When we last had a look at Need for Speed Undercover, it was during a visit to the EA booth at last month's Tokyo Game Show. While the relative sanity of EA offered a nice, reassuring slice of home amid the Katamari-rolling cosplayers and broomstick-riding arcade machines, the demo we saw gave us only a quick peek at what this open-world racer will deliver when it's released on November 18. Recently, though, we've spent some time with the first several hours of Need for Speed Undercover to explore some of the things you can do once you go undercover in the Tri-City Bay with little more than a police badge and some sweet driving skills to your name.
One of the coolest things Undercover has going for it is a very thin, often nonexistent line between theatrics and gameplay, and that's evident from the very beginning. The intro cinematic shows a Nissan 370Z leading a frantic police chase. Quick and stylized camerawork shows the freeway chase from all angles, but suddenly the camera swings behind the car and you're thrust into the driver's seat when you were just about ready to grab another handful of popcorn. The only way to evade the police is to put enough distance between you and them so that you can lie low for a while and see your wanted level creep low enough for an escape. But it's not easy: The police in Undercover are a tough bunch who will create roadblocks, lay spike strips, and follow you headlong into oncoming traffic and the narrowest alleys if need be. But they also have a human side, and you can hear their excellent chatter through the radio that reacts contextually to the maneuvers and acts of destruction you pull off.
Once you complete this introductory chase scene, you're given your first taste of the game's video cutscenes. This intro sequence shows two police officers discussing an underground criminal racing club with possible links to an international smuggling ring. Actress Maggie Q plays a police inspector who has come up with the idea to plant an undercover cop deep into this group of thugs, which is where you come in. The rest of the game's cinematics--which are of the low-light, quick-cut style you'd find in a show like 24--tell the story of your progression through the ranks of this auto enthusiast club, and they tend to straddle the line between Hollywood cop films and the delightfully cheesy Need for Speed full-motion videos of old.
Making your way through the game's story missions requires you to build up your wheelman level, which can be done in a variety of ways. You can add points by just cruising around the open-world Tri-City Bay setting and performing heroic driving maneuvers, which is developer Black Box's term for driving on the distant edge of safety without quite falling off. Full-speed 180s, powerslides, nitrous drifts, and brakestands are a few of the heroic driving maneuvers that can be done to add wheelman rep points. This also has the side benefit of giving you driver skills, which increase your abilities with a car outside the usual garage modifications done to the cars themselves.
Another important means of increasing your wheelman level is participating in the dozens of side missions scattered throughout the Tri-City Bay. Events include basic races like Sprint and Circuit, exercises in destruction like Cost to State and Cop Takeout, and one-on-one races like Outrun and Highway Battle. You can also do jobs for car thieves, which require you to take a hot car to a chop shop while outrunning a legion of angry cops, all while making sure you don't damage the car too much. Accessing these events is as simple as hitting up on the D pad to access your GPS map, or hitting down on the D pad to jump straight into the nearest available event. This system of accessing events means you can spend almost zero downtime between the events or take all the time in the world if you want to.
Pulling up the GPS map also gives you access to nearby auto shops--but only once you've befriended the criminal types necessary to gain access to these establishments. Once you get them on your map, you can pop in to customize your car in numerous ways. There's the layman's quick upgrade, where you can choose to upgrade power or handling, the more detailed upgrade packages that let you improve things like drivetrain and forced induction, and some tuning sliders that let you customize those parts you've already purchased. In addition to these options, you can add custom paint and vinyl jobs to your car, purchase aftermarket body mods, or just buy a new car altogether with the cash you've earned in events. Your options in the latter category include the modest Ford Focus ST all the way up to the slightly more upscale Bugatti Veyron 16.4 (zero to 60 in 2.46 seconds).
Anyone new to the world of racing games should find Need for Speed Undercover to be a relatively accessible experience. The handling of the cars is on the forgiving side, events never achieve frustrating status, and police chases are grueling but totally winnable with enough patience and clever route-taking. You can also tip the odds in your favor in both police chases and street races by using pursuit breakers, which are essentially booby traps you can trigger to sabotage competitors. For example, driving through a billboard stand might send the signage toppling onto those tailing you, while clipping a stand holding up concrete pipes could create a similar result.
Altogether, Need for Speed looks like a promising package. It's an open-world racer where you can keep the action going at all times, and its accessibility is complemented by a wide variety of maneuvers and plenty of real-life cars. You can look forward to seeing our final word when the review for Need for Speed Undercover hits right around the November 18 release.