Need for Speed Undercover Updated Hands-On

We got behind the wheel of Need for Speed's latest instalment. Find out if Undercover is looking ready to race in our hands-on look.


EA has been pretty clear that Need for Speed Undercover is more of a spiritual successor to Most Wanted than a follow-up to last year's iteration, ProStreet. It has brought back police pursuits, but it's also bringing the series up to date with what it claims will be an expansive open world and a deeper story mode, complete with a lead character who gains experience along the way.

Need for Speed Undercover substitutes neon glitz for European cool.
Need for Speed Undercover substitutes neon glitz for European cool.

Undercover takes place in three distinct cities in the fictional Tri-City Bay. Gold Coast Mountain, Sunset Hills, and Palm Harbor will offer three different regions to explore, and all of them are accessible from a main interstate highway. To give you an idea of the size of the world, the game's developers at EA Black Box said it would take eight minutes to navigate across at top speed, and 160km of drivable roads are available. Black Box is working on a streaming world that loads as needed, and with the main menu also loaded into the world (appearing as a pop-up) there will be no breaks from the action, unless you're jumping online for a race against friends. Xbox Live and PlayStation Network will be supported, but there is no local split-screen multiplayer. In addition to embarking on missions, you'll be able to free-roam around Tri-City Bay as much as you like, and at any time you can bring up your GPS device to jump directly into races, sprints, highway battles, and pursuits.

While we still haven't seen much of the storyline, EA revealed that a character played by Hollywood actress Maggie Q (Mission Impossible III, Die Hard 4.0) will recruit you as a federal officer at the beginning of the game to help bust an underground car-smuggling operation. You'll gradually infiltrate the crime syndicate, building on your reputation as you climb the ranks by taking jobs. This is where Undercover gets its name: You'll have to complete your jobs while facing off against cops, using them as your foil in the process. Some of the cutscene cinematics look top-notch, and hopefully the story will be just as solid--it's unusual to see developers go to this length to include a storyline in a racing game. EA has used a photographic technique known as magic hour (used in movies such as Transformers and 300) to film some of Undercover's cutscenes, giving it a warm, soft "late in the afternoon" visual tone. The in-game world will also cut straight to full-motion video, with the world being rendered behind the FMV, which is designed to increase the seamless feel.

We tried out a new game mode called Highway Battle on a stretch of the Southeast I-20. Essentially a point-to-point race against other street racers with the goal to win by 1,000ft (305m), this particular challenge is one of the easier tasks early on in the game, with only some light traffic to navigate around. A nifty onscreen meter will show you how far behind or ahead of the pack you are, and once your car reaches the top of the meter, you'll have completed the challenge. Variable traffic in Undercover means you shouldn't experience the same race twice. Vehicles will indicate when they're changing lanes and will vary their speed, so you'll need to keep an eye on the surrounding traffic. You'll also be able to draft behind other vehicles, but getting too close may result in a high-speed collision, bringing your race to a quick halt. You can use vehicles to create havoc for opponents and police, by creating pileups and accidents. Damage modelling will also be part of the game, and the team is working on improvements over ProStreet.

Pursuit mode looks like it will be just as thrilling as the highway battles. The object of the challenge we played, dubbed Grand Theft 5-0, was to steal a cop car from a police station carpark and evade the pursuing officers in the process of taking it to a garage. The chase takes place in Sunset Hills, which has a more industrial feel than the other areas, complete with warehouses and derelict land. While this race wasn't too difficult, we were told that police AI will increase as the story continues, forcing you to become more adventurous as you progress. Like in the highway battles, you'll have an onscreen meter showing your distance from your competition, and you'll need to gain a sizable lead before you can escape. Not content to merely chase you, cop cars will also ram your vehicle and set up barricades, although we didn't see any spike strips deployed as they were in the Need for Speed games of yesteryear.

Because you're stealing a vehicle for commercial interest, you'll need to make sure you don't damage it too much during the sprint. While you need to keep your vehicle looking tip-top, you can earn extra points for causing damage to public property--the greater the damage to police cars and council property, the better. If you get busted, an amusing cutscene will be triggered, showing you trying to escape the clutches of the fuzz, with a look almost straight out of Cops, complete with a blurred face.

Don't blink--the car models and environments look great.
Don't blink--the car models and environments look great.

EA considers Undercover to be a more contemporary look at car culture than previous games, and it includes a wide range of exotic European imports, including Porsche, Jaguar, and Audi. The approach was summed up by the game's producer, who said, "Neon is dead; the bat machine is in." While the game--and real-world car culture--may be maturing from green neon and dragon decals, car customisation will still be included, and you'll be able to makes changes to car body parts, such as wings and bonnets, and add paint jobs, nonstandard parts, and vinyl--all available for the different manufacturers featured in the game.

Need for Speed Undercover looks like a fresh and interesting direction for the franchise, retaining the white-knuckle action expected of the series while adding open-world, cinematic cutsences and beautifully detailed European imports (complete with damage modelling) to the mix. Stay tuned to GameSpot for more in the run-up to Undercover's November 21 European release (the game will launch on November 17 in the US).

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