campaign and optional missions in Undercover are the same. They're indistinguishable except for the fact that the story missions have cut scenes before and/or after. Thus, the real reason for making you do those other tasks between story missions is to stretch out the campaign over a longer period of time. The idea is to preserve the storyline as an incentive to keep playing. Progressing through the story gives you a feeling of overall accomplishment and I'm happy the story's there even if it's not that compelling.
Story or not, a game like this comes down to the driving itself and it comes in several different flavors. You can drive against the clock in a solo "Checkpoint" mode, face seven other drives in Circuit (lap-based) or Sprint (point-to-point) modes, or go one-on-one in Outrun or Highway Battle modes. Outrun has two racers competing to stay in the lead for a designated amount of time (usually a minute or so) and is the only one of the previously mentioned modes that lets you choose your own route through the city. In the other race types, all you're kept on a single path by big walls with directional arrows. I still don't quite get why you'd bother making a street racing game if you're just going to put players on a set path - why not just set the game on racing tracks? The game attempts to create some appearance of freedom by having the occasional fork in the road but a choice between taking the slightly longer, safer route on the right or the slightly shorter, riskier route on the left doesn't really take advantage of the big world they've created here. You can also roam around the Tri-City between missions but by bringing up the city map, you can instantly travel to whatever event or shop you want to go to so there's no incentive to explore. Most games that provide an open-world but give you nothing to do in it usually have the decency to just sprinkle some stupid collectibles (flags, secret packages, etc.) around so you can earn an Achievement for finding them all.
The Highway Battle is new to Undercover, like Outrun, is a head-to-head battle. Instead of trying to get a long-lasting lead, you're trying to create as much distance between you and your opponent as possible. You must get 1000+ feet ahead of them while racing on a crowded highway. This is the most restricted mode but also the highlight of the game in my opinion. Restriction is actually a good thing here - it's about making split decisions and slipping through narrow gaps in traffic. You zip down the highway at full speed, making risky passes between cars and trucks in order to gain ground on your opponent. It's very straightforward but it's a short, fun diversion filled with a lot of close calls and the occasional bad wrecks.
With all your joyriding, occasionally you'll run afoul of Johnny Law. Police cars will then try to swarm you and knock you off the road or box you in. To escape, you have to break line of sight with any cop cars in the vicinity for a certain amount of time and then lay low for another minute or so. Spread throughout the city are things like rusted signs or piles of steel pipes that, if you bump into, will fall over as you pass and block/wreck pursuing police. It's pretty simplistic but I enjoy it more than the alternative means of running cops off the road: bumping them. The game doesn't seem to record damage from shoving another car against a guardrail so what you need to do is create distance between you and the cops, pick up speed and ram them. Things get a little more sophisticated than bumper cars over time, thankfully. Unsafe driving and brushes with the police will build up your "heat level", a statistic measuring your notoriety. Getting a high enough heat level takes a long time (and you can lower it by driving a different car or a new paint job on your current car) but eventually cops will bring out helicopters, set up roadblocks, and put spike strips on the road.
Still, the basic act of bumping into other cars and/or running away from them isn't all that fun. It's a repetitive mechanic that should've been left behind with the last generation of video games. Unfortunately, Undercover falls back on this mechanic a lot. In addition to normal Escape missions where you flee from the cops, there's a Damage to State mode where you try to rack up a certain dollar amount of damage by ramming into cars (signs, too!). Occasionally you'll also break your cover to take down a criminal and this takes place in a chase sequence where you - what for it - ram their car. There's also a Cops and Robbers multiplayer mode that amounts to the same thing. A more dynamic damage system that made collisions actually hinder the performance of vehicles in stages and let you know how close your or your opponent's car is to breaking down may have helped some. For a gameplay element that's used so often through the game, it's really underdeveloped.
The game's attempts to branch out from racing are lackluster but the racing itself is a lot of fun. The 55 or so usable cars in the game look great and while you'll primarily spend money you earn on upgrading the performance of the car, you can also drop cash on a variety of cosmetic options. To give you a sense of the level of customization here, there's about twenty different spoilers to choose from and you even get to specify its exact dimensions. I could care less but the point is, the cars look good and you can tweak them to your exact liking. The environments look okay though I would've gladly driven a less shiny car if it meant the game would have less pop-in of roadside objects. The lack of weather effects or a complete day cycle (all races take place in the morning/afternoon, it seems) remove a possible source of variety for races.
But yes, the driving itself is fun. The vibration support hums appropriately as you hit bumps, drift onto the shoulder or use your nitro boost and the accompanying sounds are great, too. The Heroic Driving Engine allows you to make sharp turns and cuts with a minimum of skill. The game has a pretty gentle learning curve so you'll have plenty of time to develop your skills before the opponents become less mistake-prone and more aggressive. You may end up feeling unchallenged for a bulk of the game if you're experienced with racing games, though. Winning missions will also boost your skills in order to get better performance out of your cars. This, along with the new cars and parts upgrades you can purchase with cash you earn from missions, allow you to soften the difficulty of story missions by racking up successful side missions (all of which you can do repeatedly, by the way).
I appreciate that Need for Speed: Undercover is attempting to create a game that stretches beyond racing with an action story narrative, police chases, and miles of road to explore. The thing is, why does a racing game need to be something other than a racing game? You wouldn't miss most of the stuff that would have been cut out had this game taken place entirely on race tracks across the country with no accompanying storyline. The driving is the core of the game and it's decent - but what should be done with all the other stuff? Keep it in for the next game and hope to improve it? Or dump the frills and focus on making the racing fundamentals as strong as possible? EA has to decide which way they want to steer this series.