After enduing the mother of all loading bars (which I had thought, wrongly, were all behind us now) NFS: Undercover kicks off with alarming suddenness. With almost no warning, you’re suddenly told to escape from the police you figured were chasing an AI controlled car through the intro for a bit of pre-game shock and awe. No. No. They were chasing, YOU, pal. After a frantic three seconds, I smashed into the median barrier and was taken down by some rather hands-on SWAT members. That was the intro – getting my arse handed to me in two pieces.
The prologue is short and sweet: once you work out how to steer, accelerate (nothing new on this front) you bash through a police roadblock and make it out onto the city streets and to freedom. Now it’s time to start building your rep. Why do you care? Because you’re a boy (or girl) in blue yourself, of sorts, and it’s your job to sink to eye level with the city’s shady bottom feeders and work out how to bring a few of them in. There’s some nice video-work sprinkled through that keeps the story together for you: and the developers have no illusions about how to hook the average arm-chair-boy-racer in. Legs. Lips. The lady handing down your orders and tipping you off as you progress looks like she was cut from the same crop as some of LA’s A-listers.
Story schmory. NFS has always been big on arcade-y crash and bang, and Undercover delivers it. The first thing I noticed as I got to grips with the controls and took a look around my environment was that the feeling of speed in this game is truly exceptional. No more of those thick-framed, building clogged streets where only the road seems to blur – NFS: Undercover has each stage of your field of vision rock along at a realistic pace. With all the layers coming together, you really feel like you’re at the helm.
Not in it to faff about though, I thought I should follow a few of the on-screen prompts and see what races were available. Either by getting close to where a race is taking place, or by looking at your GPS map in the option screen, you can enter street races and other challenges to raise your profile. You won’t be able to gain the trust of any car thieves if they don’t even know who you are – and as for their respect, forget it.
Each race will have you blasting around the city avoiding other motorists (often) and property (less often) so you don’t clock up too much damage. Fines and infractions have a monetary cost, which appear in red as you drive.
At the end of challenges, you’re allocated points, money and skills, depending on how well you did. You also work toward gaining levels on your “Wheelman Rep,” which is how other racers know you’re no poser. The better you do in a race (each has a time target built in) the more skills and points you get. Winning a race is all well and good, but if you "Dominate," which can be achieved by beating the time target, you’ll get even more goodies. The skills you earn add minor mods to your car, improving things like transmission and handling. Your cash will come in handy when you want to buy new cars or add improvements to your old one.
The graphics are up there, but it's only fair I tell you that I had to push myself to give that 8/10 – mainly because it’s no less than expected. With a game like this, developers need to make sure there have flashy cars and a believable landscape: that’s about it. There’s no excuse for rubbishy graphics, and with real video cut scenes, you can’t go wrong. I was impressed with little touches like light effects and the way damage looked as my car took a few (okay, many) knocks. The tiniest crash will at least chip your paint, and you can’t expect windows to stay in tact for long if you’re a heavy-on-the-throttle type. For the record – I show the accelerator who’s boss. There’s no point in playing arcade-racing games if you don’t put the hammer down. None of this braking for corners garbage. But back on those video cut scenes a moment – don’t be too alarmed: the acting is much less hammy than you might expect.
Occasionally, between races, you might get spotted doing something naughty by the fuzz, and they’ll chase you. This is a very entertaining part of the game, just trying to outrun them, avoid their roadblocks, and get away. As you do so, your scanner will pick up the banter between dispatch and the saps trying to catch you. This is extremely well done and highly realistic – dispatchers make small errors in their directions, there is much um-ing and ah-ing and they never have the make of the car straight away. You could believe the calls were taped from a reality TV programme. The music in this game is a nice mix of bought tracks and made-for-the-game. They could have cheaped out and just bought the lot, putting together track listings in groups not unlike Grand Theft Auto, but in-game, most of it is brand new.
While the quest to catch the crims sort of takes a back seat to the initial pick-up-and-play aspect of NFS: Undercover, there’s plenty of fun to be had re-doing challenges to try and best your score, and collecting the reputation you deserve, dear gamer. Don’t forget the eternal quest for bigger and better motors, either. While this title isn’t laden with extras, I think it could remain both a single and multiplayer staple in summer gamers’ collections for a good few months.