For the most part, the reaction to the last few Need for Speed games was the same: "Why aren't they more like Need for Speed Most Wanted?" "Where are the cheesy cutscenes and the over-the-top cop chases?" It seems as if EA heard those cries, because for better or for worse, Need for Speed Undercover feels like Most Wanted.
In Undercover you play the role of...wait for it...an undercover officer. Along with agent Chase Linh, played by the attractive Maggie Q, your job is to take down a group of street racers that have somehow become involved in an international smuggling ring. The story is told via campy cutscenes that fail to capture the charm of Most Wanted thanks to uninteresting characters and a predictable plot. Having a story provides incentive to make it through race after race, but the whole "this is cheesy so it's cool" thing feels kind of forced this time around.
Like many other Need for Speed games, all of your racing will take place on the streets of a fictitious open-world city--here it's the Tri-City Bay area. You'll start with a lousy vehicle, but it won't be long before you're able to snag a pink slip to a nicer ride. As you progress you'll earn cash, which can be used to unlock (50+) new vehicles from manufacturers such as Nissan, Dodge, Cadillac, Ford, Porsche, Lamborghini, BMW, Aston Martin, Mitsubishi, and more. If you're into tuning individual aspects of your ride or purchasing individual parts you can do that, but if you're not into tinkering you can purchase an upgrade package and be on your way.
Not only will you earn money for winning an event, you'll earn driving points for dominating it--basically beating it really, really bad. You can power up a number of your driving attributes, but they don't have a noticeable effect on how your car handles. As long as you drive fast you'll probably dominate, but there are occasional races where you'll totally obliterate the time needed to dominate an event, but you'll still lose to the CPU. The game also encourages you to drive with style and drift, draft, and drive really close to other cars, but other than increasing your nitrous there's little to gain from doing so. That said, the new J-Turn mechanic, which lets you bust quick 180s, is invaluable when chasing down rivals or evading the cops. You'll use it because it's useful, though, not because it gets you heroic driving points.
The cops are back in full effect in Undercover, and for the most part, their return is welcome. The challenges in which you must ram and take out a certain number of police cars are great fun, as are the challenges where you must cause a certain monetary sum of damage. Of course, you don't always have to ram cars to take them down; you can also run into log trucks, electrical towers, billboards, and more to leave a little surprise for your pursuers. It's too bad that some odd quirks hamper the cop chases. The environmental hazards that you can unleash certainly look cool and are effective, but quite often you won't see any police cars get hit by the objects, yet when the cutscene ends the cars are trashed. Sometimes you won't have to do anything at all to evade police--the game says "go" and you stay still and nobody finds you. Cops are capable of laying down spikes, but you can go the entire game without them ever doing so. The biggest problem, however, is that the cops don't do much other than bang on the side of your car and yell at you, so if you last long enough they sort of fade away on their own. This makes the chases less challenging than they could have been and also makes them feel artificial, like you're just fulfilling some sort of time requirement until the game decides you've done well enough to escape.
Undercover isn't just about messing with the Man. There are events where you need to maintain a lead for a specific amount of time or get a certain distance ahead of your opponent. Sometimes you'll have to shake the cops while trying to keep a stolen ride in pristine condition, and there are checkpoint races and circuit races as well. There's not a whole lot that's original here and the races are generally extremely easy--you might not see another car for an entire race once you've cleared the starting line. They're difficult on occasion, but this is usually because of the choppy frame rate, which is often dreadful on the PlayStation 3. It's not as if Xbox 360 owners are getting a smooth, fast frame rate, but it's significantly better than the PS3's slide show, which is often so bad that it makes the otherwise great-handling vehicles a chore to drive. What's odd is that there's really no obvious reason for the game's poor frame rate; the city doesn't look much different than those in Carbon and Most Wanted, and the car models have aliasing issues.
That said, the game does do a few things very well. The online cops and robbers mode, where the robber tries to pick up money and take it to a drop-off point while another person plays the cop and tries to ram them, is quite a bit of fun. But mostly what the game gets right is its pacing. The races are short--sometimes as short as 20 seconds, and almost never longer than five minutes. Another cool thing the game does is it lets you instantly jump to the closest race by pressing down on the D pad. If you want to find a specific event you can press up and you're taken to a GPS map, where you can instantly go to the race of your choice. It'll save you a lot of needless backtracking, and combined with the short races, makes sure that Undercover never gets boring.
If you're one of the many people who loved Need for Speed Most Wanted, flaws and all, you'll find a lot to like in Undercover. It's not very original and there's no excuse for the often painfully slow frame rate, but there's no denying that it's just good fun to run from the cops and wreak havoc on a city in the process.