Only in the context of video games will you hear people clamor on about how they wish they were being chased by the cops, but that's just what many Need for Speed fans have been doing since 2005's Most Wanted. Well, the boys in blue are back for Need for Speed Undercover, and so is the open-world setting that last year's ProStreet sacrificed in favor of quartered-off racing courses. But it's not as though developer EA Black Box has gone into full-on time-travel mode for the latest entry in this long-running series. For every nod to the series' past, you'll find something new like Hollywood-style driving techniques designed to help you elude the police, new events and skill-building systems, and a step toward more mature, less hammy storytelling.
Need for Speed Undercover is swapping the professional racing circuits and nighttime neon lights of the past two games in favor of an open-world Gulf Coast locale. Known as Tri-City Bay, this collection of floating-bridge freeways, dirt roads, and industrial shipping yards is set in the postsunrise, presunset time of day when the sun sits low in the sky and covers everything in a golden light. There seems to be a lot of diversity, and the race events take good advantage of that. One of the Sprint Race events we took part in--a supercar showdown featuring the likes of the Carerra GT and Pagani Zonda--took us from the highway to a high school football field to a millionaire's marble driveway before arriving at the finish line in a freeway tunnel. It's definitely a big world, too. We're told you can drive the fastest car in the game and it would take you a solid eight minutes to circumnavigate the entire world at top speed.
One of the ways Black Box is looking to expand your driving abilities without necessarily changing the way cars handle is through what it's calling the Heroic Driving Engine, a system that allows you to achieve a new level of agility on the road. One of the ways it's done this is by removing the persistent relationship between a car's direction and the perspective of the camera. If you're flying down the road, you can jam on the brakes while jerking the control stick to the side and watch as your car does a 180 at speed while the camera remains firmly in place. It's not just for show; if you've thrown your car into reverse like this, you can double-tap the gas and your driver will come to a screeching halt and take off in the opposite direction. This entails the opposite scenario as before--your car will remain facing the same way while the camera turns around, saving you a good bit of time compared to the old-fashioned three-point turn. When you successfully engage in these types of moves, you'll be rewarded with RPG-style experience points that will upgrade your driving abilities.
As a way of maintaining balance with your newfound driving skills, EA Black Box is bringing back the police to keep you challenged as you wreak havoc on the roads of Tri-City Bay. Driver AI has been enhanced so that if you do something particularly stupid like nudge someone off the road at 90 miles per hour, you'll have the cops called on you. In other situations, you'll have them on your tail at the start of a mission, like in the Driver Job event we tried that had us stealing a police cruiser (a Nissan GT-R squad car, of all things) and bring it to a shop to sell it off. No matter the origins, getting rid of the cops is the same: You need to put some distance between you and the police cars, and if there's a helicopter, you need to find a tunnel or bridge to hide under.
As you progress through the game's story--a tale about a police officer so deep undercover that only a few people know who he is--the narration will unfold in the traditional cutscene format of the Need for Speed series. This time around, there's a new focus on taking these video sequences out of the stone age and into the modern era, where games don't need to remain stuck in the trappings of the mid-'90s. What this means is cutscenes shot on a live set rather than a green screen, real actors (well, at least the main characters--we're not sure if Jessica Alba's brother playing a side role counts as a real actor), and a director pulled from the show 24. Based on the three cutscenes we saw, these ingredients have come together to form a more mature look for the series. You'll have the chance to see how well the whole package comes together when Need for Speed Undercover is released on November 17.