Need for Speed: Undercover Review for Nintendo DS

Need for Speed: Undercover Review for Nintendo DS

Enjoyable in Small Doses

The Need for Speed series sits in that middle ground of racing titles. It’s never been known for being a hardcore simulation (that’s the job of Grand Turismo and Forza) nor is it a purely arcade affair (that honor goes to the crash-focused Burnout series). Like its straddling of those two extremes – arcade and simulation – it’s fun factor rarely oscillates wildly, consistently settling in the “solid” category. It’s part of the continual promise of the series: you can take it or leave it as you please and you’ll always find a competent racer at your fingertips.

Need for Speed: Undercover screenshot

Need for Speed: Undercover is the 12th entry in the EA-published procession and the fifth time the series has appeared on the Nintendo DS. Unlike its console siblings, this portable title strips out a lot of the over-produced presentation and zeros in on delivering a succession of racing events tied together by a system of car upgrades and a cops versus robbers story that re-introduces the black-and-whites that made Need for Speed: Most Wanted a fan favorite. It’s a fun title that, while short on depth, nails it where it counts most – fun races. Ultimately, it’s portable nature is appropriate, making it adequate at delivering short, controlled bursts of arcade racer play.

A big PR bullet point for Undercover has been the full motion videos, headlined by actors, and the involvement of star Maggie Q. Due to the technical limitations of the DS (it can do video, but its better suited for less intensive work like animation), the portable version is stripped of most of this content and that’s actually a good thing. Trying to cram a Fast and Furious-like mini-movie into a racing game is a laughable idea, so the omission actually works to the DS’s advantage. Instead of video, you get dialog boxes and still images of Maggie Q and the rest of the cast. These are all short and simple, mainly serving as a way of listing your next set of objectives. All you need to know story-wise is that you’re an undercover cop and racing moves the bare bones plot along.

Need for Speed: Undercover screenshot

Events in Undercover are broken up into several distinct types. Getaway pits you against a series of cops with the only goal being escape; Circuit is a traditional point-to-point race against fellow racers; Sprint is a short affair, taking only one lap; Knockout takes the Circuit concept a bit further, eliminating the person in last place at the end of each lap until only one remains; Checkpoint is a solo run, pitting you against the clock; Cost to State sets a damage limit you have to reach within a time limit while evading cops; Hot Car puts you behind the wheel of a stolen car and asks you to take it to a safe house; Highway Battle is a one-on-one scenario where you have to catch an opponent in the midst of traffic; and Scramble throws you in a cop car with the objective of capturing robbers and taking them to a police station.

All those events are paired with an efficient driving engine. Skewing way more in the direction of arcade than simulation, this is definitely a racing title that heavily favors a pedal-to-the-metal attitude. Holding the brake really isn’t all that necessary; instead, you can just tap on the handbrake from time-to-time and drift around long curves. Even things that should slow you down – like grass medians or collisions with stop signs – either have no effect on your speed or barely reduce it. To keep the speed constant, you have a nitrous boost that continually recharges. This is all bolstered by a graphical engine that keeps the framerate high.

Need for Speed: Undercover screenshot

After events, you’re awarded with cash, which you can then put toward buying new cars as well as upgrading parts. To keep you from exploiting the event payouts, the cash prize is much larger the first time than during subsequent tries. You can spend a bit of time in the garage, messing with customized parts, but for most players the common course of action will be to rack up enough money for the car with the greatest overall speed and head off to the next series of events. If you guessed this can get to be a grind, you’re right. Since the A.I. keeps getting better cars as the events continue, you’re forced to race, build up cash, buy the best possible car, and so on, in a nearly ad infinitum manner.

Not only does the A.I. have better cars as the game goes on, but it seems to throttle the difficulty in a strange way. During early races, the computer rarely dashes in front of you, assuming you’re hitting top speeds and handling your turns well. Later on, the A.I. seems almost glued to the road, rarely making mistakes. It will barely brake for big hairpin turns, leaving you left to catch up, yet once it hits a straightway it will slow down. Obviously, this is a form of rubber band A.I., as the developers assumed players would have trouble with turns and make up for the speed loss on straight-aways.

Need for Speed: Undercover screenshot

Undercover may have a huge event list, but fun doesn’t necessarily come from variety. Although the majority of the events – like Circuit, Sprint, and Knockout – are solid, not all the modes fare well. Two cop-heavy modes – Getaway and Hot Car – are irritating. In both, you end the event by making it to a safe house. The trouble is that once you get near the safe house, the cops try to box you in, and whenever you try to lose them, they catch right back up. Instead of running, the optimal solution is simply to ram the cop cars, wrecking them, and then proceed back to the safe house. Sometimes, even when a cop is quite far behind you, the game will claim that he’s on your tail and you have to exit the safe house, wreck the cop car, and re-enter.

There’s also a variety problem when it comes to road design. You’ll travel most of Undercover’s fake city within the first hour and after that begin to notice how different events re-use the same stretch of road over-and-over again. Most of the makeshift tracks feature gray skyline and not much else. Pair this sterile, repetitive design with an A.I. that behaves the same from race-to-race, and the whole formula gets repetitive. That’s not to say the fun factor goes out the window – it just renders the game more of a pick-up-and-play experience instead of one that would occupy your attention for generous stretches of time.

Need for Speed: Undercover does a solid job of delivering a competent and accessible racer to DS owners. Gamers looking for a more customization-heavy or in-depth racing experience should look elsewhere. However, those that want a portable title that delivers some arcade-centric racing action on the go should give the title a try.

The cars have a decent amount of detail, but don’t expect much in terms of scenery diversity – most of the races look very similar. Undercover has a solid framerate that never dips; a definite plus. 4.0 Control
The controls skew more in the direction of arcade than simulation. It’s quite easy to pull off drifts and slide through long turns. The only trouble comes later on when you get up to high speeds – it always seems like there’s that turn or two that you can’t help slamming into. 3.8 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
Most of the music goes in the instrumental category, which isn’t a bad thing. The tracks – with their electronica vibe – suit the game well. All the expected sound effects – like tire squeals and crashes – are well done. 2.5

Play Value
With over 60 events, there’s a lot of content on display. But that’s the trouble: a lot of it is artificial, making you race the same tracks over-and-over again. The car upgrade system isn’t all that great, as it simply is reduced to buying the latest, fastest car. Overall, though, there’s a lot of serviceable racing packed onto the DS cartridge.

3.4 Overall Rating – Fair
Not an average. See Rating legend above for a final score breakdown.

Game Features:

  • Go Deep Undercover: Race into an action-packed story of pursuit and betrayal. Take on jobs and compete in races to prove yourself as you infiltrate and take down an international crime syndicate.
  • Highway Battle: Fight off the cops and others as you take down your prey in high-speed, high-stake multi-car chases. New and vastly improved AI mechanics mean more aggressive and intelligent cops focused on taking you out fast and by any means necessary.
  • Criminal Scramble: Be a cop and chase down criminals in the Criminal Scramble Mode.
  • Heroic Driving Engine: Pull off amazing moves for the ultimate driving edge.

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